I have run into some incredible luck in the name if Chuck Manley, a local, who has loaned me a motorcycle and given me info on all the prime off/on road routes. For the last week I have been checking out south of Anchorage. The landscape is stunning, like the European Alps on a big dose of steroids. There are more glaciers and rugged mountains than you can wave a stick at.
First and foremost beware the shipping company Frontier Forwarding, my bike has been delayed, has incurred much cost (the original 920 pounds plus 460us so far)and hassle due to their incompetence. To offset this I have run into some incredible luck in the name of Chuck Manley (listed in the communities section), a local, who has loaned me a motorcycle and given me info on all the prime off/on road routes.
So for the last week I have been checking out south of Anchorage. The landscape is stunning, like the European Alps on a big dose of steroids. There are more glaciers and rugged mountains than you can wave a stick at. I dont think I could ever tire of this sort of landscape. The downside is if you dont employ the correct precautions you could lose a pint of blood every ten minutes to the mosquitoes which live here in the billions. Be warned.
The ferry from Whittier to Valdez is a must do if you like bays full of icebergs and a two mile wide head of a calving glacier. Plenty of Eagles, Sea Lions, Dolphins...but sadly no Whales. The road from Chatina to McCarty (65 miles of dirt) is well worth it. A good introduction to the dirt roads of the north. It has it all, washboard, potholes, fast driving locals and a top surface that at times is like riding on ball bearings. Add to that my fist spotting of a big Moose with a full head of horns but as yet no bears. An old mine called Kennicut is at the end which still has most of the buildings standing. The National Park McCarthy is in has heaps of stunning scenery and wildlife, if you can take your eyes off the road long enough to look at it. Concentration is definately needed if you are new to this sort of riding as I am. The road carries on but this early into my trip, on a borrowed bike I am not yet brave enough.
Back to Girdwood now and hopefully my own bike, then up north as far as the road goes, Prudhoe Bay. Have word that some bikes are headed up north also planning to get to Prudhoe so will try to seek out some company for the ride.
At last my bike arrives in Anchorage. Have had a good time hanging around Girdwood. Lots to do, I have even been initiated into the way of guns. My friend Chuck took me out with an arsenal of weaponry that we fired at targets. Very enlightening and real good fun. My shoulder still pangs me 5 days after it! After a day on preparation I hit the highway bound for the most norhterly accessable point by road, Deadhorse in Prudhoe Bay. One hell of a ride to one hell hole of a place is the best way to sum it up. (am trying to work out how to post pictures onto the site, coming soon bear with me. Technology never was my strong point!!!)
I finally left Girdwood my home for the last two weeks to rain that even the English wouldn't have gone out in. Good test of rider and gear. Headed up to Talkeetna which is where all the would be Mt McKinley climbers hang out, or so they say, cos I saw none of these dudes whilst in town. Carried on north past Denali Nat Park and to be honest saw nothing but rain, will see it I am sure when I am headed south again. The distances here are long and the butt suffers substantially. Made the Dalton Highway at midnight but up here that is cool as it doesn,t get dark. The Dalton seems to have a bit of a reputation as a boneshaker full of huge trucks screaming down and up it. The road is 414 miles to the top, mostly dirt of varying degrees of quality. The longest section is the top one from Coldfoot to Deadhorse, 240 miles of dirt with no services and only the Trans Alaska oil pipeline to keep you company. The ride was superb, no hassles with trucks just loads of top quality scenery and fantastic riding. The idea of riding 250 miles above the Arctic Circle has a certain appeal. The scenery goes from rolling hills to the mountains of the Brooks Range to the North Slope which is a huge expanse of tundra. Plenty of wildlife to see, Bald Eagles, Arctic Caribou, Arctic Fox and more mosquitoes than ever. 50 around you head at any given time is not uncommon! Still no bears I am disapointed to say. (seen from a healthy distance of course) When I fianlly made it the to Deadhorse I was a little surprised at what a hole it is. Nobody lives there, they all just work the oil fields. Nowhere is there anything but plant and oil drilling machinery. I did however get to swim in the Arctic Sea and get a view of the polar ice cap.
I have come as far north as I can get, now just have to cruise on through south to Tierra del Feugo! Now Back down in Fairbanks for R & R then back up north for some more dirt roads.
You click into first and pull away. You have 20 tunes lined up on your MP3 player. Fifty miles into the dirt road leaves you with 40 more to go to the small town and gas station. The sun is blazing down, very few other people are on the road. The road starts to climb from the valley full of Spruce trees towards Eagle Summit Pass, the highest point on the road. The scenery and sky is getting bigger and bigger as you leave the tree line behind. When you arrive at the summit the vista is too good just to ride through so you stop to take it in, thinking of the cold beer you will have when you reach the town. Have you started packing your bags yet to come and join me? Only 400 quid for a one way ticket!
I arrived in the town I was headed for, Central after a blast to go see the Yukon River again. Hit the 1 bar in town, as this was the place to get the lowdown on things from the locals. Ended up being offered a room in a closed down hotel with a real bed in it. Offer too good to refuse and an excellent chance to meet the locals and find out what Central was all about. Even thought the bar was closed it was still a meeting point for lots of folks. In Central the only legit way to earn a crust is goldmining, and this bears no resemblance to a man by a stream sifting the contents of a bucket. We are talking BIG machinery to dig and shift dirt. Ron who adopted me for my stay in the town took me to see how it was done. 12 hours a day in a digger aint my idea of fun but it makes money. On our way back from the mine we went and played with some toys. I had selected 3 out of the 25+ guns in Rons cabin and I was off fulfilling my Clint Eastwood aspirations again. Good fun but wouldn't want to get to the point of sleeping with my gun like these guys do. I can think of a lot better things to share my bed with!
I hung out in town for 5 days, and then decided to hit the raod to go south. Central is the most isolated non-native community up here and it has a lawless feel to it. No Cops for 125 miles and 1 road in. These guys are tough cos you have to be to make it there. They were however super hospitable. Would recomend anyone goes there, if you do go find Ron X and then enjoy your stay.
Back in Fairbanks I got adopted yet again by Arron and Treena. They had just been to Sth America in a 4WD. Great to be fed a real meal and get the lowdown on the road south. Folk over here have really surprissed me with their hospitality and interest in strangers. Wouldnt/doesnt happen like that back in good old blighty I am sorry to say.
Back in Anchorage I hooked up with a Pom who had just climbed Denali and in my new mode of transport, a Subaru sports car (courtesy of my saviour Chuck) we cruised down to the Kenai River for 3 days of Sport Fishing. I have read that it is an activity that is wholesome and ideologically correct for vegetarians to partake in. Anyway stuff your morals, the chance of catching and eating a monster Alaskan Salmon was too good to miss. The first evening resulted in no salmon but we did see a big Grisly Bear feed straight across the river from us. Very cool to say the least. The rest of the trip resulted in us landing about 35 fish between us, three of which we kept to eat. These fish are not small by any count, most are over a foot long and average weight is about 8-10 pounds. They put up one hell of a fight on the line which of course morally I didn't enjoy one bit! I then cruised back to Girdwood for a very exciting event, yup I went and picked Jess up at the airport. For six weeks I have the company of the other half, and she gets the pleasure of sharing the arse numbing seat of my bike.
She finally arrived all be it late at Anchorage Auirport. I was no longer anchored down in Anchorage but free to leave. First destination was to go see some calving sea glaciers and some whales. Rode south in anticipation of blue skies and stunning scenery. All we got was good old english glag and drizzle
She finally arrived all be it late at Anchorage Auirport. I was no longer anchored down in Anchorage but free to leave. First destination was to go see some calving sea glaciers and some whales. Rode south in anticipation of blue skies and stunning scenery. All we got was good old english glag and drizzle. Spent the night in Seward drowing our sorrows with new pals, Ted , Mike and Katia. Next mission was for Jess to haul herself a salmon from the Kenai River. Not one but two did she manage to snag and land. These were no ordinary fish, at least a foot and a half long and Jess did struggle to haul them out as i stood on laughing. Having had our fill of sticking hooks in defensless creatures we decided to go back to our luxurious aircraft hanger for the night and prepare to head north. Talkeetna was the destination and a flightseeing trip over Denali was the plan. Guess what happened in Talkeetna, yup it pissed down. Jess's birthday was spent drying out in the pub dreading having to leave and set up the tent in a downpour. Problem solved when the bouncer felt sorry for us and gave us a walled tent in his holiday complex.
MY TURN NOW.........
That was pretty much the theme of things for the next week.....rain, rain and more rain. Why did I bother leaving home? The worse thing of all was knowing there was stunning scenery everywhere and all I could see was the clag! Probably the low point of the whole trip was rolling into Denali at 5.00 in the evening having riden through 3 hours of torrential rain and falling temperatures and loosing the feeling in both my hands and arse ....... the latter of which has not recovered since and I fear I may have done permanent damage to it!! If it wasnt for our biker mate Mike from Minniessota the scene would have been alot more grim. He took pity on us and saved us from another night in a wet tent.. offering us the comfort and warmth of of his motel room. I'm eternally grateful mike!! Anyway things pretty much looked up from there on with the weather and finally we did get the big tick...... Mt Mckinely at 2.00am...completely cloudless and an added bonus point, planet Mars was out for us too. Amazing!!!! didnt know it at the time, just a bit puzzled by this orange glow low down in the sky, but were told by fellow campers the next morning. This had definately made our 11 hour bus ride into Denali National Park worth it and made up for the distinct lack of wildlife we came across....2 micro grizzlis (half a mile away) , 1 moose and a stash of caribou, which loose their appeal after awhile when your hyped for a bear encounter. Tried our hand at a bit of backcountry walking, armed with our bear proof container and strict guidelines on what to do if approached by a bear. Lasted two hours before we realised we could get this experience any weekend we like back at home. Walking in the miserable bloddy rain and mist, getting piss wet through. What we didn't anticipate was just how hard the walking is. There are no trails, you just bash through brush and willow, we thought we'd gone miles, 6 at least. When we consulted the map later we realised it was more like 2 miles at the most!
Next few days were spent on the road heading east towards the Yukon, travelled mainly on dirt roads. More big views and spectacular scenery. The Denali Highway in particular gives endless views of snow peaked mountains, forest , lakes and grasslands and not a soul to be seen only the occassional RV or truck that passes you. Top of The World Highway took us over the Canadian border and offered more in the way of jaw dropping scenery and the first views of the Yukon river winding its way through the remote forested valleys.
The Yukon rocks...!!!!!! we like it and were going to stay... or maybe well' just come back and live here. Dawson City is the coolest little place......if your looking for a city you'll be sorely disappointed but if you want to chill out in the true wild west style this is the place. Salloon bars, dancing girls, casinos. Totally querky and even though geared to the tourists it comes without the cheese! But we were going to have to wait to enjoy the high life of dawson, we had another arse numbing mission in mind.
Jealous of oz's arctic experience, I convinced him that he needed to do it again. We travelled on 500 miles of dirt road up the Dempster Highway to Inuivk ( the furthest north you can get to by road in the North West Territories). The road was in great condition and we got up to Inuvik without a hitch. I couldn't help thinking it would have been a very different story if we'd hit some bad weather. We were told the roads turn into mud within hours and the skill then is just staying on the road. The scenery again just blows you away. Unbroken views that stretch for 180km in every direction and not a single person in it. A truck or RV passes you maybe every half hour but other than that its just you the bike and the wilderness.
Even wilder still then, was bumping into Scottish couple on the Highway, 150km into the arctic who we discovered were friends of one of Oz's mates back at home. Very wierd but cool place to begin our new friendship. We hung out with Claire and Lorne for much of the next week, sampling the delights of downtown Dawson, in partciular the traditional 'sourtoe cocktail'. definately need a few pints in you before you can neck a shot with an amputated toe in it! nice..Oz went a step futher and sucked the end of his!!!!! Say no more...anyway thats all ive got time to write about. My time here is up and unfortunately its back to the UK for me where I can nurse my sore back and piles!!
Jess did remarkably well enduring the back of the Dommie for 6 weeks over some long distances and bad roads. Sadly she is now gone and on another sad note so is my bike. Yep it went bang and is now recieving the kiss of life. More of that later.
After indulging in the luxury of a Motel room with hot tub outside the door we decided to start the journey south. First port of call was Keno City, another out of the way mining town that had been recommended by Claire and Lorne. Of course this involved long distances and more dirt roads. Nothing I couldn't handle or so I thought. That was until I ran off the road and nearlly put us in a ditch. Lessons to be learnt. Long distaces, warm weather and straight roads are hypnotizing. Beware.
Keno City was not as expected. 14 people grace it with their prescence year round. Another mining town which has had its heyday. We met lots of the locals, all very welcoming. A true "northerner" had even made it out there. Named Geordie for obvious reasons he has run the bar and other "recreational" facilities through the boom and is now there to stay. Predicts that there will be a big war soon and is bussily buying up enough dried food to sustain a small army. Didn't quite convince me I should be doing the same thing. We also had a go at gold panning but didn't see this as our road to untold wealth. Neither Jess nor I had the patience required to sift through piles and piles of earth. 2 nights in Keno and we felt the call of the road again.
A very uneventful ride to Whitehorse followed, only after leaving the main road to head for Skagway did things get more interesting. Yep more mountains, more galaciers and the worlds smallest desert entertained us. Skagway which is the ferry terminus for the Alsaka Marine Highway tried to be all the things Dawson City was but wasn't quite up to it. We were there to catch the ferry to Prince Rupert which would take us two and a half days. A good change from sitting on the bike.
The boat ride involved more stunning mountain scenery and a few far off Orca Wales to try to spot. On the ferry we met a local, Mike from Petersburg, a small island town the boat stopped at. He convinced us that we needed to stop there and see exactly how things were done on the island. He spent the next day entertaining us on his boat. We saw some icebergs, one of which defied my best attempts to stand on it for the photo, we saw more Orca wales, tried to catch us a Halibut and we went shrimping. Great to haul them up until you realise that you have to murder all the poor buggers in order to eat them. More challenges to my great vegetarian way of trying to live, but none that can't be overcome. The shrimps were murdered and tasted fine!
Mike and Tiffany made us very welcome, we even used their spare house to sleep in but as it was being built and had no roof I suppose you still could call it camping.
Prince Rupert being a town didn't hold much interest for us so we headed east, this time bound for Hyder, back in Alaska. Here we were told we could get the coverted prize of being able to watch Bears fish and eat spawning Salmon. We were even lucky enough to see a Black Bear wandering down the road on the ride there. After much waiting at Fish Creek for the bears and no sightings we arrived next morning at 6am and were greeted by not one but three different sightings of bears doing the fishing thing. We were no more than 20m on the elevated platform from one grizzly which fished for about 10mins before eating his catch on the side. A truly remarkable thing to see. The 350 mile diversion had been worth it. We now had some mile crunching to do to get to the Canadian Rockies, three solid days of riding broken by a trip to the bike shop to change fork seals and a front tyre.
We arrived in Jasper worn out and in need of less miles and more scenery. It was not a dissapointment. Again we were treated to rocky mountain views and galcier in scenery which is so much bigger than anything in the UK. Life on and off the road was relaxed again.
The only thing that was tainting the views was the smoke from distant forest fires which were raging out of control in the west. This summer has been Canadas driest on record and many fires have been burning and destroying properties. A smoky view is however better than no view. After riding through the Rockies we headed west toward Whistler. On route we saw forest fires from real close and the landscape changed to virtual desert. It was like Mexico, jess even got to see her first tumbleweed rolling down the road. The highlight of the journey to Whistler has to be Hwy99. Awsome riding and little traffic. Anyone riding a bike can't fail to enjoy this route.
Whistler also had another highlight of which legends are made. Downhill mountain biking of a world class order. Managed to justify the cost of hiring some downhill bikes and buying a lift ticket for a day of superb fun and adrenaline. I used to think that I was quite handy on a mountain bike but the way the locals ride makes you feel like you just learnt to ride the bike. Did however learn the art of getting air (a little but it felt like a lot!) and both Jess and I managed to get through the day without a crash. (yeah I hear you say we needed to try harder. I agree)
From Whistler we crusied down to Vancouver and onto the ferry to get us to Vancouver Island. I spent a lot of the journey talking to some guys who were admiring the bike telling them how good it was and how it hadn't let me down. Big mistake. 3 miles off the ferry it started making a bad metalic noise and 2 miles later promptly died on me. Reliable bike, my arse. Still on the bright side it was only a mile and a half to push it to the Honda dealer. With every nearly sorted problem comes the spanner that goes into the works. Well my spanner was that the bike shop was not open on Sunday, no surprise really. Monday however was also closed cos they were still "riding". In the middle of a small town in an area that you wouldnt describe as dodgy, but where you would not leave the door to your hose unlocked we were standing wondering what to do next. Did the answer we needed arrive, you bet it did but thats another story and I am out of time. Will post more news soon.
PS before you post me to say the quality of the pictures are crap, be rest assured I know and will not make the same mistake next time, I hope.
Three weeks on Vancouver Island, not exactly what I had planned, more like three days. I have learnt two valuable lessons from it. Foremost, european model only bikes are a pain in the ass to get bits for and there are plenty of fantastic people out there ready to rescue a motorcyclist in distress like I was.
Standing outside the closed bikeshop with that ball in the pit of your stomach feeling was not the relaxing sunday ride I had planned. I kept looking at passing cars hoping one of them might take pity on us and help out. Hey presto, up drives this guy in a campervan who had already seen us pushing the bike to the shop. Did we want to leave the bike at his house and have him run it to a bike shop in the morning, do bears crap in the woods? Drew, a Harley rider had been through the breakdown in a strange place routine himself and knew how it felt. We ended up staying with Drew and Sandra. We were watered, fed and watched stars in their hot tub at night. We stayed with Drew and Sandra until we tied our boot laces tight and headed back to Vancouver as footpassengers to have a look at the city and for Jess to catch her flight back to England.
Of course we stayed in the cheapest hostel in town. It was cheap for a reason. Wandering around in the evening left Jess in a state of fear and me wondering where all the straight, sane people go. We were in the Eastside of town well know for its proliferation of hookers and drug dealers/addicts. Eventually we discovered the good parts of the city and enjoyed wandering about and hanging on the beach.
Of course no visit to the city would be complete without retail therapy, so we went to Moutain Equipment Co Op, the size of a football field, full of outdoor toys.
After a teary goodbye at the airport I headed back to Vancouver Island to get my bike. It had been fantastic sharing the last 6 weeks with Jess but alas she had to go earn some travel tokens to allow her to return to South America next March.
Bike not ready, no surprise. The list of damage now reads, dropped valve seat, bent valve, buggered piston with rebore needed. 1 more week of waiting.
Unsure how to use the time but again answer supplied. A weekend in a rainforest cabin, fishing and crabbing with Drew, Sandra and their son Brant. The sun shone, the beer flowed from dawn till way past dusk and a good time was had by all.
I had to come to see the Island and no wheels just meant a different way of travelling. I hitched to Victoria and spent a couple of days sunning myself, doing the tourist thing and reading.
Another visit to the bike shop and another problem. The piston sleeve had a crack in it. More money and what turned out to be nearly another two weeks of delays. I knew a gathering of Overland Bikers was meeting some 450 kms away on the weekend and set about trying to find a lift to that. Thanks to this website Timo replied to my postings and on thursday we set off for Revelstoke. Well I suppose you are thinking that these overland bikers are the bearded BMW riding types. Yes there were lots of BMWs and yes lots of people did have beards but the weekend was excellent. Lots of really interesting folk doing some big trips all over the world. A great opportunity to drink beer and talk bull about bikes.
I returned to Vancouver Island and spent the 5 more days waiting for the bike to be fixed. Thanks to Timo and Julie I had a place to stay and managed to relax and nearly forget about the bike and the ever increasing bill it was going to cost me. The day arrived and I parted with $1,400 Canadian and got my scruffy bike back in working order. Steve, the sometimes slightly stoned mechanic had I hoped fettled it to mechanical perfection ready for the next 25,00 miles the dommie would have to endure.
A quick one day blast to the Pacific Ocean was all it took to convice me I could finally leave for the states. One last night at Timos and I boarded the Victoria ferry bound for a cloudy Olympic Peninsular. Back to the country where drivers use their brakes, not steering wheels to go around corners and where every house has a flag or "proud to be american" banner in their windows! I certainly enjoyed Canada and will be back some time in the future.
I cruised the coast road, survived traffic hell in San Fransisco, modified the bike in Yosemite, survived death in Death Valley, lost no money in Las Vegas and cruised through a furnace to get to Albuquerque. Another fantastic month on the road.
(sorry folks, no pictures but coming soon )
I was glad to escape Canada with no more mechanical problems. Some hadn’t been so lucky as me. Timo had rescued another couple from the UK whilst I was on Vancouver Island, the diagnosis, blown gearbox and stripped studs in their Beemer. Lots more money than my problems and lots more weeks.
I entered the USA via the short but pretty ferry crossing to the Olympic Peninsular. I opted to follow the coast road Hwy101 all the way to the famous Hwy 1 that leads into San Francisco, on the map it looked like a three to four day ride; back in the real world it took me twice as long. The riding was good but the weather was getting too cold, I haven’t come all this way to ride in weather like that back in the UK. Coastal scenery was a great change from mountains and the wildlife was plentiful. There were more seals than you could wave a stick at, Redwoods taller than you could imagine and I even had a close encounter with a huge Humpback Whale. I also managed to find a riding buddy, John and we cruised together for a few days. John, tired of having cycled round the world a few times has now opted to ride a motorcycle to go see it all again. He was great company, laid back and full of interesting tales from past adventures. The motorcycling highlight of the coast ride was Hwy1. 200 miles of switchback turns on smooth tarmac with Pacific Ocean views. The first 100 was a joy, no traffic, the second hundred was ridden at 25mph sitting behind what seemed to amount to the entire population of San Francisco in temperatures of 95 Fahrenheit. Add to this having to drive through the heart of downtown and out over the bay bridges freeway consisting of 5 lanes of traffic. How the bike or I didn’t blow up I will never know, one thing learnt however. No more freeways.
I made Yosemite National Park the next day, once again riding in furnace like conditions. I have been here 8 years previous but had forgotten just how beautiful and how enormous the rock faces are here. El Capital is 1 vertical mile high! I had not brought with me any climbing gear and now sorely regretted it. To come here as a climber and not climb is torment. Luckily for me I met up with some UK climbers on Camp 4 and had one day on a 14 pitch route on the Royal Arches and got to practice some short Aid routes ready for my return to the valley. I also managed to hike up Half Dome again which in my opinion must rate as one of the best hikes in the world. I had only intended to stay for 2 days but ended up stopping 8 days. The atmosphere of camp 4 and the people and parties that go on there take a lot of dragging yourself away from. Its like you get absorbed into it all and can’t get out. Of note 2 of the UK climbers I met had just completed The Nose on El Capitan. This route took them 5 days, 2 more than standard which is not bad at all at the ages of 55 and 57. Bill and Anthony had achieved what a lot of climbers talk about but not so many do. Bill also achieved something else whilst in the valley. He gained the coveted status of being the second person to crash my bike, the first was another mate Nic who borrowed the bike after just passing his test. Bill wearing shorts and T-shirt narrowly avoided hitting a little girl on a cycle, opting to put the bike down instead. Luckily he was only lightly grazed, the bike and the luggage taking the sting out of the crash. I had wondered how good the luggage would stand up to a crash. The answer was real good, and I didn’t even have to find out myself the hard way. The only damage after a little kicking straight of various bits was two broken wing mirrors.
I finally left Yosemite taking with me the mother of all hangovers that had lasted 2 days. The night before there was a big leaving party which involved $3 plastic bottles of cheap Mexican tequila being passed around. My eyes as per normal were bigger than my belly and how it hurt! It was a great party full of famous and not so famous climbers and a great way to say goodbye to the valley. My stay in Yosemite had nearly caused me to end my biking trip, go get strong and go back out there to climb routes I have wanted to do for a long time. For 3 days I thought about this and have decided to carry on, as I would be passing up on a unique experience that I have invested a lot of time and money into. It was touch and go for a while but I am pleased now that I have carried on.
Next stop was Death Valley, the lowest point in the western hemisphere. Have you guessed it was hot there? Not only hot but also full of dangerous looking critters. 3 times I narrowly avoided missing Tarantulas crossing the gravel road. No lie they were as big as the palm of my hand and real furry. The next encounter came after dark walking back to my campsite. Some people had warned me to watch out for Sidewinders, small rattlesnakes, on the road. 30 seconds later I nearly stepped on one. This snake had the head back ready to strike and the tail rattling for all it was worth. A trip to the Laundromat was definitely needed the next day! I rose at 4.30 the next morning after sleeping on the picnic bench to avoid any contact with the ground. I don’t scare very easily, but snakes, they put the fear of god into me and as far as I am aware they can’t climb onto picnic tables! It was also a beautiful night and stargazing in the Nevada desert is something else. I managed to ride through and out of Death Valley by 9am. It was a good job as the temperature had hit at least 100 Fahrenheit by this time. I was glad to have made the effort, as the place is captivating. The landscape resembles something you imagine you would see on the moon, big salt flats, so dry and the scale is so big, the only drawback is the heat.
I made Las Vegas by midday and allowed myself the luxury of a hotel as it was too hot to camp. I also had my first “pull” by the police driving in. Real nice cop who was curious about the bike and the trip I was on. I am sure future encounters with the law will not be as nice as this one! Coming from a place full of natural beauty to one full of manmade glitz was a big contrast. I spent the night walking “The Strip” taking in the flashing neon, erupting volcanoes, water and light shows etc. I don’t gamble but went to see gamblers throwing big money away on tables and slots. Vegas was great to see but not really my scene, they do however serve very cheap beer and the people watching is fantastic.
Zion National Park was the next port of call. I arrived late at night and found a good car park to camp in. I didn’t really care that it was the car park for the local cemetery until 2 in the morning when a storm was raging overhead, lightning was striking very close and things were alight and spinning in the graveyard by graves. I not easily spooked but have seen too many movies to allow me to get any sleep that night. I later investigated the spinning lights, which turned out to be little windmills with LEDs attached. They looked much bigger at night you know!
Zion was spectacular, having deep red sandstone cliffs up to 1200 feet high. Another “must go back to with climbing gear” place. I spent the morning at Zion and headed to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for the afternoon. Again I am struggling to find words to describe how vast and spectacular the place is. I was lucky enough to watch an electrical storm pass over the canyon and see lightning start fires no more than half a mile from the lookout. I stayed at the lookout for at least 2 hours finding it hard to drag myself away. Had I known I was leaving to spend another night in the forest with storms raging all night I might have put up my tent there and then.
Torrential rain and lots of car bound tourists in the breakfast diner telling me how sorry they were for me that I was on a bike was the starting point for my 11 hour and 470 mile day that awaited. I rode through the Navajo reserves where Anasazi Indians lived in the cliffs and out of the rain towards Monument Valley. I passed though a town in mid parade and for the first time since visiting the arctic felt like I was in an unfamiliar culture. Lots of people everywhere, dogs all over the road and most buildings and open spaces in a state of disrepair. A taste of things to come.
Monument Valley with its pencil thin sandstone spires was well worth the diversion. I seem to be traveling to all the places I want to climb without my gear. Next time heh! From here south I was into oil well country and lots of red earth and rocks. I passed through 4 Corners into New Mexico and finally stopped riding at 9.30pm to tired to go on. I had hoped to maybe make Albuquerque that night but had once again overestimated.
I rode into Albuquerque at midday the next day to a fantastic welcome. I have family here that I have not seen for 23 years. The reunion started at my aunties, with Mary and Stephanie there to greet me and then went to my cousin Mikes for the evening. I was treated like royalty, beer and food flowing my way whenever I wanted. This was just what was needed after a long while roughing it and camping in the woods to save money. At My cousin Mikes I met up with more family I have not seen in ages and some I have never met before. The evening ended when we had drank all the beer we could and I could stay awake no longer. Since then the “royal” treatment has continued. I have been taken to the Balloon Fiesta, casinos, bike rides into the mountains, house parties, drag races, had many meals cooked for me. Yesterday my cousin let me ride his highly cherished Harley Davidson Electra glide and last weekend I was even been given the opportunity to ride a highly tuned quad bike which decided to run me over whist I was riding it and park on top of me on some mighty steep sand dune. Ironic that the first crash I have wasn’t even on my own bike. I know how Bill must have felt in Yosemite! Meeting up with my family has been the big highlight of my trip through the lower 48 states of the USA. I am finding it hard to drag myself but am aware that if I am to make Panama by the end of November I must leave soon. I have two more days left to enjoy my time in Albuquerque and then its down the road south, through the Mexican border and on to Copper Canyon, the next big “must see” sight I want to visit. This I think is where my trip will get a little funkier. I will be experiencing a new culture and be expected to speak a language I have been meaning to learn for the last year but never quite got round to studying, firmly believing that it would always be better to put it off till manana. Bring it on!
From lots of rules and regulations and relative order to chaotic driving and congested living and people doing what seemingly doing just what they want. Yep you have just crossed the border into Mexico.
No one at the border seemed to care what I was doing or who I was. I had to stop them to ask how I go about temporarily importing the bike and myself into their country. Now I believe that it is rude not to attempt to speak the language of the country you are in but it is bloody hard to communicate when your spanish is limited to what you used in a bar the last time you were in Majjorca. So off I went, driving in traffic wandering where it wanted on the road. 20km out of town I get to the place. Now the fun starts. I line up at a desk that looks promising only to get to the official who points me to another desk. To be fair the whole process only took me 2 hours and cost me $50.(at least $20 more than it should have I now know!) This is a fast border in comparison with what I am told awaits me later.
It was good to finally get going and get some miles in before dark. After 5 hours I made the town of Maderra. I needed a hotel, after much searching I found one. $26 was not what I had expected more like $10. Next day I was headed to Copper Canyon, Mexico´s answer to the Grand Canyon. The tarmac road from Creel to where the dirt starts was super twisty and fun. When the dirt started I was glad to be on something that could take a hammering. The road, only 43 miles long took about 4 hours to ride. It was like nothing else I have experienced on the trip. How the hell they built it is one thing, how many have snuffed it driving it can only be guessed at. There are plenty of little shrines at various places that give you some idea. The road was single lane, full of stones the size of softballs, had ditches where it had washed out and had drops off the side that were very big indeed. Add about 30 switchbacks into the bargain, a drop in height of about 2500 feet, animals on the road and psycho locals and you start to get the idea. The village of Botopillas at the bottom was like nothing I have seen. Very run down looking, tiny streets full of roaming dogs, pigs and the occassional cow and lots of kids wanting high 5s as I rode past them. I liked it, all apart from the dog that mounted a conserted attack on me every time I rode past looking for a hotel. In Botopillas I got to stay in my first hotel where they insisted that the bike be brought inside through there hallway floored in white tiles, to ensure it would be safe. How cool, and all for $10. Thats more like it! Did it match the Grand Canyon for scenery? It sure did, it is one spectacular place I would like to revisit and spend more time in. My route then took me to a town called Parral, then the next day to Durango. The road to Mazatlan from Durango was another highlight. It passes through the Sierra Madre mountains and is so twisty. Not one straight in one 90 mile section and you are riding on top of the ridge most of the way. Lots more stunning jungle views. The only hassle was the drivers and the state of the road. One corner I come round to be faced with a pile of logs sticking out of a broken down truck. I just managed to stop! Another section of the road would not have looked out of place in Beirut. Lots more animals to hit mainly cows and donkeys (There are no fields to graze animals in you just turn them out onto the road then go find them later, that is the ones who are not lying dead beside it) Add to that potholes you could hide a football in. Then there was the military roadblocks and heavy overall presence. They were cool with me but they certainly like to have lots of guns. ( In the south of Mexico gas stations, banks and lots of other businesses are all gaurded by local police with pump-action shotguns!) I am told that this road is good by day, but not somewhere to be at night. Lots of Banditos aggressively gaurding their crops of weed and poppies.
Mazatlan was my entry into the tropics. I was so hot and humid. Really hard to ride wearing what you know will protect you if you crash. I then realised that by heading south I was riding into an ever increasing furnace. I will work out how to cope.
From Mazatlan I headed down the coast to Peurto Vallarta, what I now know is the US´s second favourite holiday destination. Its just like being on the Costa Del Sol but at least I can speak english and be understood. I had to have a rest day here as 7 high mileage days on the bike had taken its toll. On the 7th day I could no longer sit on the seat and had to use a travel cushion to try to get some relief. I also paid the price for eating in many roadside food huts. There cheap but hygiene mmm. Luckily I packed some Imodium I guess. Still being sick in a place you can walk 10 mins for a swim in a bathtub warm Pacific Ocean aint too bad and it was excellent people watching.
Back to the bike the next day and heading south down the "coast road". Now my idea of a coast road is one you can see the sea from, you know marvellous vista awaiting you around every corner. The Mexican idea seems to be a little different. They want to hide all their beutiful coastline so place the road about 1- 10kms back from the coast. Now I have ridden the whole thing, I would say that dissapointingly you only get Pacific Views for 60kms of the 1,600kms of it I rode. While I am having a winge I have to mention the Topes, quantities of which are found in every village. Topes are what we would call speed bumps but these are not mere bumps but more like mountains. The roads in Mexico go through every village. Villages are at most no more than 10kms apart if you are lucky. Every village has at least three of these suspension destroying monsters in them. Try riding 450 kms in a day like I am doing and the hatred developed for these things gets way out of hand. The most annoying aspect of Mexico bar none. Second to the topes must be the "killer" dogs present in every village. Wether dogs are born into the role or are assigned it via the local canine committee I am not sure, but the fact still remains that in every village from somewhere a dog (or dogs) will come tearing out of the bushes barking wildly, chasing the bike no more than centimeters from my boots salivating at the jowls. As of yet no contact has been made with the "killers" but not through want of trying I might add. I still need more practice to conect my size 10 motorcross boots with the offending mutts head!
My ride has taken me through Acapulco at 8am on a Saturday. The madness of the traffic has to be seen to be believed. You are defending the space you ride in, not lane, with fierce determination. If you are unsuccessful, one of the twenty zillion VW Beetle Taxis will be making a b-line to get you. No overdramitization, that was how it was. Just out of Acapulco I stopped for food, brunch you would call it. Now that my vegetarian principles have well and truly gone out the window (dont mock,you try to order off a menu you dont understand and hope not to get meat in a big meat eatting country) I eat what I am lucky enough to get put in front of me after normally going for a guess off the menu. Anyway there on the menu was the dish I could not refuse. Molle de Armidillo. Thats right it even had a picture of an armidillo in case you were not sure. A different breakfast to say the least. And how did it taste, you all already know the answer to that dont you. Chicken of course but with a hint of porkiness. It was great served in a spicy sauce. Later I discovered that I could also have had Iguana (lizard) but was glad I didnt as it is suppossed to have the same effect as Viagra. Now wouldnt that have been interesting trying to sit on a motorbike all day after your Iguana meal!
Another drama that I have had is having half my back eaten by insects. As it is so hot I was riding with my jacket open. What a lovely way to cature and hold all the insects in the air in the back of your jacket. Not all of these tropical dudes are friendly, what a field day they had on me. I thought I had contracted chickenpox again!
A pleasant surprise has been the lack of hassle I have had compared to what everyone in the USA was telling me would happen. Every day I pass through at least 2 military checkpoints. So far only three have stopped me and had very brief looks into my boxes. Always they have been very courteous to me. They all seem terminally bored, but not bored enough to have the patience to try and work out what the non-spanish speaking gringo is trying to say. My spanish is not coming along very well, I find it bloody hard work and as for remembering the words! Also luckily no run-ins with the Federales, the national cops. Last time I was in Mexico my friends and I had to bribe them to get out of some dreamed up traffic offence. This time the only contact has been one giving me a friendly wave as I passed.
Yesterday was unusual. I got a hotel earlier that I had planned due to a roadblock on the Pan American Highway. I went to the front of the line of traffic to see what all the delay was, an accident I thought. On arrival I saw this line of men all eqquiped with 2 foot machettes standing or sitting on the truck tires that had been used to block the road. Behind them the women were also sat, not with big knives but 3 foot long clubs. I got told in no uncertain terms that it was "no passada" and with the show of weapons they had I wasnt going to be the one to argue. The dispute was over the government taking their traditional land and this type of protest was common now according to a truck driver. Now what could we achieve in the UK if you blocked the M1. The militant flame in me may be burning weak now but it hasnt gone out!
At present I am an hours ride away from the Guatemala border at Melsilla and plan to cross it tomorrow. I have a lovely 2.50uk hotel room and my bike is safely in the hallway.
I am glad to have reached the border as Mexico seems to have taken me a lot longer that I thought it would. I have enjoyed the ride down and have found that in general the Mexican people are very poor and live in very basic conditions. From the road you see villagers carrying water to their houses from wells or tankers and I doubt a lot of them have much more than a few light bulbs in their houses, some out of the towns no electricity at all. To see earth floors through open doors is common in the villages. All the Mexicans I have encountered have been very friendly and helpful, always trying to work out what the stupid gringo is trying to say in broken spanish. The notion of them all being thieves and out to swindle you, has proved untrue. There is far too much prejudice gladly offered to you from people in the US. I suggest they travel the country and get the true story first hand!
I now have the Mayan ruins of Tikal to look forward to and the notoriously corrupt border official of Guatemala to deal with. Add to that the Tramitadores (kids that hassle you to let them help you get through the border, for a price) and the street kids who want paying to "look after" your bike and it should be a fun 24hrs. I will let you know in a week or so how it turned out.
(still no pictures, will add them at xmas when I get home)
Have the border crossing all become a living nightmare like people tell me, did Guetemala in a pre-election frenzy cause me some hairy moments, read on.....
The border crossing into Guetamala was at Mesilla was a breeze. Half an hour of time and only cost me $6. The first police roadblock turned out to be a good laugh and lots of waving people. My first impressions were that the people are incredibly friendly.
I managed to get off the asphalt and headed for the small town of Sacopulus in the jungle. How many times in the UK have I got to roadworks that have closed the whole road, only to have the workers get into their diggers to make a path for the tourist on the moto to pass through. I was amazed that they did this for me and equally amazed that i managed to ride throught the mud and over the boulders on the paths they made without dropping the bike. The pressure was on as the whole work crew at each site gathered to watch me demonstrate whether or not I could handle my overlaoded pig of a bike. Other than the construction the other hazards I encountered on all the dirt roads was dust so thick that you could not breathe and loco driving.
I was glad to have made Sacopulus and celebrated with a beer or three. Next day back to the dirt, delays and mad driving. Today was the first day that I have been run off the road by one of fast pickup trucks that opererate as taxis. In one town I counted 19 people in and hanging off a pickup truck screaming down the road. I was lucky the ditch was shallow and I managed to get the bike back on the road. I rode all day to get to what local had told me was the eigth wonder of the world, Semuc Champery. This was a river that went underground dramatically and above the underground section there were lots of tourqoise pools of water. Impressive yes but not that good. I camped at this spot thinking I would have a great night of jungle sounds but in realitty nearlly died from dehydration as it was so hot all night. I had one more day of dirt roads to go before making the east side of the country and the ashphalt road. Guetemala saved the best for last. The road was shocking, narrow and full of limestaone cobbles and boulders. Add to that some good wet weather and it was like trying to ride over ice at times. I made real slow progress but the villages it went through were fantastic. From peoples reactions they see very few tourists and ones on motorbikes even less. Everywhere people stared like they didnt know what to make of me, very few smiled back. The other strange thing was that the little kids would come to the road to see me approach but as soon as I got close run away and hide. Someone told me that westerners had in the past taken children from villages and that a myth exist that tourist steal children. I find this unbelievably but have no better explanation to offer. That night after a very long day I made the town of Flores, near to Tikal.
Next day dawned very wet but I was off to see Tikal at 5.30am. Thankfully it stopped raining half way though the day allowing me to see all of the Tikal ruins. I had a fantastic day here. The jungle in itself is amazing, so full of wildlife. I saw monkeys, lemur like groud critters, parrots, wild pigs, fox and more colourful birds than I can name.
Then you had the huge pyramids and other ruins left from the biggest Mayan city. I climbed many of the ruins and managed to see the whole site. It was truly an impressive place, well worth the three days of dirt roads to get to.
The next day I headed south to get myself one hour off the Honduran border ready to cross the next day. Leaving the town of Flores I stumbled on an intersesting style of winning votes. The general election was days away and to rally support for the PAN party a convoy of vehicles drove slowly through town and in amongst them all was this flat bed truck full of scantily clad beauties dancing on the back of it. Thats electioneering with a twist.
Heres another crossing that was reputidly time consuming but took no more than 30 mins and $30 to sort out. I headed for my second Mayan ruins, Copan. I managed to see all the ruins the same day and was again very impressed. The quality of the stone carvings at Copan has to be seen to be believed. What Copan lacks in size it makes up for in quality. I have now had my fill of ruins and next day headed for the coast on the Carribean side. I found a hostel in the real small town of Omoa which was on the beach. I spent 2 days here supping beer, swimming in the warm sea and doing nothing much. Exactly what was required ready for the push to Nicaragua.
From Omoa I rode to El Paraiso, a small town, near the border and the quietest of the border crossings. The town was a really interesting place, lots of people in the town square hanging about socialising and doing everyday activities. The old people have so much character, if I could only speak spanish and hear their stories.
Nicaraguan Customs was the one that I had heard all the stories about. “Delays up to four hours are not uncommon”. On arriving at the border I had my first encounter with Tramitadores. These guys are there to help you process your paperwork and get you through the borders in quick time. They tend to mob you for business as soon as you ride up. I picked the most honest looking one of the bunch and he got me throught the Honduran side in less than 5 minutes. On the Nicaraguan side the process was a bit more complicated but it still took only forty minutes. The Tramitador had to work much harder for his $5 on this side.
I headed for the town of Leon and left behind the Jungle scenery for flat plains and smoking volcanoes. A bizarre sight I saw on the road to Leon was a donkey cremation taking place. There was this guy standing near a dead donkey on the side of the road that he had placed 4 old tyres on it, doused it with gas and set fire to it. It was burning with big flames and thick black smoke. What was more odd was that no one except me paid a blind bit of attention to it, it must be normal.
Leon was an interesting place. Very run down and very busy. Some guy offered to show me to this great cheap hotel, I was glad of the help as it was real hot and I was tired. It turned out that it was not close and I had to ride through the busy town standing up on the bike footrests while he squeezed himself onto my seat. As if I wasn’t already an excuse to be stared at. I got lots of weird looks. The hotel was the first that insisted that the bike go into the room I was staying for safe keeping. Great for the novelty value but the smell of gas that hung around all night was real bad. Next day I rode to Masaya via the capital, Managua. I decided to test the reactions of a taxi driver en-route by pulling out on him, luckily for me he was awake, the second near miss. Masaya is a beutifull little town which specialises in local art and craft. From here I made my way to my destination for the day, Granada. Everyone I had met had said that this was a must-go-to place. They were right. It is situated on the shores of Lake Managua and I full of interesting buildings and people.
The town is quite touristy but has a lot of charm. At last I also met with some other bikers headed south and spent a good night in the Bearded Monkey beering and bullshitting.
Costa Rica was the next days destination, I was rushing but needed to buy a flight as soon as possible to get me home before the fares went up for xmas. This was the bussiest border as all traffic has to go through it. Again I hired a Tramitadores. The border was not easy to understand and for another $5 each it was well worth the expense. After 90 minutes and a few more police checkpoints I was on my way to the capital, San Jose. I had read about speed traps in Costa Rica and had made a note not to speed too much. Within 45 minutes of crossing the border I had been pulled. These guys hide themselves in bushes, you have no chance of seeing them before they get you. I couldn’t face the thought of giving the cops any money so gave them a tall story about being very low on cash and needing to get to San Jose to get more. Thank you and on my way I went with a still intact pocket of cash. Its amazing how sad you can look if it is going to save you money Crossing form Nicaragua to Costa Rica was like leaving the third world and entering the into a mainstream western country. Instead of the usual smoke belching trucks and ox carts their were new cars and lots of visable sign of wealth. Some people still looked to be living basic lives but a lot have money also. San Jose has more similarities to a town in the states to anything else I saw in Central America.
I arrived in San Jose wet and tired and pulled over to look at a map to find a hostel. This guy pulls up next to me on a Vespa scooter and asks were I am from and what I am doing. He tells me I am welcome to use the phone at his place and sort out some accommodation. A good offer when you are in a wet city at dusk. I follow him back to his house which turns out to be in a secure estate and is equipped with garages, a swimming pool and guest house. Oscars wife Margi and his two daughters greeted me and told me he has done this more than once, ie adopted foreign motorcyclists and brought them home. Oscar is nuts about bikes, or as you would saw in Spanish, moto loco. He has a collection of them which includes English classics and BMW’s. Add this to his collection of VW cars and you start to get the picture. Once again on the trip I had walked into some exceptionally good luck. For the remainder of my time in Costa Rica I used Oscars house as base ans went out to explore the east and west coast and do some serious lying on a beach. I had one week to relax before flying back to the UK. I originally intended to fly back for christmas then get back on the bike early feb to continue south. That was until I received a job offer I couldnt refuse, 6 months working in a school I knew with staff who were a good laugh.
6 months is now up and I am getting ready to return to the bike. I am glad I broke the trip into two sections as I am now refresshed and a lot more enthusiastic about the travelling to come. Also I am to be joined by Jess, my gilfriend who is going to meet me in Ecuador, buy a small bike and ride with me to Ushuia. On the 30th June I fly back to Costa Rica and hopefully manage to escape the country without being fined $500 plus tax.
After 7 long winter months teaching back in the UK at last I am can start the second part of the adventure. Bring it on!!
Besse getting felt up, all for $5!
There is nothing like abscence to make the heart grow fonder. I couldn't wait to get back to the trip. The break was good for me, I earned some more travel tokens and got to see and hang out with the people I missed while travelling. But on June 30th I left Heathrow bound for Costa Rica. The flight along with the usual delays was tedious, I arrived three hours late at 11.30pm in San Jose to find my friends Oscar and Marghi wating for me. In the morning I dug the bike out of Oscars garage and got to work making it run again. To cut a long story short, after about 14 hours of work over 2 days it finally ran. I had stripped all the electrics and carb many times to find what turned out to be a simple mistake I had made on the first day. On sunday I headed out for the Costa Rican border. I was sad to leave Oscar and his family, their friendship and hospitality were second to none. I hope to see them again in the UK.
Oscar, The Bike and Me Ready To Roll
The ride to the border took me over the central cordillara at an altitude of over 3000m. The views I had hoped for were hidden by more bloody jungle. I had other things on my mind however. My vehicle permit for Costa Rica had run out 4 months ago. Worst case senario was a $500 fine plus import tax for the bike, altogether worth more than the bike itself. I was aiming for a border crossing at the end of a dirt road where I hope i could cross and if neccessary pay the border gaurd a small "fine" to get out. I rode through 2 checkpoints before reaching the dirt road, bumped my way through 8kms and then these shacks appeared, no barriers at all so I just rode on into Panama, and stopped by there Migacion office. They couldn't process my papers for me there but had no problems with me riding down the Panamanian side of the border to go to the main crossing to get the correct stamps. I couldn't believe my luck getting through with not a single cent in fines, I even had the expired permit left as a souvenier. The main border at Paso Canoas was hectic but no agro, a long day but a tidy hotel and a six pack sorted all that out.
I rode 500kms to Panama City the next day, a good road but hot. My body not used to sitting on the bike yet and got some quality bum blisters to remind me not to ride long miles too quick. Panama City was mad and just as I found a possible hotel the bike refused to start again. That was me done for the day. I had ended up in a red light disrict but sod it I needed rest. That evening I hooked up with Appie, an Austrian biker who had had a similar border stress and had also ridden from Costa Rica that day. We ended up sharing a hotel for the next three days and exploring the delights of Panama City. We got pissed lots and had a good laugh. Panama City although dirty and caotic was really enjoyable, I felt it wasn't the safest place but good fun.
Appie and the local parking security crew.
On the last day I headed out to the Panama Canal which was big and impressive but I had gone with this idea that supertankers would be going through it and was a little dissapointed with the Panamax sized boats.
I had organised my air freight to Quito, Ecuador while in Panama City which was surprisingly too easy, I kept looking for the catch but there wasn't one. Just ride the bike to the airport, take off the mirrors, tell them there is very little fuel in it and you have disconnected the battery, pay the 600 odd bucks and off you go. No making a crate for the bike or any of the ather faffing I did in the UK. Appie in the meantime had freighted his bike to Bogota, Colombia. I looked at the map, why the hell hadn't I done this. It was half the price and only 600Kms ride down to Quito. I had heard so many stories that if I went to Colombia I would be kidnapped and held hostage that I believed them. I now know there are many bikes that go through with no more hassle than the roadblocks by the police and military. This is not to say it can't happen but the chances are slim. I had been sucked in again by media bullshit! The next day I just managed to get on the Quito flight , I was on stand-by and got the last seat on the plane.
Well three weeks ago I landed at Quito excited by the prospect of my first visit to South America. Three weeks and Jess and me are still stuck in Quito. Not so much of a love /hate relationship, just lots of the hate! Anyhow what has happened in those three weeks and why are we still here.
The first week involved extracting the bike from the ever oficious customs at the airport. I tried to do it my self but armed with what most would consider a piss poor lack of spanish I faltered at the first hurdle, only 2 hours into the process. $50 later I had me a genuine Ecuadorian, spanish speaking customs agent. What took place after this was another day and a half of visiting office after office, shaking everyones hand and standing next to my customs agent like a spare part as he jabbered away at various officials. The highlight!! of the whole process was meeting the main man himself, the Commandant who graciously signed a piece of paper. I was then free to go get the bike, discover it had been dropped a bit and had the stand snapped clean off the frame. A great start to Ecuador! $5 to weld the stand and lots more spent on beer drinking with a retired Austrian biker, Klaus, as I hiberated the week away waiting for Jess. During this time I also met Ricardo Rocco. This guy is the main man of bikers in Ecuador. He meets most people who come through and bikes and is always willing to help. He was the one who gave me the contacts at the airport and has been helping me since with the mechanical troubles.
In the meantime Jess was having her own little epic getting here. Her flight went to Fankfurt, Caracas, Bogota (unbeknown to her and me) and then finnaly Quito. The connection in Caracas was with the local airline, Avianca (susequently renamed Aviwanker) They got the plane to Bogota ok but then decided it was broken and cancelled the flight. Great, midnight stuck in Bogota, swarming with military with big guns, presumably cos it is a tad dangerous to be there. Did she see the fabled ELN or Fach gurrelias, did she hell. They gave her a physco taxi ride into town and put her up at a five star hotel. Next morning I camped down again at Quito airport to await her arrival. After only three delays and no cancelled flights she arrived. It was great to see each other again and we spent the day exploring, Quito. The old town was fantastic, lots to see and climb. Pay $2 and you could climb all over a disused cathedral. no joke. At the top of the bell fry a little hole in the tower led you straight out onto the ledge next to the gargoyles.
Chilling With The Gods
We had afforded ourselves the luxury of a $22/night hotel, The Amazonas Inn. Queen sized bed, 2 balconies, silk sheets and superb service. Unfortunately this was a flash in the pan, 4 days later we downgraded to $10/night, in the middle of slapper land where they only empty your toilet paper bin once a week.
Buying a bike for Jess in Ecuador was muy costoco and we had been in contact with another brit couple coming up from Argentina. We now plan to buy their bike off them in Lima, Peru. In the meantime I went to prepare the bike for 2 up travel. This is where the problems started and today may end. I discovered that I had bent the rear shock absorber as well as blowing it up. Great cos as you may have guessed there are lots of shops here that sell shocks for european model bikes. It would have to come from the UK. I rang the company who makes it, Hagon, and much to my surprise they said they would warranty it and UPS a replacement out to me. 5 days was the time it would take to get here.
So what did we do while we waited? Tried spanish school, not for us. Drank coffee, wandered around Quito, drank beer, got on the internet, read books, drank beer, drank coffee, wandered more, got on the internet, read some more, drank coffee, read in a park, interenet and on, and on, and on. Get the picture. On the upside we hooked up with some fellow bikers , Maarten and Meg. Maarten has been going for two years around the world and Meg, fresh out of uni is planning the same. It was good to swap stories over beers and helped ease the boredom. These guys have the wacky plan to build a raft from oil drums, put a propeller on it powered by one of the bikes and raft the Amazon. Once again we were taking easy street by sticking to only the roads.
Meg, Maarten and Us.
We have ventured out of Quito three times. The thought of the shock breaking in 2 and inserting itself through the seat and up my jacksie does not make for relaxed cruising. Our first venture was to a hot springs up in the Andes at 4000m. This was also Jess`s birthday. We had a really chilled time out there, lounging in the springs taking in the rainforest views.
The Birthday Girl!
The next trip was to Mitad del Mundo (the equator to you and me) We went to a little museum where we saw genuine water going different ways either side of the equator, saw a shrunken head which was practiced by an indigenous amazon tribe as a post war trophy ritual. We also saw the skin of an Anaconda which was at least 10m long and got to shoot blow darts at a cactus bush. Very good and not too cheesy.
Her in the south, Me in the north.
Now the official government monument was very dull and bland and to add to that was 200m south of the actual line. Our last venture out yesterday was to go see Cotapaxi, the highest active volcanoe in the world. Quito is a long town in a velley. It is full of diesel belching busses (imagine the worst bus you have seen and times it by five) It is incredible how much crap is in the air in this city, also the noise. Every one bips the horn at least once a minute and drives into any space that presents itself. Relaxed driving it aint. Anyway after 50 minutes of this type of driving we exited the city to find that Cotopaxi had decided to get covered by cloud and add to that the bike broke down (it has subsequently started to work again but only on the basis of when it wants to. I guess talking to it may help!). Great another bike problem to solve, another UK only part to try to find and we havn`t even seen the bloody volcanoe. Just as we thought the day was another right-off a guy in 4wd pulls up next to us and invites us back to his house to meet his family and have lunch. A really pleasant afternoon spent trying to hablo espanyol and recieving 1st class hospitality. The day was saved!
Today, friday, we get the new shock. It arrived 4 days ago but can you guess who has been looking after it for me since then, yep those bastards at customs have once again put a spanner in the works. On sunday, for better or worse we leave this town for good, head up to the coast to lounge for a few days on the playa. On 8th August after agressive shopping around we have booked ourselves onto a Galapogas Islands trip. We got a bargain !?! price of 750 quid each for eight days on a luxury boat which every day visits a new sight with wacky animals to see.
Hope its worth it!
Quito is good for a few days but three weeks. We are going mad, must escape soon if not, who knows. Tune into the next episode of Jess and Oz´s South American adventure to find out if customs give us the shock, if the bike decides to work and see if we get out of Quito. Yeah and dont be shy to mail us or leave comments on this blog.
Hasta la luego, baby!!!!!!!!!
It may look easy to get out of Ecuador but that just aint the case for us. Dont know who to blame it on but someone didn't want us to leave Quito, let alone Ecuador. Go on click on more to see how we did it, you know you want to.............
What you looking at you bald git!!!
Finally we headed north out of Quito. Eager to get some miles behind us and drawn by the lure of Pacific beaches we stopped only breifly in Otavalo to catch a glimpse of market life. The road was smooth and the scenery spectacular. We passed through the Andes at 3000m with the occasional glimpses of the snow peaked volcanoe Caymbe, then dropped suddenly into grassy hillsides and then sub tropical forest where the temperature changed dramatically. By the time we had reached San Lorenzo in the far north west coast of Ecuador we had gone from 3000m to sea level and found ourselves in the Jungle amongst afro-caribeans. I was amazed we hadn´t crossed a border as I was conviced we'd arrived in a different country. San Lorenzo was a scruffy chaotic town situated in a huge saltwater river system.It was dirty, humid and noisy and bustled with life.
Our motorbike caused a lot of interest and a few photos later with school kids sitting on the bike everyone was our friend. We left San lornzeo well and truly aclimitised, I dont think there are any places weve been too since that match it for the initial "culture" shock.
We spent four days touring the pacific coast , hangin out in the costa del sol of Ecuador, supping on cheap cocktails, swimming and looking for the beach of all beaches. Eventually we found it in Canoa, a small and very quite surf spot with 17km of white sand. We got ourseleves the compulsory bamboo hut and stayed for 3 days before we had to head back to Quito to catch our flight to the Galapogas.
35kms there and back, nice!!
As we sat in the Departure lounge at Quito airport waiting to board our plane you could have forgiven us for our extremely cinical attitude. We´d paid over US$1300 for an experience it seemed we were going to share with 500 other English and Germans tourists. Who would we be sharing the boat with, that was the big question on our minds? Could it be that couple in the corner arguing, the English family dressed for an african safari or the large German group with name stickers on. God only knew what we were letting ourselves in for. As it turned out it was none of these, but a handful of Italians, a couple of French girls, a Dutch girl and only 3 English (inc us). For 8 days we boated around the islands in luxury, waking at 6.00 for a morning snorkel, breakfasting at 7am, animal watching till lunch, sleeping on deck till 2.00, more snorkelling, more animals, more sunbathing more food, ohh how we missed the life on the road. not!
Dragons do exist!
Our fears that we had blown a big wedge of dosh on an overated tourist experience slowly melted away as we got see up close to a host of birds, marine and land iguanas, sea lions, turtles, giant tortoises, penguins, shark, and more still. In fact we were tripping over the wildlife, several times we came close to standing on marine iguanas sunbathing on the path or face to face with a colosal messe sea lion guarding his territory, but they never moved, just posed for another photo opportunity.
You should have smelt their breath!!!
There were some days when we shared these unique experiences with the other 500 people from Quito departure lounge but for the most we had islands and beaches to ourselves. Oz paid a whopping $60 to dive in the hope of seeing hammer-head sharks but unfortunately only got ice-cream head and hypothermia instead. At the end of the week we were "animaled out". We took over 260 photos, so get ready back home cos you are all in for one long, long evening!
Not very shy are they!
The happy stress free memories of life on a boat where soon dashed by our return to the diesel smog of Quito. But hey in a couple of days we´d be on our way south!!! That was the idea but once again more mecahnical problems raised their ugly head with dropped valve seats and intermitment electrical failures . All of which dragged us further down into a pit of dispair. Days were robbed from us as we trawled the same streets between, home (which was now with Ricardo Rocco, a friend who had saved us from the hostals of gringoland) the bike shop, internet cafe, and the few select resturants we had found cheap and decent enough to eat at. A couple of highlights to mention during these two dark weeks was when Oz was pickpocketed for $90 , of course at a time when were carrying more money than we would do usually. and the next having my passport and 3 of our credit cards stolen by a mechanic at the bike shop. This second minor problem ended in a result!!! Two days later and after what we think were some serious threats leveled against the suspect mechanic we had the passport and the credit cards returned to us. As for the mechanic I no longer think they can hold his postion open for him as he is now enjoying a two year imprisonment for his folly.
My turn now. The day we rolled out of Quito was frought with more fears of having to deal with a busted bike. We made as much progress as possible and ended up in a small village at the base of a still very active volcanoe.
It will go bang soon!
Banos was great, no smog and traffic and beautiful mountains and waterfalls. While we were here we hooked up with an Austrian biker I first met in Nicaragua, then again in Panama. Last time we met we spent most of the time getting trashed, this time was no different. After three days celebrating our escape from quito we thought we would give our livers a break and head south. For the next three three days we rode through stunning andean mountains on great roads passing through lots of interesting villages and following the famous Riobamba to Alauasi railway line.
Who needs the train when you have a bike!
On the last full day in Ecuador another attempt was made to stop us leaving this country. I dont know which particular religious sect were responsible for the act of terrorism that was waged on us, but they nearly succeded. We had spent most of the day on perfect roads swooping through fantastic corners, waving to locals blah blah blah and then it happened. At about 50mph out of the corner of my eye I spotted the bastard coming to get us. It was a fully trained suicide sheep and his target was my bike. I managed to avoid the full on attack as he collided with the side of the front wheel. He wasn't done yet however as he pulled his trump card out and planted hinself firmly in front of the back wheel and refussed to go under the bike. Appie tells me we were fishtailing down the road, every fishtail bigger than the last. From the cockpit I was really struggling to keep it all together, countersteering is a fine principal to read about but try doing it on an already overladed bike 2 up with a big hairy animal under your feet! The sheep eventually decided that enough was enough and thankfully popped under the back wheel. One last fishtail and some very loud squealing from the tyre and we had made it. Did I stop to picture the beast I had just slayed, did I hell. I had just survived a 95% certain crash and the idea of the farmer wanting me to pay for this experience was not worth the agro.
Next day saw us descend from the mountains and eventually reached the Peruvian border at Macara. One hour later we had done it. We had escaped Ecuador and were cruising through now desert scenery towards our first Peruvian town, Puira. Our first impressions of Peru were good. People were very friendly and always wanting to talk and ask questions. The refreshing difference here is that they did not want money as well! My ploy on the talking front was to leave it all to Jess as she has been here the shortest amount of time and needs the practice!!
We stop, the crowd gathers.
The whole western coast of Peru is a huge desert. Although the roads are not very interesting, the landscape is. We had lots of stops where we could play on sand dunes and get all arty with the camera.
Great sign, disgusting drink!
You're never too old to play in the sand!
The first real stop was the beach resort of Huanchaco, just outside Trujillo . Really sleepy and great place to chill. Of course whats the first things you do in a new country, try the beer. We hung out for three days then were forced back to the road as we had a meeting planned in Lima. Jess was well and truly sick of seeing the back of my head and wanted a bike of her own, Lima was where the deal would be struck.
Panamerican Highway of Northern Peru.
A two day ride along the most barren and isolated costal highway I have seen would lead us to Lima. It was really weird to see the Pacific ocean crashing onto a lunar lanscape with absoultely nothing growing in it. After the beach the land just climbs in featureless sandy hills untill it reaches the more fertile land of the Andes, barely visable in the distance. The most surprising thing however is that it was bloody cold. The Humbolt Current keeps the Pacific cold here and the land as well.
We made Lima in good time but had arrived with a few more souveniers than were had bargained for. Ciprofloxin to the rescue! Yup we both had eaten something bad and had won the right to sit on the loo 10 times a day! The worse I had felt on the whole trip, but at least we had the luxury of a nice hostal and flushing bog. As for Lima, it was a surprise. As well as a grubby noisy part of town, the place where we have ended up is clean, safe and would not be out of place anywhere in europe. Not a bad place to hustle a deal for another motorcycle. Anyway thats my bit over with, Jess can tell you about her new toy!
Ohhhh she's lovely!!! and a really nice colour too! kind of dark green with a flash of purple and red....uumm.. thats it really!
My first bike!
Well thats what I would have said two months ago but not now. Now I know everything about bikes. I know my sprockets from my rocker arm and my cam chain from my head bearings. And mines got them all!! Yep very pleased with my new purchase except haven't actually been anywhere on it yet! I did take it for a test ride down the Panamerica, overtook a few trucks and buses quite comfortably and razed it round some dirt roads by the beach, but decided to leave the sand experience for another day. Forgot to mention its a Kawsaki KLR 250, she aint no looker but is mechanically sound (I hope!). Shes already been up and down South America twice and has circumnavigated Oz including a 100kmph crash with a kangaroo.. a few careful owners you could say! Armed with my new fake documents its all full speed ahead from here.....well it would be if we now weren't waiting for our new credit cards to arrive at the British Embassy. We hope they arrive on Monday and then next stop is a desert oasis who's waters are reputed to have theraputic healing powers. Oz reckons there aint no therapy to be had in green stagnant water, your better off sticking to a bottle of beer.
Next episode hopefully will see us doing what we came here to do, travelling on bikes and seeing amazing stuff, not dealing with lots of hassles as it seems the majority of the trip has involved so far. Check us out again soon.
On the bikes at 5am on a drizling Lima morning and we finally escaped the the city without drama, headed for our desert oasis 200kms down the road.
I found a new friend at Machu Picchu!
For a first real day on a bike Jess was not keen to go to war with Lima busses and taxis. Our early start meant the city was still sleeping and we were cruising on the Panamerican by 5.45 that morning. We were headed for Huachachina, an oasis town that has become a favourite for travellers due to its huge sand dunes which you can tear all over in dune buggies and the lesser well know sport of sandboarding. The ride down was uneventful really, the road passing through now familiar coastal desert. Jess had a few minor issues however, the most amusing being that she believed she could park the bike without the use of the sidestand. She found a good spot to park, got off, let it go and then to her surprise......
We hung out in the oasis for a few days and were joined by a kiwi couple also on a bike. It was great to escape the city at last. On the second day we bit the bullet and booked a 2 hour dune buggy ride for sunset. the rest of the day was spent relaxing by the pool and slowly supping lovely cold beers. When 4 o´ clock rolled around a little too much relaxing had already taken place and to say we were not the full ticket would be near the mark. However a dune buggy cant be that scary can it. Holy shit, how wrong can you be. Within the first 10 minutes of the ride, our driver overcooked a corner and spectacularly ejected himself out of the buggy. With addled heads we stopped the thing and awaited for his return. He was as shocked as us. His driving did not improve after this but at least he wore a seatbelt and would be joining us on any mistakes he might make again. The way he drove the dunes was terrifing, an out of control roller coaster. I dont think I have ever been so scared paying for adventure in my life. The ride was split in 2, in between we had a go at sandboarding. Like snowboarding but with very little control. The result, you are removing sand from every nook and crany you posess for days after. It was great fun however, especially the lie down, head first run on a dune that descended about 600 metres. The buggy ride concluded by screaming down what felt like a near vertical wall of sand then jumping a big wind lip at the top. I got out having lost all feelling in my feet and hands and breathing real shallow, real fast. Maybee with less prior relaxation it would have been different....who knows. The rest of the time at the oasis was really relaxing, the dunes extended for over 60 kms and spending time in them was fantastic.
Three days and all the relaxing was done. It was time to head toward Nazca to see the famous lines in the desert. If it hadn´t been for a big tower and the sign telling us we were at the lines we would have riden right past them without ever knowing. The only way to see them properly was by taking a flight in a small plane and thats what we booked that evening. Little did we know but we had royally scammed into buying an overpriced flight by a guy called Felix. Never in my life had I met someone who could compulsively lie on the scale this guy could. He was the best. From 7 the next morning till we flew 3 hours later I argued with this guy to no avail, we had paid too much but that was tough. The company we flew with was not much better. The plane looked ok from a distance but it was way old. The pilot fiddled with the engine for a while before he was happy it would get us to the lines and back again. It was nice to see that his pride in his uniform did not extend to zipping up his fly and displaying to all the pattern of his boxers. He managed to lurch the plane into the air at last which is where the fun started. Now people had told us that the pilots really threw the plane about to allow you to see the lines in the sand, first for the passengers on the left then the ones on the right. The different patterns came and went, first the spaceman, then the hummingbird, hands, dog etc etc. The lines were very impressive, especially considering they think they are over 2000 years old. Why they have lasted so long might be due to the fact that Nazca recieves only 10 minutes of light rain a year. Wouldn't that be nice if the Lakes did the same! The only way to see the lines properly was by air, but the price you paid for it was high. When we circled the last shape it was with relief that we flew back toward the town. Jess and me were at this point very white, nearly but not quite parking the contents of our stomachs on the floor of the plane. It was a joy to step out of the plane back onto the desert again.
Can you see the Hands and the Bird. They are there honest!
The 20 odd year old plane and a very white Jess.
We also visited the old Nazca cemetary. This place was first discovered by grave robbers who dug up the old tombs to raid them for riches. The old customs were that rich people would be mumified when they died and buried with things they may need in the next life and sometimes with their trusty and at this point probably very pissed off servants. Yup the servants were buried alive. It was a weird place to visit, not just because there were exposed tombs with mummies in them, but because the whole desert floor was littered with human bones and remains of cloth and the stuffing used in mumufication. It is also believed that this is the area and point in history when Rastafarianism first caught on. Check the dreads on the mummy below. Bob Marley would have been mostly chuffed with these I think.
That was the desert done now and we headed east and into the Andes at long last. The road was fantastic, only in the last year had it been paved which meant virtually no traffic and no tourists and smooth surfaced roads. Jess had a mega stressful start to the day as she knew that the lesson of the day was hairpin bends. She had convinced herself that it would all go miserably wrong and she would drive of the edge of a precipice or under the wheels of an oncoming truck. How did she do? Fantastic. I was amazed to see her swinging it about in my mirrors and having fun on her bike. We climbed slowly past Cerro Blanco, the wolds highest sand dune at 2000m plus and eventually ended up at 4000m. The road wound its way through a Vicuna reserve (small Llama like beasties) and through many small adobe villages full of Llamas and waving kids. People were real friendly and curious to see 2 bikes cruising through. Even more so when they realised one of the riders was a chica. Another fantastic road and fantastic people. Riding for the first time at altitude was interesting, the bike coughed and spluttered a bit but then so did we. Cold, yes it was. We holed up in a town for the night and for one of the first times I think we were the only gringos there. It was great to see what real life in the Andes was all about. Next day riding out, the biggest hazards on the roads were Alpacas, being led to their grazing areas for the day.
Jess negotiating another jumpy herd of Alpacas.
Now call us cheapscapes but the idea of paying $250 for walking the 4 day Inca Trail seemed crazy to me. Especially since we would have to enjoy the experience with 500 other trekkers each day. UUmm.... not sure it was really for us and besides you had to book about a month in advance to be sure of a place! So the second best option; go and see the lesser know ruin Chocoquieria set in equally amazing scenery.
Reputed to be the next Macchu Picchu this Inca fortress was only discovered 10 years ago . Since then 30% of it has beeen excavated and restored but most of it still lies hidden in the jungle. By all accounts this ruin is rarely visited as the 4 day hike into it and out puts people off. Sounded great to me and all on a budget of $10 between us. We were tempted by the offer of mules and horses to carry our backpacks when we arrived in Cachora (the village you start the trek from) but we waved them off believing them not neccessary for our stroll in the Andes. How much did we regret turning down these offers when 6 hours into the trek (going up to 2930m and then straight down to 1200m) we stumbled into the first camp out of water, severally dehydrated and suffering from heat stroke. Maybe we had slighty under estimated this walk or two months on the bike had left us in very bad shape. Keen to push on to reach the river at the base of the valley before dark we stocked up on water and left in the still burning heat of the afternoon. 5 minutes out of Camp and I promptly threw up ....this was going well!! Surprisingly I felt alot better for it and urged on by Oz we continued down. By the time we reached the river I was mess and could barely stand up let alone help put up the tent. Anyway a few hours later with some sleep, water and a bit of food and I felt fine again.
The following day involved a 6 hour, sweaty slog up 90 switch backs. Were we enjoying ourselves? Well I was, but as for Oz he cursed his way up asking himself why an earth he was putting himself through this. Positive words of encouragment only seemed to make matters worse. The effort to get to Chocoquieria was not in vain however, the ruins and the views looking out over the Andes were spectacular. Surrounded by snowpeaked mountains and steep ridges that plumpted 2000m into the gorge below the Incas couldnt have chosen a better location for their town. To top it all we had it to ourselves. We set up camp on one of the terraces looking out on its vastness and watched the sun set over the mountains. The only thing the scene was lacking was few condors flying over head and the sound of pan pipes.
By the third day we were well into the swing of things and with an early start we were out of the site by 6.00am. Instead of breaking the outward journey in two as advised, we managed to romp the whole way out in a day arriving on the outskirts of Cachora by torch light at 8.00pm. We camped on the side of the path that night and headed off early in the morning to catch the bus back to Abancay. On hindsight I think Oz would agree with me that it had been great "fun", a welcome break from being on the bikes and an opportunity to get in amongst the Andes rather than just observing it from the roadside.
Next stop was the big one. Talk to anyone about South America and within 2 minutes they will ask you about Machu Picchu and have you been. We headed out of Abancay bound for the town of Cusco and ultimately the big MP. More sweeping curves and hairpin bends that we could barely muster the energy for as we were still really tired from the trek. Jess managed her first dog strike on this journey also. Normally it is one or at the most 2 of the buggers that chase you. Jess came up against a more formidable force on one bend when three of them mounted pursuit. They pushed her right to the side of the road and when she ran out of road she decided to run into them. It was a glancing blow but the dog yelped in shock and hopefully wont be chasing anymore bikes.
Cusco was a beautiful town to visit. The colonial buildings mostly use the huge stonework of the former Inca buildings. The whole city is preserved superbly and the central Plaza de Armas is the best yet. Naturally the whole place is swarming with tourists ready to spend small fortunes to see Cusco, The Sacred Valley and the big MP! We were not ready to book onto the English run Orient Express or to part with over US$400 each so we dug out the bike and set off doing it the cheap way. A bike ride through the Sacred Valley and a few Inca ruins to whet our appetites saw us roll up at the station for the night "Backpackers" train. This rattled us slowly to the town below MP, imaginately called Agua Callientes (hot water in spanish cos they have a few muddy thermal baths there) This has to rate as the biggest hole we have seen yet, add to that a hotel room in which everything was severly damp and you can see why we were up and on the bus to MP at 6.30am. Now ideally when you visit the numero uno site in sth. america you would like a sunny day or at least a day where you can see further than 10 metres. It was not to be. We wandered about in the drizzle wondering whether it would look like it did on all those postcards we had seen in Cusco. Luckily the gods were smiling down on us. By 11 it had cleared and we were treated to the superb view of the ruins and the spectacular moutain range it is set in. We climbed to the higher peak ajoining the ruins and got even better views of the site. Is it the best in sth america, I am not sure but it is fantastic and a visit to it is a memeory which will last a lifetime.
No photo of the big MP would be complete without resident Alpaca!
Wandering around the well preserved ruins you run into all weird and wonderful sights and stonework. The stone below is reputed to have magic powers if held between a mans legs. Ladies are supposed to sit on the other end according to the Inca heiroglphys.
With Machu Picchu firmly ticked off the list we headed out of Cusco bound for the Altiplano. The road climbed spectacularly until it reached a cruising height of about 4000 metres where the scenery opened up into huge vistas on all sides. Worries about the bikes not running at altitude were soon forgoten as we cruised at a steady 55mph through the huge and empty plains.
We eventually caught sight of our destination, Lake Titicacac, at 3800m the highest and largest navigable lake in the world. The cloudless sky and the high altitude gives it a surreal blue colour, and as for the size, you can´t see from one end to the other its that big. We cruised into Puno, the town by the lake and after negotiating our way through the pedestrian only streets eventually found our hotel. The next morning saw us up early for our boat ride to the Isla De Uros. These are massive woven together platforms constructed from reeds in the lake. The residents on these islands are about a mile off-shore and pretty much survive by fishing and shooting the odd bird or two. That was however until the tour companies realised the potential of such a different way of life and started boating in a few hundred tourists a day. And yep we decided to be part of that. Now when you arrrive on the island of your choice you are greeted by a nice semicircle of stalls, all wanting to sell you some souveniers of your visit. We bought the token postcards and then went wandering to see what it was all about. Most islands are about 100m square and house about 40 people. When you walk its like there is a huge spring under each foot, a very weird experience. I reckon this is the place Michael Jackson concieved his moonwalking ideas!
Typical reed house and resident souvenier maker!
After 2 islands and what felt like a lifetimes viewing of souveniers we headed back to Puno, saddled up the bikes and headed along the shore bound for Bolivia.
The closer we got to Bolivia, the more the mind started to dwell on the thought that we would not get out of Peru. Whislt we had not done anything too naughty, we had bought a bike in Peru off non Peruvians and given the government no hefty wodge of cash to cover their import duties. Why should we? Instead we had got all funky on a computer and produced for Jess a very nice and convincing set of documents to say she owned the bike. I am sure the Western Australian government may want to use our documents as future templates as they are that good. And what about that import paper from the border crossing from Ecuador to Peru. Well how unlucky it was that we had that pickpocketed from us in Cusco and had the police report to prove it.
We rolled up to the border at sunset, and after a little headscratching from the Peruvian Customs agent (due more to the fact that he was barely literate) we entered into Bolivia and rolled into Copacobana, at the same hotel as three other bikers we had been meeting on and off in Peru. The night was spent celebrating the fact that Bolivia is damn cheap and its beer not too bad to drink.
Next day we headed out onto Lake Tititcaca to visit the Isla De Sol, the place the Incas believe the sun was born. To be honest we had done enough looking at stone ruins and instead of immersing ourselves in the cultural side of the island, we walked its length with another couple of travellers and made pigs of ourselves at a restuarant in the sun, the emerald blue lake and the snow-capped mountains serving as a fitting backdrop.
Next day we departed for La Paz, a three hour ride away. We crossed the lake on the "ferry", which can only be described as some pallets strapped together with a small motor on the back. We had the added benefit of the company of the most pissed old guy I have met yet, frothing green at the mouth with his Coca leaves. Of course I was his amigo and he was very keen to discuss Margeret Thatcher for some strange reason. Kept refering to her as peuta and achocha. I agreed of course, but have yet to find these words in my spanish dictionary, must have been complimentary however as she was a fabulous leader, wasn't she?
Our first sighting of La Paz was as dramatic as everyone told us it would be. You drive to an edge of a canyon without really realising it, then all of a sudden you look over the edge and the whole city is spread out below you, of course there are the now standard snow-capped mountaing in the backgroud to give it even more garnduer. After a supprisingly easy ride into the town we found our hostal. What we didn´t expect was the 6 other bikers would also be there. Jess relished that first evening, all that bike talk, she was in heaven talking about her half twisting byriani valves and how they were holding up on the dirt roads! We also did some much needed maintance on the bikes. Changing tyres to knobblies being the most important as the roads to come are meant to be real rough and ready. Jess had her introduction to the joys of tyre changing, much cussing and swearing later and she had joined the club we all dont want to be a memeber of!
Its all smiles for the photo but you should have seen her 5 mins later!
Downtown La Paz is the friendliest and most interesting city I have visited on the trip so far. It is constantly alive with life. Everything you could concievably want is for sale here, not in shops but on the street. Every pavement has vendors crowded onto it selling the most bizzare goods. You can buy a dried baby Llama to bury under your doorstep of your new house(it brings you good luck you know!) or if you fancy it you can buy a new pair of prescription glasses. Its a fantastic spectacle of city hustle and bustle all day and night.
I would much rather bury a fury one rather than the skin and bones efforts!
Anyhow a couple of days in a city is enough for us and we had organised ourselves another adventure. Our Austrian biking friend Appie, had suggested that we should all climb Huyana Potosi, reputably a fairly straightforward mountain, well as straightforward as you can get at an altitude of 6088 metres. We hustled an excellent deal of US$38 for all the gear the three of us would need in La Paz. We decided also to combine our climb with an overnight visit to the highest ski resort in the world, Chacaltaya. At 5,300 meters there is a base station and a refugio where we could sleep. It seemed an excellent way to aclimatise for the climb the following day.
The ride out there was superb, the higher we climbed the more the view opened up. The bikes started to wheeze and near the top the only way to get forward momentum was to rev the hell out of it in first gear and slip that clutch. For a first time off road experience Jess had certainly taken well to the deep end. The fact that her bike ran better than the rest caused much annoyance for Appie and Me. Even more annoyance was caused for Appie when Jess decided to stop mid-corner. He too stopped, but with nowhere to put his feet down decided to horizontally park his bike. He took it well!
Dirt Roads at 5,200 metres, superb fun!
All was good until 200 metres from the refugio when the nightmare happened. Flat tyre on my bloody bike. Had we got the spare tube, of course not we were only out of La Paz for a day or two. Back I went to La Paz for the spare tubes, a journey of three hours there and back.
On the way into Chacaltaya we had passed some boulders in the road, a space just big enough left for a car to pass. We had thought it strange at the time. Later after returning to the refugio in the dark I found out the story behind it. 2 days previous a gang of armed bandits had made the roadblock, stopped a passing 4WD and robbed the occupants of all there possesions, their vehicle, including there shoes, making them walk down over 10kms to the nearest town. Now to go riding there at night I felt maybe I had been a little lucky. Funny thing is that today I recieved an e-mail from a couple of English guys travelling on bikes, Jeffrey and Graham, now somewhere in Chile. They told me of some misfortune they had had. They had been to Chacaltaya for the day on a tourist trip out and guess what happened? They have however now got really tough feet and walking on gravel roads is really no problem at all! Poor buggers, lucky we were up there 2 days after the event.
Now changing a tyre at 5,300m was bad enough, but sleeping. It just didn't happen. Not one wink all night. Really set me up well for the climb. Jess did better and Appie snored all night! Next morning, Appie being a ski Jedi did a few runs on what snow there was. It was then off to the start of the climb and a miserable walk into base camp through alternating sleet and hail showers.
Now early morning are not my thing, waking at 2am and slogging up a snow slope did not put me in the best frame of mind to face the day. To be honest it got no better for the 4 hours before sunrise. Walking in snow at altitude was very slow indeed. As sunrise happened we could see the end of the climb. It was a short hop over a crevasse and about 200m of 60 degree snow. Sounds easy doesn't it. It was a take ten steps rest, then do it all again effort. We all felt like our lungs were trying to turn themselves inside out. Eventually the top came and at 7.45am we stood tall and proud on the summit, relishing the fantastic views below.
7.45am 6.088m up on Huyana Potosi.
Now what goes up must come down and that bit was even harder. We rolled into our base camp desperate for a rest only to have to pack away our tent in a blizzard then walk another 1.5 hours to the refugio. Reaching the refugio and a hot matte de coca sorted out some of our weariness and allowed us to go get the bikes ready for the ride back to the hostal.
The return back to La Paz was not what we had expected. In the 2 days we had been on the mountain a fair amount of snow had dumped in the valley. We got our bikes out of Robertos laundry room where we had store them for $1 each and slowly took off into the snowstorm. Lesson number 2 for Jess, "how to ride off-road in snow".
The Police checkpoint on the snowy ride out.
Again she did real good, eventually the snow giving way to sunshine as we rode into the canyon of La Paz.
The plan was to ride from La Paz to see the Amazon that we missed in Ecuador due to my bloody bike and its ongoing problems. We packed ready to do this 2 days after climbing Huyana Potosi, only to find that we had more bike problems. This time it was Jess's turn. Her bike needed parts and we had to find them in La Paz somehow. Off to the bikeshop which revealed on more careful inspection she needed not only a new chain and sprockets but her back drum brake had broken into pieces inside the wheel and would need a fairly hefty machine job to fix. Four days later we are about to pick up the bike, together with hefty US$250 bill. In the meantime we have hung out in La Paz amusing ourslves and having the occassional bicker at each other. There is nowt as boring as waiting for the mechanic to ring, well I suppose there is always work but I refuse to think of that while I am away!
Today we witnessed an interesting event in La Paz. It is the 1 year annivrsarry of a huge protest that left 80 dead last year. The protests were concerning the sale of natural resources Bolivia has, this time natural gas to other countries. As far as we know it is the same old story, the local people who are desparately poor make no money from the deal while the big multinational corporations carry on screwing poor countries as they have done for countless years. This years protest has been peaceful so far, but the 200 odd bullet holes in the building on the plaza where the governor resides tells a different story of last years events.
Peasant protesters with heavy police presence behind them.
As for our jungle experience we really wanted, no chance. We are running out of time in Bolivia. In November the rains come and to be here for that at this altitude would not be fun at all. I guess the Amazon will have to wait a few years for our return. Tomorrow we are off to ride what is reputed to be the "Worlds Most Dangerous Road". The claims aren't true as hundreds of mountain bikes make the journey each day and live to tell the tale. Still it's one of those must do's and the town at the end is supossed to be very nice indeed. If we make it we will write the next blog, if not come looking for us in the gorge!
The worlds most dangerous road!!! Naarrrr the M1 is more dangerous on friday rush hour.
We survived it but we didn’t get the t-shirt, (you have to do it on mountain bike to get one of those.) There is no doubt though that it’s a pretty spectacular road , 70km of single track road that hugs the mountainside from 4200m to 1200m, giving way to 200m drops to the jungle floor below.
Easy, just dont ride off the edge!
Riding the first part in the rain and fog helped the vertigo problem as there was no guessing how far you’d go if you didn’t make a corner. This happens a lot apparently as numerous memorials and crosses marked the tricky corners and acted as a good reminder to brake well in time for them. Half way down and the mist lifted and the full extent of its danger then became aparent, it was not easy trying to watch the road while catch a glimpse of the fantastic views of the Yungas below. We rode into the sub tropical climate of Coroico three hours later ‘thankful to be alive’ and straight into an awaiting hotel with pool that our fellow biker friend Jon had booked us into.
Two days in this quite relaxing paradise was not enough ,but the dirt roads were inticing us to move on. Besides Oz had become too friendly (yet again) with the local wildlife and it was time to leave before things got complicated.
"Yes I know........I feel the same way about you too"
The next three days we dirt bashed our way through the Yungas riding everything that came at us, sand, rocks, rivers and percaroius bridge crossings but the going was very slow.
Oz loving it, Jon hating it!
On the first day we only clocked 50km before we had to stop because Oz’s bike rack broke. I too was suffering the effects of my first low speed crash into a ditch and the joys of mud ruts and Jon, well he was just suffering full stop.
Opps I did it again!
He bailed the next day and rode back to La Paz in search of pavement. We promised to meet futher down the road in Cochabamba but not to be deterred Oz and I continued on with our first off road adventure. This is what we´d come for ..right!!
The next day we were flying, no crashes no drops and a total of 160km covered. Mind you we didn’t stop riding, desperate to make the town of Quime before sunset. I lost count how many switch backs we rode, how many mountain passes we crossed but the riding was amazing. We passed through several remote villages were you can’t for the hell of you think what they do there all day. Just hang out is the conclusion we came to but they were always friendly and helpful, giving us directions.
Can't beat a dust map
Local transport equiped with the latest security. Thorn bush on seat!
The night we spent in Ouime still remains one of my highlights of Bolivia. We slid into this muddy little ram-shackled town after dusk in the pouring rain, tired and weary from 8 hours riding. Camping was out of the question and the only hotel was up this muddy road that had been dug up and was virtually impassable. In our vain attempts to negotiate the deep puddles and dug up cobbles to the hotel a crowd gathered around us. My initial reaction was they were all waiting to be entertained and were hoping I’d drop the bike, but instead they all tried to help. Some pushed, some offered alternative routes and one little old lady even offered us a room in her house. The people were overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable and maybe even curious why tourists were visiting their little town. We spent a wonderful evening eating and drinking at a little street vendor, under a corrugated roof out of the rain, talking to the family that ran it. Even with our very bad Spanish we were able to learn something about their lives and after various photos, gifts and exchanges of addresses we were the best of friends. I was truly touched by their warmth and generosity. The next morning we ate breakfast with them and said our farewells promising to send copies of the photos. Before we left we dropped the son off at his school and Oz rode him into the playground. I think we might possibly have made his day by the reaction of his class mates!!!
Fresh snow and a mountain pass, what we had come here for.
We soon left the warmth and greenness of the Yungus behind as we climbed back up onto the altiplano on our way back to tarmac. The contrast in environments in Bolivia is incredible and still continues to impress us. Within the space of three days we’d ridden in the cold bleakness of the altiplano, the subtropics, jungle, eucalyptus forest and now we were back surrounded by snow peaked mountains, while riding on the wackiest red roads. The night before we crossed the pass it had snowed and the whole pass was covered. Add to that llamas grazing by the road as we rode by and you can start to imagine how amazing Bolivia was turning out to be.
The redest road we have ever seen.
Our first big offroad adventure over we were glad to get back to the rare (in Bolivia) blacktop. The riding would be much more relaxing and less stressfull, well that is until you run into a roadblock full of protesting miners. Roadblocks in Bolivia are pretty common events. When the people have a grievance the first thing they do is block the roads. Now if you are lucky the novelty value of seeing gringos turn up on a big bikes is enough to get you through. You feel bad cruising past the miles of parked up trucks and cars but heh if they are going to let you through what the hell. It certainly beats hours of sitting in the sun or retracing your steps to the nearest next town. We got lucky at the first blockade, passe no problema. What I did not bank on was the trucks full of miners behind the first vehicle who had just arrived to join the protest. Jess was only seconds ahead but got through the mob without hassle. I was not so lucky and got a crowd of about 60 men around the bike and was forced to stop. The guys were obviously a little excited and reved up for the protest. They were not unfriendly but having a crowd swamp you and nowhere to go was a little stressy to say the least. Eventually someone important gets to the bike and tell me I must stop now. I try to explain that me chica has gone and I must catch her. Now this was when he pulls his trump card. Out of the pocket comes a small but I presume very effective stick of dynamite. Now even with limited spanish I got the drift of what he was saying, stop or I will blow you up was the general jist of it all. Now in the meantime his happier fellow miners were having a good laugh at my expense about me wanting to go find me chica. I luckily made them laugh some more and they managed to disuade their official looking friend from terminating my trip there and then. 2 long minutes, lots of questions, hands all over the bike and luggage and the crowd parted and I was free to go. It was an interesting experience but once only please. I fully sympathise with these miners as they get paid a pittance and work in very poor conditions, but I really had no desire to martyr myself for their cause. 3 more roadblocks, all without incident saw us arrive in Cochabamba.
Jess cruising past the miles of blockaded trucks.
Cochabamba was a lovely chilled out city and a good place to relaxl for a few days. Next destination was Sucre, known for its old colonial buildings and having the worlds largest dinosaur footprints. The ride involved about 100kms of cobbles and another 150kms of dirt. This was the first experience of Bolivian cobbles and it was hell. It was like riding a big jackhammer which bounced and slid around every corner. Other than our USA riding buddy, Jon wiping out himself and a cyclist in a little town on the way the journey passed quickly. Both he and the cylist got away with scuffs but Jons bike needed a little TLC from the town welder. The cyclist was riding the wrong way down a dual carriageway and was bloody lucky not to have been badly hurt. But heh its Bolivia where the animals are dangerous and always on the road but not as dangerous as unpredictable drivers/cyclists!
In Sucre we hooked up with lots of other biking amigos we had met on the way and had a great time drinking and lying to each other in the Joyride Bar. During one such session, the Dutch owner of the bar. Gert told us of this Caravana that was happening soon. It involved lots of Bolivians riding their quads or bikes offroad for 4 days through sub tropical places. This caravana was following the route of Che Guevara, starting at the place he was killed. This sounded like and excellent opportunity to meet lots of Bolivians and ride some fantastic roads. We were in but had some time to kill before it started. What we needed was a small excursion out of Sucre so we decided to Visit Potosi, the worlds highest city and at one time the worlds richest city. A three hour ride away and sitting at 4,200 metres, time to dig out the thermals.
Riding into Potosi was unforgetable, it sits in a valley in an arid altiplano setting and is dominated by the huge mountain above it called Cerro Rico. The whole city is all about mining and minerals, and these all come from Cerro Rico. The spanish must have wet themselves with happiness when they discovered just how much silver was sitting there in that big hill 300 years ago. Legend has it that the seams of silver were as big as 8ft wide and high as a house. They wasted no time or spanish lives to get it out either. Black slaves were sent underground for three months at a time to mine the mountain, if they lived through this they then spent another three months processing the rocks above ground. Most never made it back out, being from hot climates, then having to work at altitude in 24 hour darkness only the "lucky" few made it out to break rocks in the daylight.
Get ready for this statistic cause its a big one. 8,000,000 yes thats eight million people have died in that mountain in the last 300 years, mostly black slaves but lots of Bolivians as well. Its hard to believe but true and it is still happening today. The day after we arrived one man was killed in a rock fall and another was lucky to survive. 80 deaths a year is the current rate at which the mountain kills men. Now three hundred years aint a long time in history, but enough time to see Potosi fall from richest city in the world to poorest city in Bolivia. Leaving this aside it was a fantastic place full of interesting buildings and very friendly people.
Chillin' in the market feeding my face with empanadas.
(Cerro Rico is in the background)
One of the must do's in Potosi is to go and visit the mines to see first hand what the town is all about. We organised our tour with an ex-miner called Roberto. He had done 10 years as a miner when he was younger but had given it up after getting lost for three days and nearly coming close to dying. First stop was the market to get the miners we would meet some presents. These consisted of coca leaves for them to chew, water and dynamite. Yep you can walk up to any market stand and get yourself alot of bang for your buck. Cost 15 Bolivianos ($1.90) for 1 five minute fuse, 1 stick of dynamite and 1kg of diesel soaked fertiliser. Imagine kids back in the UK being able to get themselves this sort of kit from Romford Market. I would certainly give up teaching, its risky enough as it is! Anyway back to the story. First stop on the mine tour was to visit some ladies working under tin shacks. They spent 5 days a week sat on the floor breaking rocks with a club hammer looking for small remnants of minerals that may be inside.The rocks they break are scraps that have fallen off overloaded trucks or from digger shovels. Why are they doing this? Because they were married to a miner in years gone by and their husbands have been killed in the mines. They have no other way to survive other than to crack rocks with a hammer.
All day for 85p. Who for? Us in the western world!
The lady in the picture below has been doing this for 37 years, she will continue to do this until she is dead or can no longer lift the hammer. Average wage for a days work is 10 Bolivianos, about 85p. I cant describe how tragic it was to see this happening and to realise just how much I take for granted in my life. The ladies, were they resentful of our visit, not at all. We gave them gifts of coca, sweets etc and they were very happy to talk and tell us their story.
37 years of breaking rocks. Check out her hands. There is arsenic in the dust that in time turns hands white and poisons the skin.
The next part of the mine tour was much lighter. We had invested 15 Bs in a dynamite kit and Roberto happily talked us through what we needed to do to set it all up. 3 minutes later the fuse was lit and we all posed for pictures with the dynamite. Around the back, in the mouth, kissing it, everything imaginable. We had a 5 minute fuse and had 3 minutes worth of fun before burying it and waiting.
Fuse smoking and 3 minutes to go. Jess feels the power and loves it!
What a wait it was but when it did go, bloody hell. The bang was huge, you could feel your whole body move, next rocks started landing on the ground and a huge cloud of dust drifted towards us. Wouldn't this be great for after pub fun back home!
So fun over it was time to light our lamps and go underground. Within minutes both Jess and I were lost. The whole mountain, all 5,400m of it has been riddled with tunnels. Mineral seams go north/ south and other tunnels go east/west looking for new seams. It is like a giant swiss cheese. One day I am sure there will be one tunnel too many cut and it will all fall down. No one has a definitive map of what goes where, miners just blow up what they want, as long as they find minerals its all good. The miners reckon the only protection they need will come from 2 different sources. The first is God, brought by the spanish all those years ago. The miners arn't too sure that god alone can do the job so they also give gifts to Pacha Mama. She is the original mother earth that the Quechuan peoples of the altiplano have believed in prior to the spanish. Offerings of coca are made to both of the above. There is also someone else who the miners give offerings to and live in constant fear of. This person is reported to be seen walking the mines in many different guises. They call him "El Te", spanish for uncle. His real name is seldom used. It is believed that he has and always will own the mines and respect must be paid to him by all that enter. We call him the Devil. Every mine has a stylised representation of him somewhere. Miners leave offerings of coca, put burning cigarettes in his mouth and on friday afternoon stop work early to go drink with him, eventually going home smashed. The traditional offering of alcohol is also used daily.Now we are not talking about a little beer but a lethal brew which is 96% strong. There are 4 places you need to sprinkle the brew. A little on the ground for Pacha Mama, on El Te's right arm for minerals and money, left arm for safety and lastly on his rather exagerated cock for good sex and lots of it (he is the devil after all). You then take a swig from the bottle and spend the next 30 seconds wincing at the taste.
Did "El Te" grant Jess her wish?
Now mines without miners sort of misses the point. Our last stop on the tour was to go see exactly what these guys do and how its done. This was to be another unforgetable experience. The first miner we saw was working in a small hole, his tools consisted only of a hammer and chisel. 3 hours of hitting and turning the chisel would result in a hole that could be dynamited. Each blast would yeild less than 1m square of rock, some of which would be minerals. Seeing these guys working was like stepping back a few hundred years in time, conditions are primitive and tools basic. Not only was it men that were working in the mines but boys as young as 10 were working alongside the men. How long do these guys last in a job like this. If rockfall doesn't kill them first they will get to no more than 45 years old before dying of silicosis. The walls of the mine are covered with asbestos fibres, arsenic is in the dust created from working and sulphuric acid seaps from the walls and forms puddles on the floor.
3 hours of standing on this ladder swinging a club hammer gets this guy a few dollars worth of minerals if he is lucky.
Because the dust is toxic and for cost reasons the miners do not eat anything all day while working. Instead they chew coca leaves. This takes away hunger and thirst and stops you feeling tired. Once chewd it is collected in the cheeks and slowly ferments with saliva. It is amazing to see just how far a cheek can be stretched.
Old (43yr old) miner and young lad with facefuls of coca.
The miners we met were very friendly, taking timeout of working to talk to us and to give me a swing of the hammer to see just how hard it was. A couple of distant explosions in a mine not so far away added to the desparate feeling of having to work in these conditions. After giving gifts to the miners we worked our way back out to the "real world". These guys got my upmost respect. They work in shocking conditions for very little reward so that we in the west can have lots of zinc and tin to use for products that we take for granted. Think of that next time you open a can of beans and throw the can in the bin!
The same day we visited the cities mint, one of four mints used by the spanish to make currency for their worldwide empire. Again slaves were used to do all the work, you can even see foot shaped worn areas on the wooden floors where a slaves would have stood to operated a press. It was fantastically preserved and served as complete contrast to the mines. Potosi has fallen from the top to near the bottom in just 300 years. Our visit to the city was complete. We rode over the altiplano back down to Sucre.
The Caravana sounded like a great way to experience another side to Bolivian life. Joining the rich and privileged 3% of the country on a grand, ‘drunken’ (as we later found out) tour of Che Guevara's last resting place was not something you’d read about in your lonely planet guide or find pinned to your hostel notice board. Exactly how were going to compete with them on our built for overland travel bikes was a different story but the fact that no other women had ever ridden bikes on it was enough of a draw for me!!! The foreign bikers contingency had diminished from a possible seven to a hard core of four and on Saturday afternoon, riding with minimal luggage, Rene, Amy, Oz and myself headed out to meet the main group. We arrived in Valle Serrano four hours later, but not that much ahead of the Sucre boys who’d left 2 hours after us. Ooops !! this didn’t bode well, it was obvious they were riding in a different league. Next morning sure to have a good head start we left early. The amazing views we’d been promised of the Valle Grande looked all but lost, as we headed out into the mist and drizzle. Che was obviously masking the route to his death!!! … or so Rene liked to believe!! Anyway as soon as we dropped through the rain forest the views opened up and the expanse of the mountains could then really be appreciated. Riding into La Higeria was like nothing I am ever likely to experience again. After 6 hours of riding non stop of which the last 12km was hellishly difficult, I was then greeted by the whole Caravana. They watched as I not so carefully full throttled my bike up the rocky plaza straight into the back of Oz’s bike. Desperately trying to salvage some dignity, I managed to keep my bike up right and dismounted as coolly as I could. As if it wasn’t obvious enough I was a girl new to riding, the moment I took my lid off the cameras were upon me and a microphone shoved in my face. Oooh!! if only I could go back and make my entrance again! The array of quads and bikes was a sight to behold in this dilapidated jungle village and I couldn’t help wandering what Che would be thinking looking out at all those rich Bolivians playing in the countryside while the majority of Bolivia wakes up to poverty every day.
Che pondering the gathered crowd.
The locals seemed happy enough with this intrusion of wealth and the children, well they were just reveling in the excitement of something actually happening in their village. The obligatory photos were taken of the caravana all posing next to Che. Check out the revolutionary wannabe on the top row punching the air for the people.
The complete caravana posse, Oz and me up by his left ear.
An hour later we were back on the road heading for our days destination Valle Grande. This time with our new amigos, but it wasn’t long before they all passed us and left us in a cloud of dust. In Valle Grande we were descended upon by more camera crews. This time a Brazilian sports channel wanting a foreign perspective on the Caravana and our thoughts on what it meant for us following Che´s final route. What!!! I hadn’t really given that one much thought! Thank god they asked Rene that question and not me. He answered it most eloquently
Rene in full swing for the camera.
By the end of the evening we were well initiated into the tour and had sunk many beers with our new friends. The next day we were into some very funky riding. Technical slick rock is one thing on a mountain bike, on a motorbike its something else!! I dropped my bike four times, hurled many expletives into the air and had kicked the hell out of the bike before we arrived at our evening camping spot. The days struggles faded as we took a look at our surroundings. We ridden into paradise. A fresh water lagoon surrounded by jungle and a 50 meter waterfall plummeting straight into it. After a swim the party was under way, the bar tent stocked with free beer and 4 pigs roasting on the spit. These guys didn’t take any short cuts when it came to partying. They’d hired dancing girls to entertain us for the night and many a man was transfixed as these girls managed to shake their arses at an unfeasible rate. Amy and I not to be upstaged did our best to compete but it was pretty extraordinary how they could move.
The foreign contingent of the Caravana.
The final day was to be a short ride to the nearby town of Samaipata and a farewell meal before we went our separate ways and we headed back to Sucre. Unfortunately it didn’t quite turn out that way. Amy crashed with 15km to go (which was bloody criminal seeing as she’d ridden so well throughout the caravana) and hurt her knee really badly. She was in a lot of pain and it was obvious she’d done something serious. Before too long the medical truck arrived and splinted up her leg. All plans changed and Amy was whisked away to Santa Cruz hospital for x-rays and the three of us followed on.
The aftermath of Amy's crash.
Santa Cruz came slowly, we were all tired after the caravana. We found Amy and the hospital quickly, made sure she was ok then contacted our new friend who was riding a quad in the caravana. He had invited us to stay at his house, 5kms out of town.
When we arrived we knew we were in for a treat. As the automatic doors opened a huge house was revealed in what can only be described as a small park. Chicatine or Walter showed us to our new lodgings. His whole family still lived at home so we staying in a 4 man tent erected under a thatched canopy next to the pool. Nice!
Our "shabby" digs in Santa Cruz
Next day before going to the hospital we took the bikes to the mechanics, suspecting that the caravana may be about to cost us more than we had bargained on. Correct, both bikes would need work. Jess's had worn out a cam chain, cost US$120 and mine had decided to eat 3rd gear and would need a complete engine strip to see what damage was. My bike would take at least 4 days! Stuck again, but life by the pool would see us through I was sure.
Amy in the meantime had MIR scans and had been told what we all dreaded to hear. She would need surgery and in a nutshell her round the world trip was now over for at least 6 months. She took the news well, better that I could have. We were all gutted for her but at least she was in a good hospital with the best doctors Bolivia had to offer. The hospital was way better than many back in the UK. Thats what money can buy I suppose. Amy 3 days later had an operation which revealed she had fractured her kneecap and severed a ligament. It was better than the doctors initially expected and 8 days later she flew back to the states to begin the recupertion.
In the meantime Chicatine was being a complete star running me about to get parts and organising repairs for me that without good spanish would have been very hard to do. The 3rd gear was not terminal and could be repaired without replacing the parts. The mechanic also found some valve wear so I was up for new valves and all the gubbins that go with that. Still pool life was good and on the saturday we were invited to take part in Santa Cruz's evening quad ride. Chicatine would give us one of his spare quads, all we need supply was gas and beer.
The ride started at 3 in the afternoon. Riding the quad was fantastic. It would cross deep rivers, scream through sand and when you hit deep mud you didn't fall off.
Dealing with some jungle obstacles in a dry river.
10kms of razzing about the jungle and the first stop happened. It was a beer break. All 20 of us stood about bullshitting and having a beer or cuba libre. Very social we thought. Only prob was the kilometers between breaks got smaller and and much beer was being consumed. We had ridden some amazing terain. I will never forget sitting braced on the back of the bike as Jess raced downriver bed at night, driving through the water every 100m or so following the rest of the pack. The whole world disappeared in a curtain of brown water and then bang you hit the bank on the other side, good job I had drank enough beer to be relaxed! The ride went on until 11 in the evening until we finally returned to the main drag in town where saturday night was in full swing. The street was jam packed full of people either in bars or standing round their cars drinking. This was not a problem for the cops, just a normal saturday night. I aint big or clever but most of us arrived on the strip a little pissed to say the least. Our quading mates also hung about on the pavement drinking and talking some more, bars were not really on the agenda seeing as we were all covered in mud and dripping wet. Before leaving for home, Chicatine insisted we do a lap of the main drag. We gained a new passenger on the bike, another chica and off we went. It was only 2kms there and back but 1 hour later we were only just over half way. No probs though as there was pizza for sale on the street and lots of beer vendors walking through the cars.
The cooler is a long time empty! Cruising the town strip complete with beer and 2 chicas.
We arrived home at 3 in the morning having had an amazing night. Combined with the caravana we had gained a fantastic insight into the way wealthy bolivians played and worked. Chicatine and his family were superstars to us and we are very grateful for their friendship and hospitality.
On the following tuesday I paid the mechanics US$300 and made plans to leave the next day. One last hospital visit to say our farewells to Rene and Amy and we were back on the road headed again for Sucre.
We were not into the 300kms of dirt we would have to ride to get there but needs must. First place to go see on our return was the local, Joyride. Happily 2 of our biking amigos were still in town. Tony who had spent the last 10 days in hospital with typhoid (bad water in Sucre they say!) and Dan who was supposed to have spent the last 10 days writing for Bike magazine but who had instead become nurse and translator for Tony.
The following night Dan, initially feeling a little sickly decided to go for the pub record of 17 superchopps (big beers). Dan is not shy of a beer or two but definately needed support, at first verbal but by the end of the night after sucessfully completing the task the support needed was a lot more physical.
Dan 6 beers into his 17 beer record breaking evening. Jess got the flowers as an advance apology cause he knew it would get messy!
The following day we finally saw Sucre in the bikes mirrors for the last time. At last we were headed for what I considered the highlight of Bolivia if not the trip so far. The Salar de Uyni. This area is the worlds largest and highest salt plains. It is probably half the size of Wales, and consists of nothing other than salt and a few little islands. Once on it you can ride anywhere you like. Everbody we had met going north raved about it.
Once onto the dirt roads we had to work hard to get to the Salar. The roads were badly corrugated, whatever speed you went it felt like you were about to shake you bike to pieces and loose all your teeths fillings. 100kms of slow going and it came into view. After an hour spent finding gas for the crossing in a small village we finally headed onto the salt, following a compass bearing to an island we knew was there but could not see.
Riding on the salt was amazing, go where you want and as fast as you want. There is nothing to run into, just a slight vibration through the bars due to the irregular octagonal shapes that make up the cracks in the surface. We managed 30 seconds flat out with eyes closed, it is possible to go minutes but my courage wasn't up to it. 50kms of straight line bliss saw us arrive at the Isla de Pescardo, a small island full of huge cactus. We spent the afternoon checking this out and razzing about some more on the salt. At sunset we rode about 10kms from the isla and set up camp in the middle of nowhere. That evening we saw a sunset that ranks as the best I have ever seen in my life. Amazing colours and a 360 degree parorama broken only by the volcanoe in the distance where we had come from earlier in the day. A truly amazing place to experience.
Camp on the salar during an amazing sun set.
The next morning we were baked out of the tent early and set off for the salt hotel and the town of Uyni 120kms straight across the salt. Well we did eventually get going but not before a little messing about riding the salt.
Ahh, the wind on your skin and the salt beneath your wheels.
After 2 hours of riding in a straight line following the compass we reached the salt hotel. Yep its built totally out of salt and is a big tourist attraction. To stay in a pokey room for the night will cost ya US$20. Thats a heap of money in Bolivia and to be honest give me the tent anyday.
The last 20kms of road to Uyni was the now typical sand and corrugated horrorshow and we were both lucky not to crash. When the sand gets the front wheel it all goes very out of shape very quick. One day we might learn to ride the stuff, in the meantime we both struggle every time it appears.
Uyni was a funky little town, not much happening but really interesting none the less. We spent the afternoon at the Cemetario de Trains, As the name suggests this is where all of Bolivias old steam trains have come to die. It was a fascinating place to wander round, well for me anyway. Loads of old locos, all rusting away which you could climb all over, even jump from one to another. Maybee I have seen too many of those westerns where they do this but it was great fun.
After a night in Uyni it was time to head south for Tupiza and the border, but we were not quite finished with Bolivia yet, we had Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid country to explore. Just when we thought Bolivia had no more surprise to offer we were again blown away by the scenery. The road was by far the most funkiest yet. We found ourselves at first struggling through miles of corrugation, with patches of deep sand, and then on a dried up river bed nestled between spectacular rock formations.
We stopped in Atocha a small run down adobe market town in search of gas. It was a fascinating little place full of very colorful people, but no gas. We had to ride 3km up the river to get it . Bizarre as it seemed we found the gas station perched on the side of the river bed and the road continued up it.
This riverbed is the main road into and out of town.What happens when it rains?
Having got some vague directions from the gas attendant we continued up the river in search of a tiny village called San Vincent. Its renown purely for its links with Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid who are reputed to have been killed there in a shoot out. Although the place ended up being a let down with a measly little sign to commemorate their deaths and some very unfriendly locals the road was fantastic. Passing through cowboy country like you only see in the old westerns. Cactus six meters high, tumble weed blowing across the road ( in Jess's imagination maybee, I saw none!), and red rock gorges. A truly perfect setting for Clint Eastwood to turn up in and some Red Indians to appear on the rocky horizon. The intension had been to haul up in San Vincent for the night soak up the atmosphere and head to Tupiza the following day but with the kind of reception we received we didn’t want to run the risk of being run out of town or suffer the same fate as Butch and Sundance. So we kept going and ended up riding our longest day yet. All up ten and half hours of dirt riding arriving in Tupiza at 7.30pm in the dark. Eager to play cowboys and Indians for ourselves we booked ourselves onto a 5 hour horse trek the next day. Any longer and I don’t think our arses would have coped with it, but what good fun!!!!!!. Galloping at break neck (it was fast but breakneck? mmmm) speed through canyons pretending to be chased by Indians and sauntering through dry dusty river beds lined with cactus. I only wished I had the outfit to go with it.
Jess Cassidy after outrunning those troopers.
We spent two fantastic days exploring the movie set of Tupiza before time caught up with us again and urged us onto the border. With some sadness we left for the Argentinian border, knowing we were riding our last dirt road for while and leaving behind a country that is truly unique to South America. I just hope it stays that way long enough for us to return.
Not far to go to Ushaia, really!
We were warned about the endless straight roads, we were told horror stories about the fierce winds but what we were not told was how many asados (bbqs) we would have to eat and how all those fantastic steaks would convert to fat so quickly.
Catching up on 22 years of vegitarianism
Although we had in effect one country to go until Ushuia, we hadn’t quite yet got to grips with the vastness of Argentina. Looking at the map and working out a route south only seemed to excentuate the distance we still had to ride. We were keen to make Bariloche (in the western lake district of Argentina) in a week and spend some time there before heading into Patagonia, so we set ourselves the mission of riding 2000kms in a week. Careful not to miss any of the highlights on the way down we passed through Pucamara, the mountain of seven colors and the towns of Jujuy and Salta. Northern Argentina surprised us with its contrasting scenery, pampas, red rock gorges, desert mountains, and green wine growing valleys. In places it was easy to mistake yourself for being in Arizona, France or a Welsh valley
Unfortunately the views do not last for long and as we progressed down the centre of the country towards Mendoza we had three days where we rode only long featureless straight roads.
Not one turn in 100kms!
It is here that YPF gas stations saved us from riding ourselves off the road. They were our welcome break from the tedious hours of mile crunching and the helmet dreaming and we used and abused them for every service. Not only did we load up with gas but drank copious amounts coffee, ate media lunas (crescent shaped croissants) like they were going out of fashion and camped in their forecourts on more than one occasion. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship we were to have with YPF throughout our time in Argentina.
By the time we hit Mendoza we had been caught up by Tony, an English guy that we’d previously met in Bolivia. We spent a great night wild camping just outside the Valle Del Lunas (Valley of the Moon) in the bush with our first camp fire. Camping was something we had begun to miss on our trip as it was always so cheap to stay in hostels, but now the tent was getting full use as it was more expensive to find a bed for the night in Argentina.
Kicking back with a good fire.
Mendoza is a beautiful city sitting in a vineyard valley below the Andes range. From here you get fantastic views of Aconguagu the largest mountain in South America. Although our time here was short and primarily taken up with buying and changing tyres we did manage to enjoy strolling the shady tree lined streets, taking coffee at the outside cafes and feasting on our first Tendor Libre. This was a gourmet sensation that we hadn’t yet experienced but went back time and time again for throughout our trip. Tendor Libre translated means “free fork” which is an all you can eat buffet. On offer is more than you could ever desire, 20 different salads, seafood, Chinese, cold meat dishes and the largest assortment of bar-be-qued meat. I haven’t even got to the Postres (deserts) yet!! We were warned about the amazing meat in Argentina but until you have tasted it you don’t know what you’ve been missing for 32 years. The beef and lamb is like nothing you you’ve tasted back home and at a third of the price. As you can expect such an evening becomes an “asado enduro” because you have to sample a bit of everything!!!
From Mendoza, Bariloche is a three day ride. Warned off by more terminally boring roads we decided to head west across the Andes and into Chile in hope of more excitement. Briefly it came from the fantastic views of Acoguagua we got as we rode up the pass to the border but once we’d dropped down towards Santiago we left them all behind.
Jess in the foreground, Aconcagua towering above. At nearly 7000m it Sth Americas highest peak.
Not wanting to but in on Jess's bit but on entering Argentina I was not too sure if any of the people would bear any resentment dating back to the 80's when Thatcher decided to make war over the Falklands to get herself re-elected again. On every frontier and other random places you would see signs proclaiming the Falkland Island to be the Malvinas and that they would always be Argentinian.
Sign at our first border crossing into Chile, near Mendoza.
The south of the country we found later has even more reference to the Malvinas. Most towns have memorials built in town centres, on Tierra del Fuego most cars are stickered with pro-Malvinas slogans. The resentment I expected was however to be found nowhere. The people of Argentina are the friendliest I have met in the whole of the americas. They can not do enough to help. Every day we are stopped in the street by friendly people wanting to know where we are from and about our travels on the bikes. This is a far cry from the Chilean hospitality, or more acurately the lack of it we later encountered. Its amazing what change can occur just by crossing a line on the map. The Chileans we have met seemed interested primarily in money, or more accurately extracting it from tourists. We encountered many unfriendly people day to day and found the hospitality lacking. Other travellers tell me its not all like this, unfortunately it was for us. It was fantastic to see the stunning sights Chile has to offer but I wont be returning in a hurry. Anyway back to the story! Carry on Jess...
We managed to prevent a potentially stressful 3 hours negotiating the complicated road system of Santiago by meeting a French motorcyclist in a service station. He offered to show us to the road south through the city, as apparently there are no circular roads, all traffic goes through the center! Thank god he did as even at 7.00pm on a Sunday evening the city was heaving. Two days more of dull auto-pistas and wild camping and we made it to Bariloche. Oz's turn now.
We have long planned to ride fast to Bariloche then relax for a week or two to enjoy the beautiful lake and mountains that surround it and experience a little of the nightlife of the town. Instead on our first full day in the town we were arranging to leave it the next day. Over on the east coast 1,000kms away was a Horizons Unlimited bikers meet taking place. Plans change and we decided to go to go to the meet and catch Bariloche on the way back up Argentina. We couldn't face riding the 2 days across the flat pampa and discovered, you could put the bikes on the train and kick back while it rattled and shaked its way east.
The train was like something out of the 50's and so was the staff in charge of cargo. I expected at least a ramp to get the bikes on the train. Instead 3 old guys and myself grunted and puffed lots, lifting the bikes the 4ft necessary to get them into the cargo carriage. Then using some weird and wonderfull sytem of knots, the main man tied the bikes to various weak points with what amounted to little more than string. He was so confident all would be good I believed him and went to find our luxurious seats in economy.
Against the odds another English biker, David was also on the train, also headed for the meet. The train was so slow but the wine was cheap and the steaks good. We spent a very pleasant evening talking, getting drunk watching the pampa slowly pass by outside. 15 hours later we arrived in the town of Viedma.
Enjoying alternative travel!
We made our way to the coastal town, Bahia Condor to meet the other bikers. On arrival at the campsite we were greeted by a very warm welcome and found friends of old and new. Of course the only way to go about the evening was to sup some wine and get that asado going. There was a lot of talking to be done and we needed sustanance to do that!
Bahia Condor was situated on a long white sand beach and we spent our days hanging out on the beach and visiting the local sea lion colony and various cafes.
The big event was planned for saturday evening, we had VIP passes to a gig (pop concert) in the town, then after we were to be guests at the casino which was to provide huge buffet and drinks. How was all this possible, in the UK bikers are viewed a sub species of the population, some establishments banning us from entry. Well the Argentinians are a little more relaxed and the organiser of the bike meet, Oscar had some pretty good connections to say the least. The big do was to promote a political party and their candidate for the area. The band, well they are really popular but one wonders why. The lead singer was clearly so in love with himself that I doubt he would ever need a partner, and the music, the teen kids behind nearly pushed the barriers over to get to the stage but us of more mature tastes sat and enjoyed what we could. It was however cool to be in the VIP enclosure shared with some famous stars of argentinian TV. The buffet, now we are talking. Fantastic sea food and wine. Some of us were even interviewed for TV as well, people thinking we were intrepid adventures!
Sunday saw some more media action when we assembled in the town to be photographed for the provincial daily paper. It aint bad being a star, I could handle a little more of it!
The meeting officially ended on Sunday but we were not ready to leave yet. We changed campsites and then got down to the grubby bussines of mending broken bikes. Oscar had voluteered his workshop to us so this was the new headquarters.
Javier of the HUBB Beunos Aires communities had his spanners twirling all day, ready to help all of us with the problems we had. His enthusiam and hard work was greatly appreciated by all. We would each get grumbled at for breaking our bikes then he would promptly fix them. The last bike to get its fix belonged to Sandra, his wife. Plans were set to leave the next day.
Our final meal was in a YPF gas station. As Jess has already said, these are no ordinary gas stations. It had a great menu, served fine wines and the manager even gave us complimentary bottles of champagne. It was a great last night, my head hurt from laughing so much. Oscar and his family had given us all a fantastic 4 days. We made lots of new friends at the meet, these are the experiences that make bike travel such a great way to meet people and see countries.
Enjoying our post champagne postres.
We rolled back to the highway, now three strong. David had joined us to travel the dreaded Ruta 3 down to Ushuia for the christmas and the new year fiesta. To those not in the know, the east side of Argentina is made up of pampa. Roughly translated to flat featureless mind numbingly boring roads. Maybe you see a sheep one hour, maybe a nandu (emu like bird) might be spotted in the distance next hour. Add to this the always strong, sometimes ridiculously strong side winds that cross the country from the Andes. In over 2,000kms of road that it would take to reach Ushuia there were only three sights we thought were worth stopping for. Pennisula Valdes was the first.
As national parks go it has to be the flatest and most boring one in the world. You dont go there for the land attractions. All the action is in the sea. There are big sea lion colonies and it is one of only 2 places in the world where Orca wales snatch sea lions of the beach. It was not "snatching season" but the Orcas had been seen recently. We rode 150kms of crappy dirt road and waited a good 5 hours to see them all to no avail. Next attraction was a little bigger. The bay is the breeding ground for Southern Wright wales. Most had already left for antarctica but a few were being spotted every day. We payed our dosh and headed out into the bay. An hour later we got what we had hoped for. A mother and calf were spotted. The next 20 minutes was spent cruising near the duo, at one point the wales changed path and swan directly under the boat. It was an amazing experience, these animals are so big and graceful. As a final parting gesture the mother lifted her huge tail out of the water and dived to eat. Mission succesful!
The next stop was the largest petrified forest in the world. Only three days away!
Although a small national park it had some fantastically big stone trees in it. 150 million years old, it is reckoned that a huge volcanic eruption flattened trees up to 100metres high then within 24 hours the ash buried them. The result we can see today.
Huge stone trees and us!
Attraction number three was Penguins. The east coast has two very big colonies, we visited the one at Camarońes. There were over 4,000 birds nesting there when we pulled into the car park. The noise and action promised lots. On a specially constructed elevated walkway you walk right through the middle of the colony. The birds were fantastic to watch, their behaviour is bizzare to say the least. Some of the braver more curious penguins ventured onto the boardwalk to do a little research of their own.
Its Daves first nibble from a South American bird!
All the sights had now been seen, the only focus now was riding to Tierra del Feugo. 4 days and one border later we were lining up for the ferry to cross the Magellan Straight. 40 mins later we rode off the ferry, only 360kms left to ride before reaching the end of the road.
Another fantastic night out in the wilderness on Ruta 3.
Another border, lots of dirt road, wind and rain and we rolled into Rio Grande late in the evening. This is the biggest town on the island and reminded me a lot of places I had visited in Alaska. Beaten up old pickups cruised the street and all buildings look as though the weather has taken its toll. At the only camsite in town we met up with another biker, John and his chica Sara. We had last seen John in Mendoza. He has riden down from Canada on his 1976 BMW. The bike is a combination of the different BMW's and contains lots of Johns own modifications. For example, the starter switch stopped working and has now been replaced with a bedside lamp electrical switch. It looks like it should't have made it considering the beating it got in Boliviar but with Johns spannering skills and his enthusiasm he has for "his girl" I guess it will be going long after all our modern bikes have died.
We picked up another biker mate at the gas station the next morning, Jon a guy I first met in Alaska and headed out of town for the last day of riding south. The scenery at last changed to trees and then the Andes came into view once again. We had all missed the mountains and the Andes in Tierra del Fuego seemed unlike anything else we had seen so far. Smaller but really dramatic.
Late in the day we rolled into the town of Ushuia. It was bustling with tourists and had a good feel to it. We however were not finished yet. Our biking posse gained another rider, Tony and armed with wine for the celebration we headed the last 20kms down Ruta 3. I had seen so many pictures of the sign at the end of the road and was relieved to finally get there. Prudhoe Bay seems a long way north when you are stood at that sign. Jess was very chuffed too. It was a far cry from seeing her leaving Lima at 5am terrified as she had no experience riding bikes, to seeing her confidently riding the last 20kms of dirt to the sign at the end of the road. Lots of photos were taken and celebrating done.
The end of the road.
Only one last thing to do now. I had to go swim in the sea. I had done it in the Arctic Ocean and must do the same here. It was cold, windy and univiting. I lasted all of the 5 seconds it took to get the picture and I spent the next 30mins shivering. For those of you that enjoyed the picture of my buns on the Salar de Uyni, here they are again for the last time.
Those cheeky buns again!!!
It felt special spending Christmas and New Year at the southern tip of the world. Ushuaia had the same isolated, hickish feel to it that Inuvik had in the Artic circle. The temptation to explore further was great, knowing that the Antarctic lay only a two day boat trip away. Unfortunately our wallets were not going to stretch that far with the $2,500us fare. This will have to be another trip. The campsite posse grew as more and more riders arrived with similar ideas of spending the festive season at the end of the road.
The posse at the Rugby Club Campsite.
Throughout the 10 days there was much done in the way of drinking, eating and the all important bike-porn. This is the new name I have given to bikers wandering ceaselessly from one bike to the next talking about tyres, engine, tanks, wheels, luggage, tools and half twisting bryani valves. I am always amazed at their ability to talk about their bikes for hours on end, only to repeat it all again the next day.
Bike-porn in action.
Both Christmas and New Year were celebrated in true Argentine style with asados and cordero. Cordero invovles buying a whole lamb and attatching it to a steel cross. The cross is driven into the groud at an angle over coals which cook the meat. The camp owners helped us prepare the lamb for our New Years feast and we waited patiently, assisted by many boxes of wine for the 4 hours it took to cook.
Feeling more guilt but hunger too!
The waiting is something us Europeans are not very good at, but here they have got it down to a fine art. In the meantime one of the German guys amazed us all by proposing on one knee to his girl friend. Of course Kirsten said yes and there wasn’t a dry eye between us. Then just as we’d pulled ourselves together the other German couple announced they had got engaged that morning!!! I’ve never been witness to any engagement let alone a double and I wondered whether somebody else might find a wild, crazy urge to propose too !!!! .
When we did eventually manage to drag ourselves out of the campsite we explored the Tierra Del Fuego National Park.. We hiked up to view points and glaciers in a vain attempt to shift some Christmas buldge and were surprised to find it very similar to Scotland. After 11 days in one place it was difficult to get back to the road. Our goal had always been to make it to Ushuaia for Christmas and with that done it felt a little strange thinking what next!!! Of course we had some major sights not yet ticked and some of the most famous gravel roads not yet ridden. So we had to press on. Well not to fast…..we broke camp by mid day and now a posse of five bikers we rode all of 200km to Rio Grande. Best to break ourselves gently back into the ridding.
In two days we made it to Puerto Natales, the last town before Torres Del Paine. We loaded up with gas and food to last at least 5 days in the park as everyone had warned us of the extortionate prices. Of course were back in Chile, you wouldn’t expect anything less!!!.
The 120km of dirt to the infamous towers was quite awe inspiring. I have seen so many pictures of this great sight, read about the climbing epics that have taken place here and yet seeing it with your own eyes is quite amazing. The huge mass of mountain seems to loom out of nowhere from the flat Patagonia steppe and although the skies were clear and blue around us, they lay dark and threatening over the jagged peaks . It was difficult to draw your eyes away from it as you waited for that glimpse of the three towers. Luckily as we stopped for lunch the clouds did eventually part enough for a frenzied photo shoot.
Little did we know that we were going to be blessed with some spectacular views of them close up and from all angles in the park. over the next few days. The best came when we hiked up to the mirador the next evening to catch all three towers out and the sun setting behind them.
Really cold but what a view.
John our Canadian friend who is mad on photography shot 5 rolls of film in just an hour and the next morning was lucky enough to catch them out at sunrise. They are very illusive pieces of rock that for the majority of the year remain unseen, so we felt lucky to have seen them so clearly.
What do you watch, the stunning mountains or the road?
In the five days we spent in the park we saw some spectacular sights, glaciers, floating icebergs, turquoise lakes, snow peaked mountains and jagged towers. We also had some spectacular weather to match sunshine and clear skies. Wildlife was also something the park has lots of. Nothing could be more Patagonian than Torres del Paine with Guanacos in the foreground.
The notorious Patagonian wind was blowing but not as ferociously as we expected. However on the day we rode out it was obvious to us all that the wind had grown much stronger. In the shelter of the mountains it only buffeted us as we rounded corners but 90 km out of the park where the gravel road was more exposed the true entirety of these wind showed themselves. Gusts of 100kmph pummeled us from the side and sent me skittering across the deep gravel tracks towards the embankment on the other side of the road. Luckily I came off the bike before it hurled me down into the drainage ditch below. Oz and I just managed to pick the bike up, the winds trying to blow it back to the ground. The only way to stay on the road was to ride at speed and lean the bike at a 40 degree angle to the wind. I was convinced I was going to crash but with a surge of adrenaline and anger I managed to stay upright and between the tracks for another 15km before we could get shelter from the buildings at the next town. The strength of the wind was pretty terrifying and I thought at the time .. it cant get any worse than this………!!!
Dreading starting Ruta 40 in winds as strong as we had encountered earlier in the day we were relieved to find it relatively calm. Three hours more riding and we arrived in the town of El Calafate.
The start of the famous Ruta 40 for us.
El Calafate although swamped with tourists but was a welcome friendly and financial break from being in Chile. Next afternoon we headed off to see the Perito Moreno glacier. We left behind the sunny weather for the drizzle of the mountains. I have seen lots of glaciers on the Alaskan part of the trip and was ready to be not very impressed. Big mistake! This glacier is huge and is not shy to show you some action. The art of Perito Moreno glacier watching is to stand there long enough to see a huge piece of ice calve off into the lake. We spent 2 hours freezing in the rain in the evening an another three hours the next day hoping to see some big ice falling. We had seen some largish chunks fall but you always want more, dont you? As we got up the the car park we heard a rumble way bigger than the normal cracking and groaning noises the glacier makes. By 2 minutes we had missed a huge chunk of the face falling down and an ice from under the water catapulting up as it broke of the glacier. the ice from under the water was twice the size of the 100 person sightseeing boat which was near it at the time. Gutted aint the word.
Its 80 metres high and over half of the face is not in this picture. The chunks under the face are real big and fall off regularly.
After enjoying another Tenedor Libre the group split. John headed north, Sara was flying east to see penguins and David, Jess and myself were off to see the famous Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre. It was more windy Ruta 40, with more roadworks where we were diverted and had to ride gravel balls the size of grapefruits before we arrived in El Chaltan. We had been lucky to see the Fitzroy and Torre on the drive in. Some folks wait week for the clouds to clear.
You dont often catch sight of this mountain range.
Next morning the planned trek to the mirador was abandoned, clouds completely covered what we were walking to see. For the first time in weeks the winds had also dropped. Not one to look a gifthorse in the mouth, we headed out of town, planning to ride the worst section of Ruta 40. What had started calm quickly turned windy. Hoping for a respite in the wind for a second morning we camped at the start of the most notorious section of Ruta 40. Tomorrow we would get up early and ride the 340kms stretch of this road between gas stations. Other than a handful of estancias (sheep farms) there was no habitation anywhere on this road. Jess had been winding herself up for months now worrying that the wind would blow her off this stretch of road or that the gravel ruts would claim her as a victim as they had done to so many other bikers.
The sun rose as did the wind. It was not the still day we had hoped for but we were going anyway. Our group had grown to four, a German biker Reiner who we had spent christmas with in Ushuia had caught us up.
The road was deeply rutted with gravel, the wind was strong enough to blow us out of the ruts at times producing hearstopping weaves through the deep stones.
Imagine trying to stay in that rut while up to 100+km/hr winds batter you from the side!
The stupid Guanacos (Patagonian Llamas) did try to run into Jess at speed. None of us however crashed, we all made it through tired but none the worse for it. Another couple on a bike coming the opposite way were not so lucky however. He tried to brake for a guanaco, lost it in the gravel and bust himself, his partner and the bike badly.
We made the long stretch of road to the next gas by mid afternoon and decided to do the last 130kms that evening to get us back to the ashphalt. Wea all rolled into the town of Perito Moreno absolutely wasted, all that is apart from Reiner on his flash and fast KTM 950. He just couldn't work out why it had taken us so long. Jess was down to 15mph by the end of it. We had however ridden the legend and survived to tell the tale.
We left the town of Pertio Moreno for Chile on another horrendously windy day. The lake we passed on the way to the border looked more like the sea with 6ft waves crashing into its shore. Yet again we were criss- crossing our way between Argentina and Chile, this time for the Careterra Austral a 900km mainly dirt road through some of Southern Chiles most spectacular scenery.
The bikes, big sky and sign telling us where we were.
Day one gave us a bone rattling ride high above a deep blue lake with the bulk af the Andes in the background. We camped wild by the lake, hoping to catch fish but instead finding and feasting on wild strawberries.
Bridge repairs meant a short ferry crossing to continue north.
The next day brought a little more drama. The day started with what must constitute our best arguement yet. Hoping it could get no worse, the chain on Jess's bike broke stranding us 30kms out of the nearest village. Try as we might it had tangled itself up on the front sprocket and we needed the help of a mechanic to fix it. David was despatched to get this help. Many cars passed us working at the side of the rode but in true Chilean style, not one stopped to offer any help!
Meanwhile John and Reiner were having their own drama 30kms up the road. Now I have already said Reiner is a quick rider, having done some desert rallies and racing. It only takes one corner however to catch you out, his corner was by a beautiful little lake, was off camber and loaded with loose gravel. He managed to take the 1.5metre drop off the road but was stopped by a big bush and supermanned off his bike into the thorn covered branches. Amazingly both him and the bike suffered a few scratches. The bike was dragged back onto the road 2 hours later and they came back to find out what was happening to us. We had summoned a mechanic who, using brute force and ignorance had sorted our problem in 5 minutes. Not missing the opportunity to rip off some gringos he charged us $30us for his services.
For the rest of the day we were allowed to enjoy the views and the road and ended up camping on the lawn of the gas station in the next big town.
It wasn't all dirt roads. Twisties we all dream of!
2 more days of bad roads, blue skies, forest, hanging glaciers and heaps more saw us exit Chile for the last time. Of course we celebrated our return to Argentina with more cheap steak and good wine.
We now have only 4 weeks left to go see Barliloche and the rest of the Lake District, continue up to Buenos Aires and hopefully make it up to Iguzu Falls. Also there is 2 bikes to sort out and sell. Bringing them back to England was never part of the plan but selling them here aint as simple as it sounds. If you have made it this far with our blog be sure to tune in to the last episode to see how much more of Argentina we managed to cram into our last 4 weeks of travelling.
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"I just wanted to say thanks for doing this and sharing so much with the rest of us." Dave, USA
"...Great site. Keep up the good work." Murray and Carmen, Australia
Check out the new Gildan Performance cotton-feel t-shirt - 100% poly, feels like soft cotton!
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