The Flight (Frankfurt-Santiago)
It´s a long way to Santiago. And it already started with a thrill: I knew that Delta Airlines (who by the way are bankrupt which nevertheless does not stop them from flying) have a two-item-baggage-policy which means that you are allowed to bring two big suitcases with a weight of max. 60 kilos altogether. Unfortunately I have 2 Alu boxes plus 2 big bike bags - how do you want to carry two huge Samsonites on a motorcycle? Clever as I am I strapped each alu box together with a bike bag which still is smaller than a big Samsonite suitcase. However the good-looking but apparently not good-willing girl at the check-in counter in Frankfurt made me separate the bags from the boxes and told me that I have 4 pieces of luggage and therefore I have excess luggage which means I have to pay some 250 Euros extra. Well even in situations like these I can stay calm and friendly (or even charming ;-)), so in the end I did not have to pay and the friendly girl even arranged to check the luggage through to Santiago so that I would not have the same problem in Atlanta again (no, I did not kiss her feet ;-)). The flight to Atlanta started 1 1/2 hours late - but I didn´t care since for the connection flight in Atlanta I would have to wait for 10 hours anyway.
The flight mainly consisted of bad movies (Mr. and Mrs. Smith with the super - erotic, thick-lipped Angelina Jolie, Herbie-fully loaded and Bewitched), some reading in the motorcycle traveller novel "Chasing Che" and even my first attempts in learning Portugese (although I did not get very far before I lost motivation).
We arrived in Atlanta around 3 or 4 pm local time. My first contact with American soil. It was not as bad as expected. George Dubya was not around. The immigraton officer even tried to be friendly (although he could not afford to smile) - when he learned that I would go to Chile he started talking in spanish to me - which actually does not make a difference to English to me - but is was a sign of good will which I did not expect at all. Scan left index, scan right index, smile into the digital camera - and that´s it. All around the airport there are Shouters who shout out loud and extremely repeatedly where people have to go or what they have to do. For example one poor guy´s job was to shout out something like "Show your blue customs declaration!" - every 20 seconds and apparently the whole day long. I assume this is what we´ll soon get in Germany with these new one-Euro jobs. Loads of service personell with doubious jobs...
I was hungry, so I looked for something known - and ended up with a kind of Mini-Express Pizza Hut - which was a complete desaster - it was the worst Pizza I ever had. This never happens to you with McDo :-) . At Pizza Hut they did not even have Beer (which I urgently needed fur muscle relaxation after the 10 hours flight and before starting the next 10 hours flight), so I got this from the Chinese food store and some chinese food as well which was not bad at all. Unfortunately I was so stuffed then, that I could not eat any of the food they offered on the flight to Santiago.
On the flight to Santiago the entertainment program consisted - apart from some other bad films - of a traveller magazine where a cute american woman in her late 40s informed us about holidays in Germany with all these typical german people doing their typical german pasttime like Schuhplattln, playing Zither, dinking beer from liter jars, sitting in traditional bavarian bars and singing traditional bavarian folk songs - I felt like at home (sarcasm). I thought these cliches were long forgotten... I was wrong, it was no satire though it looked like that.
Santiago de Chile
Monday morning I touched south american ground. Immigracion was not as efficient as in the US (long queues) - but strangely I preferred it to the US. Contrary to the US even my cellphone worked - so of course first thing I did as a good son is call my Mama and tell her that I m fine :-) My luggage - to my entire surprise - was complete. Even the straps - that expectedly had fallen of the plastic sack that the check-in girl in Frankfurt had given me to put together my extra luggage - were still there. They had been neatly put together by some friendly luggage worker. If a journey starts like this, nothing can go wrong. Having thought this I took a taxi and went to the address where I should receive my motorbike. They made me wait a couple of minutes (which was fine with me since I could enjoy the sun and the fresh air - which is quite a pleasure after almost 30 hours in closed rooms and conditioned air), then two nice guys came to admit that my bike was awaiting me back at the airport - in the customs area. What then happened was really incredible. Another friendly guy in his 40s come from the airport with his private car to pick me up and personally helped me through all the customs paperwork walking from here to there, accompanying me on the bus to a different part of the airport for further paperwork and explaining everything to me. Incredible. He spent the entire morning with me. Finally I could start to assemble my bike for which I asked for some help in the customs warehouse - for one specific task which I could not do alone. In the end there were 3 young guys enthusiastically helping me with all kinds of stuff - so everything was done quite quickly. Is this a great start? I think so.
Well then I went into Santiago and tried to find my recommended accomodation - called Scott's Place - without a map. This made me cross the entire 8 Million city, and I was only once almost killed by a car - what lucky guy I am. Finally I found the place - which was not what I expected but okay for two nights - and above all it was cheap (6-person dormitories - but I was the only guest). Scott Sheldon, the owner, is an interesting person. He's from the US and a kind of philosphic semi-depressive naturalist. Santiago is an 8 million city and I am convinced that all these 8 million citizens spend their time walking thru the pedestrian zone of the city all day or at least when I am there. And I believe that they have agreed that they would all walk in the direction opposite of mine.
I used the time in Santiago to complete my equipment and buy water and food for the tour. Back in Germany I had bought some additional footpegs (Fussrasten) to be attached to my roll bars (Sturzbuegel) and I now tried to attach these. They turned out to be completely useless since due to the useless clamp fixing they would always bend down when you put your feet on it. Luckily I got the idea to weld them to the roll bars. This was done in a one-hour session FOR FREE by an extremly kind mecanic in the neigbourhood - now I was able to strech out my legs on endless highway routes.
Santiago to Mendoza (Argentina)
Finally I packed my bags and - with only a few difficulties - found my way out of Santiago. In the small town of "Los Andes" before actually climbing the Andes pass, I filled up the tank and bought an additional 10L can, so I should be able to cover some 500 km without a filling station (which is not seldom in south america). The Andes crossing was a little cold and windy but nice although not spectacular, only the tunnel that connects Chile to Argentina was pure horror. Narrow, wet, badly lit, badly paved, and very badly ventilated. Probably it was 2 or 3 km long but it felt like 20 km. The customs was actually fun, since the (female) customs officer called me things like 'mi amor' and was extremely friendly, funny and helpful.
Mendoza is a nice and lively city with little historical buildings since it had been destroyed almost completely by an earthquake some time ago. It is however very practically built in squares with some green parks, a pedestrian zone and loads of air pollution. This is is the main caracteristic of all south american cities: If you are used to western exhaust emission standards you always have the feeling to suffocate or end up with lung cancer. What actually stroke me was the number of really good libraries - I counted at least ten of them within a diameter of a few hundred meters. Usually in spanish towns and cities you find loads of so-called Libreria-Papeleria where you only find very few books - if any - but mostly journals, magazines and stationery. What also impressed me was that there are loads of traffic lights but virtually none for pedestrians - so you have to run across the street in the proper moment, hoping that nobody runs you over.
Mendoza to Calingasta
After two nights in Mendoza I selected Calingasta as my next destination. It turned out to be no easy task to find this place, since the road signs are long outdated due to a new barrage that had been built half-way. Feeling almost completely lost I stopped an old truck driver in the middle of nowhere for directions - and he explained it to me within half an hour with every single detail every bridge, curve, house or hill along the entire 200 km route. He was really happy to have somebody whom he could help - and as almost all this kind of encounters in Chile, Argentina or Bolivia it ended up with a handshake and an affectionate farewell. Finally I found the village of Calingasta after virtually hundreds of kilometers through hot desert, cold moutain roads, and along a beautiful river gorge. I found a beautiful small hotel in a renovated colonial house with two patios and view of the snow-covered andean peaks. The landlady prepared a great three-course dinner for me (with the usual beer of course) - and with this an exhausting but nevertheless perfect day ended.
Calingasta to Chilecito
Next day I started early since I wanted to cover some kilometers direction north. I took the famous Routa 40 highway which leads straight along the Andes. Although it's a major highway there are always some kilometers of gravel road. Although I have the right bike and the right tires for this, it is still a risk since the bike is so heavily packed that any pothole or big stone that I overlook could leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere. So I had my first 30 km of gravel road and actually it was real fun since it went through a beautiful national park and I could try out what I had learned during the motocross course that I had visited prior to the departure - and the road was tire-friendly earth and sand without hard potholes or stones.
What's very characteristic for chilenean and argentinean roads are loads of little sanctuaries along the road. They are like little houses usually adorned with plastic bottles, flags and other stuff. I later found out that this is a belief that is based on an idigenous legend about a woman that died in the desert with her baby surviving since her breasts still gave milk. You will find these small places of worship along many south american roads and it's very popular - also among truck drivers - to donate for example water, so that the "difunta correa" can continue nourishing us.
Chilecito is a pleasant little town with nothing special - apart from the fact that my "Scottoiler" had run out of oil and I had to fill it up - which turned out to be rather tricky. A Scottoiler is a pratical invention that automatically drops oil on the chain as long as the engine is running. Unfortunately the small reservoir had run out of oil quite some time ago and now the chain was dry and I could not go on like this. You have to fill the oil through a tiny hole into the reservoir, which is inclined by approx 10 degrees, so you have to fill it from below and press the oil upwards through the hole. Clever as I am I left the specific refill bottle at home (I was afraid to spoil my luggage with the oil), so I had to find a way to do this - on a sunday in a small town. It cost me three hours but finally I found a way and could go ahead - with the hardest route up to now: 550 km of which 50 km gravel road, partly with deep sand, rough stones and potholes. The landscape was nevertheless impressive - and the few villages were poor and small but all had schools and you always saw little children. Thanks to "Airhawk" an air-filled cushion I did not suffer from "Arschkrebs" (bottom pain) and thanks to my new extra footpegs my legs did not hurt too much either.
Salta - San Pedro de Atacama
The next two days I went ahead straight north until I arrived in Salta, a rather rich city in northern Argentina. It has a nice plaza, very colourful cathedral and the usual air pollution problems. However I spent two nights to do my laundry, by replacement tubes and a repair kit in case of a flat tyre. Then I crossed the Andes a second time, heading for San Pedro in the huge Atacama desert. I was lucky - just two months ago the road had been newly paved, so I could do the ride in one day. The route leads through the "Puna", an arid landscape, approx. 3000 m high, with deep blue skies, vast salt lakes, mountains in colours ranging from yellow, red to different brown tones. It is quite windy up there and cold, however i's an unforgettable trip. From the last filling station in Argentina to the first in Chile it was around 300 km through the sheer nothingness, so I was happy to have my extra can with me. Around midday I had my "almuerzo" in a tiny restaurant attached to the only filling station within a 250 km diameter. There I came to know two guys in their late fifties on big BMW 1150 Adventure motorbikes. They were from Sao Paulo in Brazil and fulfilling an old dream. The road which we were riding on - the Jama pass, is famous among motorists in Sao Paulo - so this is why along this road I came across at least 20-30 motorcyclists of which approx. 70% rode the same big BMW bikes. However when I talked to one of the Brazilians, he admitted that he was awfully afraid of leaving the paved road, since the bike was just too heavy to manage difficult roads. But he was impressed by the possiblity of riding several hundred kilometers on a bike with an average speed of 160 which he just had done on his way from Brazil.
San Pedro is a very pleasent little village with a strong alternative touch in the middle of nowhere. It consists of a beautiful central plaza with a tiny little church and three or four dirt streets without pavement around it - just dust or - after rain - mud. So all the restaurants, hotels, hostals, bars and tour agencies are full of red dust - and so were my cloths and my bike. (Finally it looked like a real adventure bike ;-)) From San Pedro people usually visit 2 major destinations: The Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) with some impressive dunes and rock formations and some geysers. To see the geysers best you had to get up around 4 a.m. and take a tourist bus - so I limited myself to the Valley. I am not mad, am I? Apart from that I made a short ride to some near-by mountain lakes (which a local guy had recommended me). "Near-by" means in the Atacama desert a 110 km ride (one-way), the last quarter of it on (good) gravel road. So I rode 110 km, looked at the lake and the beautiful setting, tried to walk a little but lost breath immediately (you really do feel old at that altitude) and rode 110 km back. I'd never do this in Europe. But here it's just around the corner.
San Pedro - Arica (ca. 750 km)
After two nights in San Pedro I decided to proceed substantially further north, so I started early morning (around 7). The next settlement (Calama) is 100 km south of San Pedro. To get there once again you have to climb and cross mountains of an estimated 3500 Meters (San Pedro is situated at 2200). So although I was packed like a mummy and had switched on my electric hot-grips, it was freezing cold. This is the desert, freezing at night (partly below zero) and awfully hot during daytime - and with extreme radiation - my nose and cheeks got burnt quickly - even through the blackened vizor.
Close to Calama there's the world's biggest running copper mine - it was on my way and it is supposed to be quite impressive, since it's mainly a one km deep hole in the earth. As I approached the place I decided that I could live without looking into this hole in the desert - since it is an ugly, stinking, heavily industrialized area. So I escaped as fast as I could. The next couple of hours was pure desert. The road stretches to the horizon and no end in sight. I headed straight to the pacific ocean but still it was a long and hot journey.
My first contact with the pacific ocean was like the first sex is usually said to be: rather disappointing. It came accompanied by grey cloudy weather and a busy grey habour town, lacking the slightest trace of a Café - which I urgently needed to recover forces. I had to ride another 80 km alongside the shore - before finding a kind of truck-stop where a I could have some kind of brunch and - most importantly - COFFEE. In the same moment the skies cleared off, the sun came through and the pacific coastline suddenly did not look so bad. There are many impressive sights. Especially the surprisingly green river valleys that I came across with every few hundred km where a particuarly beautiful contrast to the khaki coloured desert hills. However the desert goes on and on . Actually for thousands of kilometers - even deep into Peru - the desert reaches from the mountains right to the shore.
At Aríca, close to Chile's border with Peru, I was absolutely fed up with the desert, and decided to turn east and head back into the mountains. I followed another amazingly beautiful green river valley (that actually looked like the german countryside if you cut out the surrounding desert hills) through a perfectly bended motorcycle-optimized mountain road up to a small mountain village (Putre; 3600m) where I spent the night in order to get used to the altitude and not end up with altitude sickness (this was a recommendation from the extraordinarily helpful and knowledgable hotel owner in Aríca).
Next day I started early since I wanted to enjoy the national park that lay on the way. It was another impressive experience: I think the vulcanoes I saw there where the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. Photos cannot catch this, you have to be there to get the impression. The rest of the way to La Paz was just dumb highland roads with some beautiful skies. I entered La Paz on a Sunday, so it was no big issue to find the Hotel I had been looking for.
Well, La Paz. Actually coming to Bolivia a certain idea grew stronger and stronger within myself: That I do thank god to be born and raised in Germany - and always have the chance to return there. The poverty, dirt, chaos and (in my view) sheer madness of life in Bolivia gave me this conviction. Thank god for asphalt roads, Autobahn, ICE, exhaust regulations, tram railways, computer-controlled traffic lights, drivers' discipline and considerateness, hygene etc. La Paz is impressive, chaotic, filthy and of a certain beauty - especially if you look at it from high above. It is built into a kind of crater with snow-covered mountains in the background. Above all the people are very friendly and affectionate - as long as they do not drive a car. I don't know if they ever will escape from poverty - it seems that the entire people feels like loosers. When I was there, there was a shortage of bottled liquid gas for households - so what some people simply did was block the main traffic arteria of the capital city at several neuralgic points - which forced everybody else to take severe detours and traffic actually broke down for at least two days (after two days I fled). If a state allows this kind of extortion it will never achieve prosperity. Another impressive contrast that I cought my eye was the women. I think in Bolivia - or just in La Paz - you will probably find the ugliest and the most beautiful women in the world.
Now I am in Copacabana at the shore of lake Titicaca. This place gave it's name to the Copacabana of Rio de Janeiro. It's a beautiful small place with a huge cathedral and it's the basis for visits to the famous Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the Inca culture. To get here I had to cross a small stretch of the Titicaca lake on a kind of ferry - which made me really shit bricks. I had to balance the motorbike on some narrow planks with the boat heavily dithering on the waves of the lake. And I had to leave the boat backwards. Great. As always also in this situation I came across with some nice Bolivian guys who helped get off the "ferry" safe and secure. Of course afterwards we exchanged e-mail addresses and gave an affectiante farewell.
Tomorrow I will visit the Sun Island and then head further north to Peru / Macchu Pichu.
"I have to fax your registration to Lima, 2000 Bolivianos please... No, no receipt - 1000 then, but there's no receipt." This was my first contact with Peruvian police right at the border with Bolivia. Just before, this man had raised the Peruvian Flag with all the pride and respect stuff - and now he wanted to be bribed by me. I had heard from other travellers as well as from Argentinos and Chilenos about the bad reputation of the Peruvian police, so I reacted in a rather relaxed way. I could have insisted on not paying without receipt but 1000 Bolivianos is around 1 Euro, so don't care too much and chose the easy way. However this stroke my mood badly and I told myself "If this happens again you'll leave the country immediately."
Well it did not and the amazing landscapes the helpful people and the very warm welcome in Cusco made up for this poor start.
Funnily a week later on my way back to Bolivia, the Bolivian border policeman also asked for money - but in a much friendlier, opener and more likeable way - he just asked me if I wanted to donate some money for office material etc. Who can say NO in such a situation? I could not. I gave him the equivalent of 1 EUR and he was really gateful and gave me an almost exuberant farewell.
The ride along the shores of lake Titicaca impresses by it's very specific smoothly rolling landscape in shades of green and yellow. Around Titicaca there are vast green-yellow highmoor-like flats, green-brown-yellow hills and some chains of snow-covered peaks. The area seems to be fertile since there are not few villages and you see cattle everywhere (black-and-white cows, goats, lamas, sheep, pigs, donkeys).
Cusco is actually the most beautiful place I have seen up to now in South America and the road there - let's say the last 200 km - is really marvellous. Great pavement and a gorgeous landscape that - again - cannot really be represented by 2D photographs - you must have seen it. Unfortunately millions of tourists share my opinion about Cusco, so this place is full of Gringos, i.e. Northamericans, Scandinavians, Dutch, Brits, French and even some Germans. Its closeness to Machu Picchu makes Cusco, the former Inca capital, a rich city. Compared to other south american cities it is clean, the buildings are well-maintained (at least in the center), it is safe (due to loads of private and harmless security officers) and it's rather calm (traffic-wise). Even the air pollution is not as bad as it is in other cities I visited. It's not too big, so you can visit all the interesting places in the city on foot. Cusco's traffic system mainly relies on taxis, which the city is full of. Mainly it's always the same tiny Hyundai cars, I think they are even smaller than a Fiat Panda. For those who carry luggage, there's also some Toyota Corolla station wagons and there's even a few huge US limos that serve as specific airport taxis. The best thing about the taxis is that you get anywhere within the city for 2 Soles, which is around 50 Eurocents. So why walk? The annoying aspect of the taxis is that their major means of communication is their horn. They use it to warn you when approaching (no matter whether or not you had already seen or heard it or not), they use it to tell you that they are free (no matter whether you need a taxi or not), they use it to indicate that they have (or want to have) preference, they use it to simply make the world know that they are there. Maybe the even have some kind of built-in automatism that honks the horn every 20-30 seconds or so - or is it a kind of inferiority complex since their tiny cars are real shit? (Sorry ;-))
So I got the sneaking suspicion that the people here are noise-addict. What fortified this suspicion are the omnipresent safety guards. Their main task is to blow a whistle every minute or so. I have asked several of them about the use of this behaviour. Their answer is that this scares crooks, so they just run away and do not even try to do their evil business. I decided not to bother them with my stupid germanic theories, i.e. that
a) by this means those "evildoers" know exactly where the safety guards are and therefore can calmly go ahead with their business without thinking too much about being caught - until the guard loudly and demonstratively approaches.
b) by this means the guard avoids any contact with any kind of evildoers, so the guards do not have to be afraid of any conflicts or any annoying crook-pursuits.
This whistling would not really annoy me, wouldn't they also do it at night - and right below my window in an otherwise really quiet suburb street. So the first night in Cusco I was close to assassinating one of them (poor guy, he was just trying his best). The next night my landlady made a special-gringo-arrangement, so they agreed upon a 100 m-whistle-ban-zone around my window. How well I slept! :-)
To my surprise, despite the heavy tourism people are very friendly and helpful here. This might also be due the fact that with my "huge" motorbike I am martian-like being here (Nobody believes me that it's actually the smallest and cheapest existing BMW). The first day I came to Cusco I stopped on a crowded street and tried to orientate. Immediately a young guy in his early 30s welcomed me with a handshake and asked how he could help. He described me the way and said goodbye with another cordial handshake and good wishes. Actually I expected him to ask me for money or rob me or something. Well, I have a bad imagination. He was just friendly.
Of course the most important visit you have to do when staying in Cusco is Machu Picchu. For a guided visit on the same day you have to get up awfully early, shortly after 5 in the morning. My perfect host (Franco of the recommendable Tahuantinsuyo Hostal - www.suyohostal.net) brought me to the train at 6 something and handed me over to the guide. The train to Machu Picchu is painted in plain blue and looks nice - also from inside with the seats covered in blue with the colourful Inca rainbow stripes. At each wagon's entry there was a neatly uniformed clerk checking my ticket and ticking my name in the passenger list. The train started right on time and fighted to leave the city northbound, zig-zagging upwards through the steep and densely populated hills of the poor outskirts of Cusco. Climb forward. Stop. Climb backward. Stop. Climb forward.. and so on. I had only heard that the "train to the clouds", which crosses the Andean mountains from Salta (Argentina) to Antofagasta (Chile) uses this rare way of covering altitude. What really catches the eye on this extremely slow first part of the journey ist the amounts of garbage that covers the entire place, garbage whereever you are looking. The higher you get, the poorer the houses seem to be, more and more adobe houses dominate the landscape, asphalt roads are increasingly replaced by dirt paths. Apart from the garbage the houses are also surrounded by semi-wild dogs and pigs. I have especially fallen in love with those rovering small black and brown-black brindled piglets that you can find all over the place. The engine driver must be an ex-taxi-driver since he blows his powerful horn continuously, apparently just to make sure that nobody in this part of the city has a chance to remain sleeping. The horn is so loud that I am wondering how the adobe houses can resist and don't just collapse. After almost an hour we have reached the top of the hill and the city's boundaries (a 20 Minutes trip on motorbike) - and get a glimpse of a green valley in front of us before diving into it. The train accelerates immensely and - at the impressive speed of an estimated 40-50 kph - meanders in wide slopes along a small river that is the lifeline of this fertile green valley. Despite this rather modest speed, the passengers are wildly shaken, so you can hardly read, write or sleep. Now I understand why this journey of less than 100 km takes around 4 hours. It's a real jump back in time when you are used to have your cup of coffee peacefully placed on the table in a train that is running 250 kph.
However this gives you the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful and changing landscape. After a while of more or less gentle rattling and shaking through the wide and green valley, the train starts zig-zagging again and dives into another deeper and steeper canyon. Finally the gorge opens up and we arrive in the wide and green "sacred valley", surrounded by impressive mountains, some of them covered with snow all year. The valley slowly becomes narrower until there's no more space left for a road and the railway becomes the only lifeline for the tiny scattered farms and villages that we cross during the last hour of our trip. We also crossed the landslide, that blocked this vital arteria for a couple of days - huge masses of gravel, higher than the train and maybe a hundred meters along the railtrack. It seems a miracle how the Peruvians managed to reanimate the railtrack in just a few days. Finally we arrive in Aguas Calientes, at the foot of the Machu Picchu. Perfectly organized we hand over our luggage to the hotel employees and are guided by our "Guia" to the Buses that will carry us upwards to the entry of the village of Machu Picchu. It's hot and humid here - we are at the beginning of the rain forests. Machu Picchu was maybe the ultimate stronghold of the Incas before the rainforest - farther north the mountains become so steep, the the rainforest so dense, the climate so oppressive and the indigenous tribes so dangerous that any expansion of the Inca empire in this direction was extremely difficult. The river that we followed to come here, the Urubamba, will join the Amazon about 500 km northeast. So no wonder that we see the rarest plants, hear the rarest sounds (the cicada sounds like a transformer station), see the rarest anmimals.
The guided visit was interesting and impressive but tiring due to the heat. The guide seemed to be quite knowledgable (or had a lot of imagination). Only the sandflies almost ate me up - my arms and hands were full of itching stiches. (And I got another invitation to Buenos Aires - it might be No 10 ;-)). I had booked a simple hotel in Aguas Calientes, so the next day I could climb the Wayna Picchu which should allow spectacular views of Machu Picchu and the suuroundings. Wayna Picchu means "young mountain" (while Machu Picchu means "old mountain") and is the "nose" of the Inca face that you might see with some imagination in the shape of the mountains on the usual Machu Picchu photographs. The guidebook sais that if you take the first bus in the morning (at 6), you have a good chance to enjoy the site without too many tourists. This is what I did - get up shortly after 5, have breakfast together with heaps of mid-aged scottish hikers - some of them dressed in kilt - and get to the bus stop. Suprise - the bus was already packed with tourists and obviously I wasn't the first one this morning. However in the mist of the early morning Machu Picchu had a very special atmosphere - and I managed to shake off all other gringos before reaching the control station for access of Wayna Picchu. Here you have to register with your name, passport number and the time you are entering. You are also given a time to return. The friendly woman at the control station let me in 15 minutes before official opening hours - and I was number one in her registration list of that day.
You have two possibilities on Wayna Picchu - either descend to the "Great Cavern" or ascend directly to the top and enjoy the spectacular views of the inca town and the surrounding mountains. Since it still was around seven in the morning and the morning fog usually does not lift before 9, I decided to descend to the cave first. This mainly means descending hundreds of steps carved into the exceptionally steep walls of the mountain, then following down a (still steep) path through dense pre-amazonian jungle - including the typical humidity that makes you bath in your own sweat (luckily I did not meet any snakes, giant spiders or pumas). Finally I found the not-so-great cavern, where I discovered a nest of bats, which compensated for the effort. Now I had to climb again what I had just descended and additionally ascend approx 300 meters to the top. The view from the top of Wayna Picchu is really spectacular. What made this moment specifically unforgettable for me it that I saw one of these extremely shy and beautiful tourquoise hummingbirds (Colibri) up there and - when I was sitting on one of the top rocks and absorbing the atmosphere a (probably italian) tenor somewhere below me started singing some classical (opera?) song out of joy - and received enthusiastic ovations from everybody who stayed on the hill after he had finished.
After having descended back to the village I had some force left, so I decided to also take the opposite view - to walk the "Inca Highway" up to the "Sun Gate" from where the travellers coming from the center of the Inca empire got their first view of the Machu Picchu Village. From there I walked down back to the railway station of Aguas Calientes, where I had my well-deserved lunch. It finshed with a cup of coffee, which was probably the stronges coffee I had ever tried. When adding milk the coffee just refused to change its colour. It was served by an native-indian-looking guy and I do suspect that his secret mission is to kill all pale-faces. He almost succeeded. Immediately after sipping part of the coffee, I felt bad and during the rattle-and-shake train journey back to Cusco I vomited and did so two or three times more back in Cusco and during the night. A few days longer I had stomach problems and completely stopped drinking coffee for a while (which is actually a great privation for me).
Apart from Machu Picchu there's a couple of other impressive archeological inca sites that I visited, all with difficult names like Saqsayuaman, Ollantaytambo, Quorikancha and so on, all with huge rocks (of up to 50 tons of weight) perfectly fit together in some symmetrical, symbolical and mathematical (astronomical) way. The names are all Quechua, since this was the officialy introduced nation-wide language in an empire that streched from today's Columbia to Chile and Argentina. In the Peruvian cities Quechua is still the second language after spanish, in the villages it's the first language - many Peruvians don't speak or understand Spanish. Luckily though I never had a communication problem.
Althogether I spent almost a week in Cusco and Peru before I decided to leave the northernmost point of my journey and return southwards to Bolivia. I rode in one day from Cusco to La Paz - and in another day (the stomach problems in the meantime were followed by a flu attack) from La Paz to Sucre.
On my ride back along the shore of lake Titicaca I had a very specific experience. Changing gears on a motorbike is done with the left foot via a small metal lever that is fixed to the gearbox. Rolling up and down the gentle slopes of the titicaca shore in 4th or 5th gear I wanted to switch to a lower gear - but my foot stepped into the emptiness. For a short moment I wondered if I had forgotten how to change gears - or where the gearshift lever was - or if I had just gone mad, then my brain accustomed to the obvious fact that I had lost my gearshift lever. This is actually a severe problem since without gearshift the bike is useless - unless you are able to continue your journey without stopping, slowing down etc. (like in SPEED ;-)). Since I actually had planned some stops (e.g. at gas stations and frontiers), I had to leave my bike on the roadside and walk back, praying to god (or "Viracocha" = "Source of Energy", since I was in Inca land) to let me find my gearshift lever and let me find it quickly. Well, he/she/it heard my prayers and even considered that I needed some exercise, so after walking back for some more than a kilometerI found the lever lying in the middle of the road, apparently undamaged and even the fixing screw was still there. My guardian angel has really deserved an extra holiday - but later please!
The first two thirds of the road south from La Paz to Sucre are extremely straight. There is a big lake indicated on the map, which turns out to be a vast flat covered by some kind of yellow-greenish grass. At a certain point the landscape just becomes unreal, the horizon vanishes in the looming of the strange air and light and you begin to fly at the speed of light. In that moment it's usually a good idea to find a roadside restaurant to make a long break and recover physical and mental forces.
There are some characteristics of this country and its people, that constantly remind your that it's still not a 1st world place. Apart from their relation to garbage (partly they give the empression to enjoy being surrounded by garbage) it's their relation to toilets. It's not at all abnormal (or even a kind of gay chat-up) if a guy approaches you e.g. in the plain countryside or near a archeological site, then stops, and while saying "Hello" and "How are you" opening his zipper, presenting his best parts and and peeing on the wayside. You will find these street-pissers anywhere in Peru or Bolivia, even in the streets of the capital. No wonder that it stinks. Bolivian authorities try to force people to use the public "Baños" that are available everywhere for a few centimos (around 2-3 eurocents), in order to at least keep the most important places in front of important churches clean.
The toilets themselves are a story of shock and awe. If you find a toilet in Bolivia or Peru (or even in Argentina) that has (1) water, (2) soap, (3) toilet paper and (4) paper towels, you are either in a 5-star-hotel or in delirium. Most filling stations don't even have a tap, let alone any other commodities of personal hygiene. Even in a well maintained and rather clean tourist place like Cusco I tried to use the toilet of a beautiful museum of modern art, where also official assemblies of the local politics took place - and did not even find a holder for paper - let alone any toilet paper itself. (But they had water!! ;-))
The dogs here are also very special. I like most of them, since they behave very peaceful and intelligently, just like most of the human beings. However some (of the dogs) try to chase motorbikes, some are even stupid enough to get run over while doing so - but these are very few (thanks to Mr. Darwin) and I did not experience this myself. In some mountain areas the dogs seem to have organized themselves in a kind of roadside assistance. For example when I rode through the beautiful hillside between Potosi and Sucre over a couple of kilometers there was every 500-1000 meters another dog lying on the roadside and watching you attentively but not moving or barking. This looks really odd.
Exactly in this area I also had my first mini-crash: Being weakened by a 600 km ride and a flu attack and slightly confused by the dog guard on the roadside I caught a glimpse of a beautiful tower-bridge-like building and made a u-turn on the road to take a photo. During the turn I lost balance and reacted too late to catch the falling bike. There it lay in the middle of the road. The guard dog came and looked if he could help. I thanked him and told him I should manage it on my own. He said it was all-right and I should just call him if I needed any help and trotted away. So I put together all my forces - and failed to lift it up. I gave it a rest, sustaining it in a 45 degree position on my knee. I symbolically removed one of the bags, took a deep breath and tried again. Here we go - I got it. The dog applauded, I parked the bike on the roadside, took the picture, said farewell to the dog and rode the final 50 kms to Sucre.
Sucre calls itself the capital of Bolivia - but that's only theoretically (and historically) true. Politically the Capital is La Paz. However Sucre surprised me for it's being so un-Bolivian. Theres only few garbage, even the houses in the outskirts are usually made of real bricks (!) with real (red) pan tile roofs (!!) and painted (!!!) white walls. Virtually all buildings in the city are colonial style and painted white, the roads are (more or less) clean and all paved. The sourroundings are green-brown hills and the sky is blue (although it sometimes even rains). On one of the surrounding hills theres a curch (what else?) with a small archwalk and a small open air Café in front of it, from where you have a fantastic view and can enjoy the sunset over the roofs of Sucre. (Although sunsets are rather disappointing here - the air is usually so clean and dry that the sunsets are not as colourful as they tend to be in Europe).
After Sucre I headed further south to Tupiza, close to the border with Argentina. Tupiza itself is not a particularly nice city. However it is situated in a beautiful setting, the long and colourful green-red-blue Tupiza valley. It's extremely fertile and framed by fantastic bizarre red rocks. This and the blue skies make it unforgettable and a fantastic foto motive - as long as you visit it at daytime. Apart from that Tupiza is famous for being the place where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid died. You can make all kinds of horse, mountain bike or Jeep tours to all kinds of impressively beautiful places - including that where those yankees were killed.
My main objective in Tupiza was the Hotel Mitru (Tupiza Tours office), from where I started a 4-days Jeep tour through the most remote and beautiful parts of Bolivia: The Lagunas Colorada and Verde, the geysers and above all the Uyuni Salt Lake. I could safely park my bike in the hotel patio and store my luggage (all without extra charge), so I took only one bag on the tour. The tour costs 110 USD (per person when 5 participants) and includes a driver/guide, a cook, all meals, admission fees, water, tea/coffee, basic accomodation and of course the 4WD Jeep. So it's quite a cheap way to torture yourself, since your spend virtually the whole day in the car, rattling and shaking over the worst "roads" (or better: mule paths) ever experienced, through dusty desert, over cold mountain tops, through rivers and along sulfur-stinking volcanoes. Your major pass-time is actually inhaling dust, so no wonder that the awful cough, that haunts me since I left La Paz, did not improve at all.
Bolivian tour operators do not have a good reputation (they are notorious for not complying with what they promise to be included in the price). Most of them are based in an ugly place in the middle of nowhere, called Uyuni. So before joining Tupiza tours, I made a short internet research - which showed quite some positive critics and virtually nothing negative. Tupiza tours gave a very friendly and professional impression right from the start. The boss, Fabiola Mitru, a woman in her 40s, always remembered my name and pronounced it almost correctly, which is actually a kind of miracle, since it is almost impossible for a latin tongue to pronounce "Winfried" correctly, let alone remember it for more than 5 Minutes. (Even some Germans have problems with this name :-)). The tour was quite nice, although quite exhausting (4 days in a Jeep on really rough and dusty roads) and the service was very good. Especially Pedro the driver/guide was really keen on making the trip as comfortable as possible for us - later we found out that his job/future depends on the participant's evaluation of the trip. Also the meals were very good, even the breakfeasts were - for Bolivia - abundant.
We only had a little problem with a flat tyre, which turned out to be not so easy to repair: After the 3rd or 4th attempt and after nightfall (everybody was freezing) our poor driver Pedro finally succeeded in repairing it - he was really exhausted and desperate - later we knew why: His job was at risk if we gave him a bad evaluation because of this incident. Due to this delay we could not reach our destination of that day and Pedro organized an "emergency stay" in a mining camp - which was real adventure. The entire barracks were heated by geotermal energy, so outside it was bitterly cold (altitude 4300 m) and inside it was boiling hot and stuffy. The miners were very friendly, having dinner and playing pool. They did not go mad when they saw the girls ;-) The next morning (or better: in the middle of the night) we all woke up with a terrible headache (high altitude sickness / lack of oxygene), some were really bad, but we survived however and the sight of the geysers the next morning (just around the corner) compensated for the hassle.
From Tupiza I crossed the Argentinian border and now am back to Salta.
Tomorrow I will cross the great flatlands of the "Chaco" towards Resistencia and then go into Paraguay, heading for the Iguacu Falls.
The most fascinating place up to now in South America is the Salar de Uyuni, the largest and highest Salt Lake on Earth. Crossing it you spend hours and hours in a sea of white and blue, just driving straight in one direction. Despite the crystal clear air you can't see the other shore, only some islands and the majestic vulcano Tunupa. Fascinating also to know that the salt layer is 200m thick. It's the remnants of an ocean that had been trapped between the eastern and western cordillera of the Bolivian highlands (during the crash of the asian and american tectonical plates).
Btw: the Titicaca lake is another relict of this "incident". However, although they also have the highest and largest shippable lake on earth this does not give Bolivia the long-desired access to the sea - Bolivia is the only south american state that does not have any direct or indirect ocean access - the've lost the access to the pacific in a war against Chile and lost another war against Paraguay when trying to gain indirect access via the rio Paraguay.
The day after having returned to Tupiza, I continued the journey south, heading towards Salta again, closing the big loop. From Tupiza to the Argentinian border it's ripio (gravel) road again. The mean aspect of this road is that it declines to both sides, so if you are not 100% concentrated you might get too close to the ditch. Actually this is what happened to me. I went at some 60 km per hour and had to reckonize that I could not turn back to the center of the street without skidding and falling immediately. So I opted for carefully slowing down and headed towards the ditch. When I entered the ditch I still had some 30-40 km speed and subsequently lost control of the bike - which looks like a stupid slalom but is no nice feeling at all. Finally the bike and me fell down - but at so little speed that nothing happened - neither to me nor to the bike. I quickly got up, removed my helmet, gloves and jacket and put the bike on its stand. Luckily I was (again) alone on the road, so when the next truck came along I was already ready to resume the journey.
After it had been rather hot the last days, after crossing the border with Argentina at la Quiaca, the wheather became rather November-in-Germany like: Grey, cold and rainy. Actually it was the first time I could remember that I got a little wet on the bike. However, before entering Salta, the rain had stopped and the clouds vanished. Some 100 km before Salta I got to know a professional tourist guide while having a cup of coffee at a service station. He recommended a different route than the normal highway to me. It tourned out to be a marvellous twisted narrow motorcycle road with hardly any traffic, along a lake and through subtropical jungle - a perfect recommendation!
In Salta I took just a quick intermediate stay to do my laundry, finish the 2nd newsletter and try to cure my cough. The hotel does not have breakfeast facilities but a good cafeteria just 2 minutes away. However when I did not get up in the morning - since the cough had held me awake for some time during the night - my lovely caring landlady knocked at the door at around 11 a.m., bringing breakfast and camomilla tea. She really loves me like a son: I had lived there during my last stay in Salta - when leaving in the morning she had blessed me, looking worried about the dangers that were awaiting me in Bolivia and Peru.
Next day I got up early, heading almost 900 km southeast through the Chaco towards Resistencia (which is actually the next city - there's just tiny villages in between). The Chaco is a vast green, hot, humid and fertile flatland at low altitude, including parts of Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina. Vast means that approx 700 of the 850-900 km that I travelled that day were a straight line through the Chaco - without any curves at all. However I like the Chaco: It's green, silent, endless and sunny - and every once in a while a dead cow is gazing at you from the ditch. The only drawback in the Chaco was a policemen that stopped me in "Pampa de Guanacos" and wanted "money for beer" - him poor me rich. I did not like his attitude at all - neither his beerbelly, so I gave him a peso (0,30€) and told him that's all I had. Although disappointed he finally had to let me go.
I spent the night in Resistencia, the capital of the Chaco. The only nice thing about this city are the few parks it has. It seems to be an important center for the shopping needs of the people of the province, since there are really huge amounts of shops, pharmacies etc. with big, colourful advertising billboards all over the streets. So I left it quickly and went to the capital of Paraguay, Asunción.
I wanted to spend two nights here. After spending the evening in the city, I quickly decided to leave the country as quickly as possible. Despite being the capital city - and despite walking through the entire city centre with a good guide book - I could not find a single decent restaurant. There was just one fast-food restaurant (with waitresses in orange dresses, who seemed to have jumped out of a Walt Disney movie) and a Bistro-like place that did not look too bad but I found too late. There were no other restaurants, just five or six Karaoke bars and a kind of Pub. Although it was saturday night between nine and ten, the city was virtually empty, no people, only a few families with children, some guards and workers - but not at all what you would expect from a major city in south america. So I decided that any european town with more than say 50.000 inhabitants has a more interesting nightlife - and that Asuncion must be the city of the living dead - and fled as fast as I could. However - to be fair - all the people I met in Paraguay and Asunción were extremely friendly, open-minded, warm, funny and affectionate. Even the truck drivers stopped, winded there window down, smiled at me and showed the typical thump-up sign. Car drivers shouted "where you're from?" and "good luck!". I decided to me that Paraguay seems to be an extremely family friendly but extremely boring country. Just to make sure, I visited a student city called Villarica and a german colony called Independencia - both was nothing special and could not hold me from leaving the country after just one day.
So I left Paraguay, entered Brazil at Foz do Iguaçu, left Brazil and entered Argentina the same day (my passport is really filling up with stamps). The Iguaçu falls are absolutely impressive. Unfortunately large groups of tourists make it difficult to really enjoy the place. Another drawback is the fact that the walkway to the major attraction, the "garganta del diablo" is inundated and therefore closed. But that's life - anyway the Iguaçu falls are a beautiful sight.
Tomorrow I will go to Curitiba in Brazil and try to find a BMW agency for a thorough inspection of my little bike.
My brain does not get used to the fact that it is November, when every day it is getting hotter (around 35 degrees) and the sun is so strong that between 1 and 5 pm you have no ambition to do anything else than stay in your hotel room or somewhere else where it´s not as hot. From seven in the morning onwards you already try not to stay too long in the sun, since it gains force quickly. No wonder that the hormons go mad and suddenly most women are beautiful - spring greetings from Brazil! ;-) However it´s not only the sun but also the excessive use of push-ups and the lack of clothing - or let´s call it stimulus overflow (Reizueberflutung) that inhibits normal brain function.
But there are also other beauties that I could enjoy in the last two days on both sides of the famous Iguaçu falls.
Since on Mondays the Brazilian side is closed, I visited the Argentine side first - which was really stunningly beautiful. A lot of water, a lot of green and a lot of butterflies and other animals. And above all unfortunately a lot of tourists (surprise!), which actually made it difficult to really enjoy the stuff in peace and let the impressions enter your heart.
Till next day´s morning I was insecure whether I should stay an addtional night on the Brazilian side and watch the falls from there too - or better go directly to Curitiba, near the Atlantic coast. The friendly woman at the Brazilian customs helped me with this decision. It was apparently the first time she filled in the ADMISION TEMPORAL form, so she needed more than an hour to fill it in (at the end she apologized a thousand times for the delay). I used the time for some motorcycle maintenance and then decided that it was too late for Curitiba - looked for a hotel in Foz do Iguaçu and visited the falls again. It was a very good decision - from the Brazilian side the falls are even more impressive - you get a broader panoramic view and addtionally there is a catwalk right in the middle of a series of huge waterfalls which is the most impressive of all. You get soaking wet and are surrounded by thundering water - I really loved it - not only because I urgently needed a some refreshment. Also you get a lot closer to the central attraction of the waterfalls - the devil´s throat - an almost 300 degrees waterfall boiling pot - which you usually can closely see from the Argentine side - but currently cannot due to inhundation of the catwalk.
After breathing this high-end wonder of nature, I decided to get to the other side of the city of Foz do Iguaçu, to visit the biggest construction of the 20th century and the world´s largest hidroelectric power plant: Itaipu (http://www.itaipu.gov.br/). Of course you can´t compare it to nature´s masterpieces (in plain english: it´s ugly) but however the sheer dimensions and the fact that this power plant covers 25% of Brazils and 95% of Paraguays power requirements with renewable energy is really impressive. (I believed you can cover 95% of Paraguay´s power requierements with a single cheap Diesel generator from the do-it-yourself store - but it seems that Karaoke consumes more energy than I expected ;-)).
Foz do Iguaçu itself is at least as ugly as the power plant. It´s a modern town without any historical buildings. At least it´s openly ugly and does not even try to be nice. Puerto Iguazu on the Argentine side also is a pure tourist town but has a certain charm - somewhat like a north italian beach town in low season: tranquil, cosy and relaxing - and you get more quality for your money in Argentina, both for eating and hotels. But I just started with Brazil - let´s see how Curitiba is like - and whether or not I find a BMW garage where I get an inspection, new chain and tyres for a reasonable price.
I fled as soon as I could from the ugly town of Foz do Iguaçu and took the highway which leads directly to Curitiba. I felt like being back to civilization i.e. back to European standards: A well-maintained highway, very good signage, loads of filling stations and toll stations and - McDonalds.
The highway crossed a large part of the southern state of Paraná, which is a beautiful landscape of green, gently rolling hills, with trees, forests, fields, somewhat like the Auvergne or Alsace or similar landscapes in Germany like the Rheingau/Taunus/Westerwald region. Unfortunately for me, Paraná is also a very prosperous region, which means that the highway is full of trucks, especially in the surroundings of the cities.
Since this region looks very European it was no wonder that I met a couple of people with German ancestors. When I stopped at a filling station and spent some time cleaning one of my bags which was full of melted butter (wuerg!), not only the friendly Brazilian personel were very helpful, but also three different fiendly men stopped and talked to me in German (one in a kind of Plattdeutsch, the northern German dialect). However none of them got the idea to invite me to his home (which most of the Argentines I met did), so obviously the German genes work ;-))
When I entered my destination Curitiba, a real tropical thunderstorm broke down on me. Within a few minutes the streets were flooded and I was soaked. Some street crossings were converted to rivers - waiting at the traffic lights, I had to stand in the floods just above the ankles. Luckily I bought new Gore Tex boots just before I started the journey. Although my motoring suit also is Gore Tex, my feet were the only part of me that stayed dry. Finally, I had the most profound river crossing of all my journey not in the Pampas of Argentina or Bolivia but in the flooded streets of Curitiba. And with short interruptions it did not stop raining since I arrived here. Now I understand why Curitiba is such a prosperous place - and why the Germans feel like at home here.
I planned to spend 2 nights in Curitiba since after 10000 km in South America, I needed a complete motorcycle inspection, a new chain with sprockets and new tyres. There is a very friendly BMW motorcycle dealer in Curitiba but he did neither have the sprockets for the chain, nor the right tyres. He did the inspection though, but the chain and tyres were the more important part. However he phoned two (1) other dealers on my further way in Joinville and Florianopolis and arranged that I will get all the replacements there - so in the end he was utterly helpful.
Coming to Brazil I realized that I had forgotten how it feels to be in a country without speaking the language properly. It is really difficult to make yourself understood when e.g. the hotel receptionist does neither speak Spanish nor English. However, everybody is extremely friendly and helpful and tries their best to understand, help and explain. Even the discussions around what has to be done with the motorbike and how, finally was possible although hard work in a mixture of Spanish, Portuguese and English.
Curitiba is not at all a beautiful city. At first sight it's really shocking - approaching the city you are welcomed by high-rise social housing (?) and office towers. The entire city is dominated by lots of multistorey buildings. However if you stay at least a day and spend some time in the center, especially in the pedestrian zone and the squares around, you slowly get an idea that life here has a certain quality and the city has a certain charme - just like Mannheim ;-) .
There is also some interesting modern 70s/80s architecture - especially the Modern Museum which has the shape of an eye. The city is lively with lots of beautiful green spaces, a neatly cobbled (with white stones) pedestrian area, a sophisticated public transport system (with eye-catching tube-shaped bus stops), a few examples of old colonial architecture and many places with live music and other cultural events.
What's more, Curitiba seems to be a quite attractive for rainclouds, since most of the time I spent there it was raining. Outside the city it never did. So after spending a day of city-walks, motorcycle inspection, chatting with the congenial BMW mechanics and salesman and with a likable and relaxed motorcylist couple from Duisburg/Germany (who were going the opposite way - i.e. to Foz do Iguaçu - and just chose the same hotel since they had the same guidebook), I enjoyed once again the hotel O'Hara's good breakfast (the best up to now: fresh and aromatic pine, melons, banana, fresh orange juice, avocado juice, Yoghurt, scrambled eggs etc.) and started the trip to Florianopolis.
However, before starting I had to find a cash machine for Maestro/MasterCard which is not that easy in Brazil. The night before I already tried but the few international cash machines I found were all blocked "for my own safety" since it was after 22 hrs. So I was very safe but hungry and spent my last few bucks in something cheap to eat. The hotel of course did not accept Mastercard but only Visa (which happens quite frequently with filling stations, hotels etc. in South America - there's still a lot to do in South America for MasterCard's sales and marketing departments).
Finally I obtained some cash, paid and found my way out of the city. I took a detour via the "Estrada da Graciosa" through the beautiful coastal rainforest mountains and via Morretes - a supposedly idyllic town in the middle of this intensely green, hot and humid area (actually I did not find it so idyllic). Unfortunately the detour turned out to be rather long since the road that should take me directly to Joinville and that was indicated on my new Brazilian map, did not exist. I spent some time going the motorway up and down but finally had to almost return to Curitiba and take the motorway to Joinville.
In Joinville I was supposed to get some new tyres but God made me understand that the old ones were still allright and I should not replace them before arriving in Buenos Aires. How did he let me know? Well, first he made the mechanic calculate a horrendous price (almost the same it would cost in Germany), then he made him not accept Master Card (again only Visa), and finally he arranged that in the entire city center of Joinville (which is not that small) there was no international cash machine at all. So I could not pay and therefore I left Joinville (a town dominated by Swiss immigrants) quite fed up and sweating and with my old tyres.
Around two hours later I crossed the bridge to the 'Ilha Santa Catarina' and arrived in Florianopolis. Again a really ugly city - it seems Brazilians love ugly cities with loads of high-rise buildings. The boardwalk (Strandpromenade) mainly consits of a 6 or 8 lanes highway and a very narrow footway where the people of Floripa enjoy the sunset together with thousands of passing cars.
The Duisburg bikers couple had recommended a tranquil and beautiful beach place in the south of the island - but first I had to do some laundry, buy bathing trunks, check for portugese language courses and buy the sprockets and the chain. I did not succeed with the sprockets (BMW is closed on Saturdays), neither with the language courses (could not find the tourist info) - but succeeded with the bathing suite and the laundry. So I will return later to get the sprockets and content myself with the self-study language course I brought from Germany.
I somewhat got the idea that people in Florianopolis are just as in any other tourist place in Italy, France or Spain - not really friendly and mainly caring about earning money. However also here you find extraordinary people: I had parked my motorbike in a guarded place which cost me 2 EUR per night. However I found out on Saturday that on Sundays it is closed and there's no way to get my bike. However the young guy who explained this to me (of course again in portugese) just gave me the remote control for the gate, trusting in me - a complete stranger - to return this remote control to a hotel nearby before leaving on sunday - and he gave me his private telephone number in case I had any problems in getting out the bike on Sunday. It must be something in my eyes I guess ;-)
I was very quickly fed up with Floripa (Florianopolis). So on Sunday I packed my stuff and set out for the tranquil south of the island. Since it's a rather small island, I already arrived at my destination - the 'Posada Sitio dos Tucanos' at around 10 in the morning.
It's actually a beautiful place in the middle of some kind of natural park, some 2 km from the beach - with a beautiful view of the sea and the islands. The next village is Pantano do Sul, which almost looks like an authentic and unspoilt fisher village. The beach is a huge strech of white sand the few tourists that are here in spring are far away from each other, so everybody has maybe a kilometer of beach for themselves.
The german (female) boss of the Posada, Gerta, seems to be born for this job. She's very friendly, helpful and has quite a professional and perfectionist attitude. And she likes motorcyclists :-). The Part of the Posada where I live is what you call a lodge, wooden apartments on wooden pillars in the middle of the wild flora and fauna with marvellous big and colorful butterflies, huge lizards, strange frogs that make kind of drumming sound during the whole night (luckily not closely to my apartment), toats that make a trumpet sound, dozens of bats, millions of crickets and cicadas, and millions of sandflies, mosquitoes and horse flies that dearly do love me.
After riding 10.000 km through south America I had planned this stay in the middle of my journey (at least of the south american part of the journey) as 2 or 3 weeks of "recreation" - before continiuing the journey southwards to Buenos Aires and Patagonia. So there won't be a lot to report in the next days just maybe the temperature of air and water and maybe some photos of the beach beauties
Approaching the airport from air, an immense and sheer endless cityscape of grey steel and concrete unfolds in front of me, dominated by large rows of skyscrapers and an apparently infinite number of multistorey apartment blocks. The dark sky is covered by thick clouds and the rain seems never to stop. No, I am not the Blade Runner and this is not the Los Angeles of the year 2019 - but São Paulo in the year 2005.
The first impression reflects exactly what I expected of a south american city of 17 million inhabitants: Huge, ugly, polluted and full of cars and people. Arriving at the hotel with the supposedly best value for money in town, the Accor Formule 1, I have to queue with 20 other recently arriving guests at the reception. The hotel is very efficiently organized covering a large number of guests with a minimum deployment of staff. The rooms are clean, practical and comfortable. You pay per room and there are beds for 3 persons in the room. So if you are in a group of three, you pay around 9 EUR each. Unfortunately none of the girls I asked on the street wanted to share the room with me. Maybe this is due to my overwhelming sex appeal or just because I wanted to share the cost?
The rain continued the next day. No reason not to explore the city. I still had the images of Bolivias captital La Paz in my mind. What a contrast. This here is almost like any large western city: Just as clean, organized and civilized as any of them. From the tourist office I obtained a guide for a recommended walk along the tourist places of downtown Sao Paulo. I expected it to be a short stroll of maybe two or three hours, it turned out to fill almost the entire day. At midday the sun came out and changed the face of the city. Actually Sao Paulo turned out to be a lively place with large open and green spaces, music and smiling people. Even the air pollution did not seem to be especially intense - in Mannheim it smells often worse.
The city has its shadows of course. You have to keep out of some neighbourhoods to be safe (although you don't feel limited however), cross the downtown area at night only in taxi and in some areas of the city center the oppressive poverty catches the eye: Homeless people built small huts of carton and blue plastic bags in the green spaces close to the palace of justice and under viaducts, surrounded by the garbage they collected cause it might be of some value to them. In some corners of the shopping streets, groups of homeless sat lined along the wall with blankets and their few belongings - one of them even with a little child.
Nightlife is a problem. The cities structure is somewhat like Berlin: There are several separate neighborhoods and there's no place where bars and discoteques are concentrated (like for example in Frankfurt - Sachsenhausen) and you have to go far to find decent places, while the meaning of 'decent' is obviously quite dependent on your personal 'gusto'. If you are like me looking for a plain and simple place with life music like Jazz, Blues or Brazilian stuff, without smartly dressed bouncers and with a relaxed and diverse crowd - then you really have to know where to go and you need a car here. So what I did is follow the advice of my guidebook and walked a couple of streets and neigbourhoods in the evening - and only almost found what I was looking for.
Buses are a problem. The problem with the buses in Sao Paulo is that there are no plans at all, none at the stations, none at the terminals' information desks and none at the tourist office an none in the internet. You can obtain a 2-kilo book of all bus lines, but this is outdated in the moment it is printed. So for a foreigner using the bus for a longer distance within the city is almost impossible. Since the metro system still has some huge gaps, this makes you either walk a lot or - if you are in a hurry - take a taxi. So what I did - and what in my opinion usually is the best option to get to know a city - is long and exhausting walks through large parts of the neighbourhoods like Pinheiros, Vila Madalena, Jardins, Moema, Brooklin, that were recommended in my guidebook. So I can tell, the city is really big.
All in all, when I sat in the plane to Brasilia after almost 3 days in Sao Paulo, I came to the conclusion that it might appear intimidatingly huge - but it's a surprisingly friendly, civilized and liveable place to be - as long as you dispose of the necessary monetary resources. :-)
Another déjà-vu: When the plane brakes through the dense layer of clouds, an intensely green and sparsely populated landscape becomes visible though the curtains of rain. My inner eye recalls the touchdown in Cardiff/Wales 1995 with very positive memories.
First red dirt roads contrast with the green fields and forests, but then the red dirt is swiftly and increasingly being replaced by grey asphalt. Suddenly the landscape changes and is apruptly converted into city: Brasilia, Brazils capital.
Since I only carry hand luggage I quickly leave the building. It is still raining. I stop at the tourist info, asking for the bus to the center. A young guy apparently working there and just having finished his shift walks with me to the bus station and explains in detail and broken English how to get to my accomodation. Then he even calls the hostel with his private cellphone just to find out that it's fully booked. The alternative accomodation turned out to be a very cheap but also very small, basic and windowless place.
This is the price you have to pay if you refuse to reserve your accomodation in advance. Being on the motorbike it makes complete sense not to reserve in advance, since you often don't know how far you get that day. But going by plane it was just the habit - I just did not think about making a reservation. Neither did I arrange a city tour - since I am used to explore cities on foot or on motorcycle.
But now I realized that especially Brasilia is farely impossible to explore on foot. The distances are just too large. The city is rather planned for cars, not for pedestrians or cyclists. You will understand this latest when you try to cross the 6-lane eixo monumental without any traffic lights available and the cars and buses heading for you at some 80 kph.
I just had planned to stay for two nights, so it would make sense to arrange a tour for the next day. The landlord of my accomodation offers tours (although in Portugese) in his private car for 40 EUR for a 4-hour-tour, so I agreed with him upon starting the tour at 10 in the morning of the next day. He gave me a good feeling since I was mostly interested in Brasilia's modern architecture and he told me to be an architect. The next day at around eleven, without the landlord showing up, I started getting slightly impacient. It was still raining.
When he finally arrived, he apologized and told me that he had a severe headache and a friend of his, a taxi driver, would do the tour with me instead. Now I got really pessimistic and sceptical and thought about cancelling the whole thing. But I didn't have a choice - and finally the tour turned out to be better and more interesting than I had expected, although it was very difficult to take fotos due to the pouring rain. Actually the rain did not really stop for the entire duration of my stay. Luckily I had only planned two nights - which proved to be by far enough to get a good impression of the city.
Once again I had a very positive experience with the local people. I had agreed with the young taxi driver who took me on the city tour, to make a tour of 4 hours for a fixed price. Finally the tour took us some 3:40 hours and the driver consented to bring me to the airport the next day (which usually takes some 20 Minutes) - without extra charge. Since I had already paid him I was not at all sure if he would really show up - why should he? However he did - and even 5 Minutes before the agreed time. Another example of how wrong our prejudice towards other people can be.
Some 80-90 percent of Brasilias public buildings (just like a significant number of buildings in Sao Paulo - like for example the South America Memorial) are designed by Brazil's No 1 architect, Oscar Niemeyer, a Brazilian architect with German ancestors and "a pioneer in the exploration of the constructive possibilities of reinforced concrete. His buildings have forms so dynamic and curves so sensual that many admirers say that he is more monumental as a sculptor than as an architect." (Wikipedia) You don't have to find his buildings beautiful, but they are at least interesting and impressive - and that's why Brasilia is UNESCO cultural world heritage. Apart from Niemeyers buildings there are above all some huge modern hotels and a few equally huge and modern shopping centers of which at least one has some architectural ambition.
Brasilia has always been heavily disputed. It had to be built since this was fixed in the constitution - but it was a costly project: Brasilias construction had its toll on the public deficit and the inflation. These factors did contribute to the instability of the government and the military coup of 1964. The city's success of it is still not secured: Due to its large extension you need a car here - but there is by far not enough parking space - and the traffic congestions become more and more frequent. The city was only planned for 500.000 inhabitants (for reasons of safety and controllability of the crowd) - but it's becoming increasingly difficult to control this number. Brasilians metropolitan area has - including its sattelites - 2 Million inhabitants, many of whom are forced to use their car to get to work.
There's nothing positive to say about the coastal road from Florianopolis to Porto Alegre. If you expect beautiful sea-and-mountain views - forget it. It's largely a long truck queue through an industrialized plain with some hills in the background.
I couldn't do a long time without being on the road. Actually being on the road is kind of addictive. The island of Santa Catarina is a lovely place, the Pousada is really homely, every dinner was a feast and ice cold beer was always available - but with the weather not really being beach weather and a few thousand road kilometers waiting for me until end of January, I decided to hit the road again and move southwards.
Since the sun kept hiding behind the clouds I cancelled the beach 'do Rosa' and headed towards the mountains instead. After some 25 kilometers of ascending dirt road I reached the some 600m deep Itaimbezinho Canyon with a view of an impressive waterfall.
While I continued my way into the Sierra Gaucha, riding at an altitude of some 800m into the late afternoon, it was getting cold on the bike. So I was happy when I reached my destination, a small town called Canela in the middle of the green hills.
This town is mainly characterized by italian and some german and swiss immigrants. It is neat and clean with some nice bars, restaurants and a mix of architecture that makes you believe you are somewhere in South Tirol or Swizerland.
This is what actually characterizes the entire South of Brazil: You don't actually feel like being in Brazil since the infrastructure and the people are so European that it almost bores you: The asphalt roads are in perfect condition, the drivers have some respect for each other and for the pedestrians and rarely use their horn. The towns and cities are clean with asphalt roads and you find all comodities of civilization that you are used to. You do feel as safe (or even safer) as in any place in southern or central Europe.
So I was almost happy when I got into wild and untamed Uruguay - which is pure irony since Uruguay is even more European than southern Brazil - apart from the fact that it's very scarcely populated. The most shocking fact about Uruguay is that the drivers show a kind of aggressive kindness and consideration towards pedestrians: They already stop and wait for you to cross the road before you yourself know that you want to do so.
However, their attitude towards other drivers is not that kind - it might happen to you on a highway with one lane for each direction and within a no-passing-zone, that two cars overtake you in parallel, which means one in lane 2 and the other on the sidestrip - one at an estimated speed of 120 and the other at 150 with 90 kph allowed officially. But of course these are all Argentines ;-) - who have a very bad reputation in Uruguay.
Since still no beach weather showed up, I drove more or less directly to Montevideo - which turned out to be a real capital and not bad at all - in particular if you compare it to Paraguay's capital Asunción - the world's 'deadest' capital, the 'city of the living dead'. Montevideo has some interesting and impressive architecture, interesting bars, a lot of water around and restaurants and friendly people - apart from my hotel receptionist. However I only stayed two nights and then continued my way towards Colonia del Sacramento, which is a really nice, calm and friendly place with lots of beautiful colonial houses, long beaches (yeah, here finally the weather got kind of 'beachy') and loads of trees along the roads - so actually a place to stay.
Anyway, adventure is waiting for me - and for this I have to return to Argentina - so tomorrow morning I'll take the ferry to Buenos Aires.
No, I don't want to die in a car - this would really be too embarrasingly uncool for a motorcycle adventurer like me. But I felt very close to this early end when returning from the asado with Jorge, Maria José, Juanjo and Beli in Mercedes, some 100 km northwest of Buenos Aires.
I had met them on the road on my way from Salta to San Pedro de Atacama, shortly after starting my trip through South America - and we kept in contact. I had to take the bus to Mercedes, since my bike was not yet finished with the chain and tyre replacement. I stayed at Jorge and Maria José's place some 3 km outside the centre of Mercedes. They have a small house and a big family with 5 children - just like my parents have 5 children. They are all great people and the asado was absolutely delicious. Mercedes is a nice, green, clean, calm and surprisingly rich town northwest of Buenos Aires. Many youngsters who grew up here now work in Buenos Aires and spend their weekends with their friends and family in Mercedes. So does Santiago who took me in his car back to BA. What was planned to be a 1 hour ride turned out to be a really nerve-wracking adventure, since I got a real feeling of argentine driving style. Sunday was the last day of a prolonged weekend (puente), so the road was packed and an accident with a truck involved led to the complete traffic collapse. So since patience it not an argentine driver's principal virtue, they converted the two-lane motorway into a 5-lane one, simply by using the emergency lane and - since the road is not delimited by crash barriers (Leitplanken) - they just add two dirt road lanes by driving though the dust and meadow (which we did for at least an hour). After we passed the crashed truck, the rest of the journey was a kind of roller coaster ride on a three-lane highway with a lot of lane-changing and overtaking from all technically possible sides at an approximately 50% higher speed than the rest of the cars. To my surprise this led only once to a dangerous situation, which I missed out, since I had the eyes closed most of the time.
Buenos Aires itself is a nice and surprisingly lively place with really friendly people and most remarkably (I think I said this before) with the highest density of the most beautiful women in Southen America up to now. The difference to Brazil (Sao Paulo / Florianopolis) it that here even without all the standard weaponry like push-ups, high-heels and make-up you get caught by these amazingly beautiful fine-lined faces and glaring dark eyes.
Apart from that Buenos Aires has an inviting restaurant or bar with huge windows virtually at every street corner - and between them, it has (supposedly) the widest avenue in the world (with 11 lanes - in each direction - delimited by some green strips), loads of nice 1920s architecture, fine squares and load of green spaces. However the poverty is more obvious here than in Sao Paulo, many walkways are full of dogshit and in some areas it is only too obvious that money is missing. I was surprised to find that air pollution in BA seems to be much worse than in Sao Paulo and that in general Sao Paulo seems at least as safe and a lot richer than BA. But BA has one striking advantage - I understand the people and they understand me (at least languagewise).
So hopefully this afternoon my bike will be equipped with new tyres, chain and sprockets, so the journey can continue tomorrow morning, heading south for Bahia Blanca (close to Viedma). I am not yet sure wether or not I want to stay there for five days until the motorcycle traveller meeting starts. I have only some 6 weeks left before going to Mexico and if the decision would be either Ushuaia or Viedma - I'd opt for Ushuaia.
The first 500 km were the worst. The second 500 km were also the worst. And then I slightly lost my enthusiasm... This is probably how Marvin the paranoid android would describe the long ride from BA to Bariloche.
Cordasco Motohaus had finally finished the tyre and chain replacement on Monday (as promised), including a (free) thourough cleansing of the bike - and they even had removed the rests of the transport stickers from the windscreen and polished it. The bike looked gorgeous, standing on the workshop's assembly rack. She remained that clean only for a few km, then the scott oiler and the short rainfall made her look again like a man's bike ;-))
I got the bike back on Monday afternoon and it seemed I had to spend the night from Monday to Tuesday in a different hotel, since the Marbella's reservation told me that a prolongation was impossible since it was fully booked. However Daniel, the great helpful and friendly reception guy, magically found a room for me. So I did not have to move my hundreds of heavy boxes and bags to a different hotel.
With Daniel's instructions I easily found my way out of BA, heading towards Bahia Blanca at the Atlantic coast. The plan was - as the weather would allow it, I would stay at the beach there for some days and then join the traveller meeting in Viedma. Petrus decided differently and the weather was rather worsening - so the next day I headed directly towards Bariloche. In Bahia Blanca I had a drink with Adriano who's mother is Italian and who had spent a few months working in Italia. Adriano really startled me when he told me that he would not like to work in Italy since the peope there (Ancona) are working too hard and too much. Well this does not really conform with the German view of Italy ;-))
The roads south of BA are mainly straightforward and any slight bending of the road (which may occur every few hundred km) is advertised like a hairpin curve. So just not to fall asleep I kept telling me stories I didn't know yet (ok, old joke) and even started to sing a couple of songs of DIE AERZTE, since these are the only songs I know by heart (apart from the first strophes of HOCH AUF DEM GELBEN WAGEN, which I refused to sing. Finally out of pure boredom I even started to hail truck drivers going in the opposite direction by turning up the headlights. Up to now I had got used to being hailed by every mabe 5th truck on the road, becoming more frequent the further you get south. In Germany only bikers hail each other, you don't ever hail a truck. Now I did and got almost a 100% response. The drivers seemed really glad to be hailed (and woken up?) by a martian like me and apart from responding with their lights, happily waved at me when passing by.
Finally I reached the Andean foothills at Zapala and headed southwards through a landscape that got steadily more impressive: The snow capped vulcano Lanin with the beautiful lake and forests around and then the 7 lakes road from Junin through San Martin and Villa la Angostura to Bariloche. Bariloche itself is one of the most touristy places in Argentina, but in December it is still bearable.
My host recommended me the "Aerosilla Cerro Campanario", which is a chair lift up to a small hill, situated some 15 km west of Bariloche. This lift isn't indicated in my guidebook but the view from above is absolutely gorgeous. My host claimed it's one of the world's most beautiful views and I think he hasn't been exaggerating: Chains of snow capped peaks in the background of a landscape of blue lakes and lagoons and numerous green islands. Just incredible. Again: Forget photographs, go and see it yourself. However the most important feature of Bariloche was the lavanderia (Laundry) just around the corner, since I had run out of underpants... ;-)
My way from Bahía Blanca at the Atlantic Coast to Bariloche at the foot of the Andes is an example of perfect project preparation and strict implementation: First I wanted to do the trip in one day. Then Adriano told me that it's 1200 km and I decided to go to Neuque first (500km) and then to Bariloche. Then, when having lunch in Junin de los Andes and leafing through the guidebook while waiting for the lunch to be served, I realized that I probably had to visit the parque Lanin and see the volcano of the same name. I quickly checked at the (very helpful) tourist info for the best place to go and then returned some five km to take the 100 km gravel road through the park. When passing through Junin the 2nd time I realized that it was already time to look for a place to spend the night and stayed at the Hotel Milla Piuké, which was one of the best Hotels with the best value of the entire trip. So finally instead of one it took me three days to get to Bariloche - but I saw some great places. I am here to enjoy and that's what I did.
Driving from Bariloche to El Chaltén and Perito Moreno you have pass - apart from some beautiful national parks of lakes and mountains - some 700 km of dirt road through the steppe, with only very few villages on the way - and even less filling stations and hotels. The landscape is partly impressively beautiful, partly so amazingly boring that it fascinates you and urges you to stop and listen to the absolute silence, smell the air of pure and apparently virgin nature.
Having in mind the amazing distances to the next telephone, you take extra care for your tyres and the entire motorcycle, since it would be rather inconvenient to have to camp hundreds of km away from civilization, not knowing where to get a mechanic and how long this would take. The dirt road is partly in very good shape, so you can go at some 60 to 80 kpm or even more - depending on the risk you are willing to take. However it seems that Argentina is going well - all along the way huge streches of the road are being paved and it won´t take too long until all major roads in Argentine's south are covered by a perfect asphalt layer: The time for the real adventurers is running out...
But still there are some real adventurers - you might call them heroes or just lunatics - people who cover these endless distances on bicicles - fighting hundreds of kilometers meter by meter through rarely changing and mostly uncivilized landscapes, on difficult gravel roads, sometimes with rain and nearly always against strong winds always coming from the wrong direction. I overtook four of them and they did not look very happy nor did they look like willing to have a light conversation. I talked to one of them who had to walk and push his bike due to the strong winds - he was so fed up that he wanted to throw his bike into the ocean when he would arrive in Ushuaia - but he was still able to smile :-) I don't know why they do this but there must be a really strinking reason for punishing oneself so severely.
Leaving the beautiful solitariness of the Patagonian steppe I approached the impressive massif of El Chaltén, the "smoking mountain". The last 100 km on the road to El Chaltén are really impressive - if you are lucky with the weather and the time of day. I was - it was sunny with a few clouds around the mountains and the whole scenery was immersed in the amazing light of the setting sun. Perfect conditions for beautiful pictures. Now it just depends on the photographer :-)
The village of El Chaltén is situated in the Glaciers National Park (Parque Nacional los Glaciares) and is one of the most touristy and most expensive places I have seen in Argentina up to now. Since I arrived lately and did not have the energy to look around a lot, I ended up in a nicely looking but quite expensive hotel with good beds but a very poor quality in detail.
Usually you come here to do some trekking. However this would mean backpacking and spending some nights in refugios or on campgrounds - of which I am no great fan. For camping you need to carry huge backpacks with heavy equipment, which really diminishes the ability to enjoy the landscape. In refugios you have to stay in damp dormitories with several other sweating and snoring people and stinking socks and without oxygen - and you have to do a reservation in advance. Apart from that I was quite pissed off with the contrast between the price and quality levels here, so I left the next day, heading further south, to the famous town of Calafate, with the much more famous Perito Moreno glacier.
The reason for the existence of the tourist town of Calafate is the Perito Moreno glacier. So I spent two nights there and took the time to enjoy the glacier unhurriedly and wait for a greater piece breaking off - just to take some fotos of it. Some people spend days there with the camera ready to shoot but miss the crucial moment.
I waited for maybe an hour and then told a couple next to me that I was going to leave now and therefore of course something spectacular was about to happen (when I was gone). The glacier seems to have heard this, since fifteen minutes later a huge double break-up ocurred, with great chunks of ice crashing into the water, causing impressive noise, waves and spume, much more than you would expect. However I had outsmarted the glacier since I was still waiting with the camera in my hands, just on a different platform - so I succeeded in taking a series of nice action pics. You can see the best of them on my photo site. A few minutes before that event there was a tourist boat at some distance from the glacier and I had wondered why it stayed so far away from the glacier - now I do understand. Already 32 persons died while watching a break-up of Perito Moreno at too little distance.
I had lunch at the recommended Pasta restaurant "La Cocina" in Calafate and had a long talk with the restaurant's cashier, Erwin Walter, who despite his very german name does not speak a word of German. He had crossed South America - including the brazilian jungle - twice with different motorbikes (one of them a Honda Africa Twin) and now was planning to do the same on a tiny 250 cc bike. Obviously he loves challenges and motorbikes. And he was very helpful, recommending me the only motorcycle mechanic in town to repair my oil-leaking fork. Unfortunately Mono, the mechanic did not have the time to repair them but told me that there shouldn't be a problem to continue the journey without repair, just adding a little fork oil every once in a while. He even told me where to get some fork oil at a good price.
Since I had some time left in Calafate - and my lower neck had been very tense and steadily hurting after 16000 km of almost contiuous riding - I decided to get a massage. In a luxury hotel close to my own budget one I got a very good massage for a very good price (less than 20 EUR). It turned out to be a complete body massage, so I was happy that it was a man who did this, so I did not get too excited ;-) And it did really help. However it looks like I am getting old, with a hurting neck, blood circulation problems in one arm while driving, preferring a cosy hotel room to a tent ... let's see what comes next ;-)
Apart from the Perito Moreno the Glaciers National Park offers several other glaciers, some of which you can visit on an all-day boat trip which had been recommended to me. But don't all glaciers look the same? I had seen my first one a few years ago in Norway and was deeply impressed. Perito Moreno is also impressive but the effect was already not as deep as the first time. Any other glacier would just be any other glacier, I'm afraid.
"Nothing prepares you for the spectacular beauty of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine", sais my guidebook "South American Handbook". Bullshit.
It's nice and beautiful but the author should see the "Tre Cime" in Italy's Dolomiti mountains. They are embedded in much more spectacular surroundings and give a lot more beautiful views - in my opinion. But maybe when you do one of the multi-day trekking tours with all the necessary tents, food and equipment, then you might find out what's so spectacular (which I doubt). I just did a one-day hike to a lookout point from where you have a great view of the (okay: impressive) huge tower-like rocks. But I have seen more interesting mountain scenery in my life.
The Torres del Paine national park is situated in the souternmost part of Chile, which is actually cut off the Chilenean mainland, so all Chileneans who want to get there have to take the boat or plane or have to pass through Argentina. On my way there I met a group of two couples from Colombia on two BMW motorbikes. They were doing a 7 weeks ride from the north to the south of the continent (return by flight/ship) and were perfectly equipped with new bikes, matching suits, intercom and a Garmin navigation system. We met several more times on our parallel way to Ushuaia and - what a surprise - they were really nice.
I also met Germans on the way - like all over the journey: Some youngsters in their twenties, other (less youngsters) in their fifties. Strangely the youngsters were really uncool, using the formal "Sie" instead of the more personal and relaxed "Du". On the contrary almost all the German travellers, that I met on the road - 30, 40, 50 or 60 years old - quite naturally used the "Du". So either young Germans have a strong tendency to uncoolness or I really do look that old... :-)
Everything (accomodation, admission, food) in the Torres del Paine park is extremely expensive, since CONAF, Chiles governmental nature conservation organization, uses the money from this park to also foster other parks and projects. So I decided to finally justify the heaps of camping equipment (tent, matress, sleeping bag, cooking set etc) that I had been carrying around for the last 3 months without using it. Sorry, I prefer a real bed in a real room. However the evening of 23rd was really nice since I quickly made friends with German (the latino equivalent to Hermann) and Panchi, both chilenean trekking guides and with Luis, who was working on the campsite. We spent the evening at the campfire, chatting and drinking until early morning, together with a funny american-australian girl group of four young child carers / teachers.
Contrary to that evening the 24th was rather quiet with some really awful self-cooked noodles and reading. A young german couple who had recently arrived asked me for the cooking equipment, which I borrowed them, so they were really grateful. But not grateful enough to have the idea to have at least a beer together. This is one of the great differences between the latinos (above all the argentinos) and the Germans. A latino would invite you to have dinner with him and you would end up with a booze-up or at least spend half night drinking and chatting. A (typical?) German does not even have the idea - or is too distant to put it to reality. This is one of the conclusions to which I came due to my experience with a bunch of different people in South America - and this is something I love about the South Americans. On 25th I set off for Ushuaia, the world's southernmost city.
Ushuaia is just like the North Cape - nothing of beauty, you just have to be there once, because it's the world's southernmost city. Wrong. Well, only partly right. Ushuaia itself is not interesting. Just another tourist town. However, the scenery of the surrounding mountains, the Beagle channel and the (almost) arctic skies is beautiful and worth a one-day-visit at least.
During Christmas on Ushuaia's 'Rio Pipo' campground motorcycle travellers from all over the world meet and celebrate. I arrived two days late for this - and it was cold and raining when I arrived - so I had some good reasons not to camp :-)
Ushuaia's mountain scenery and the beautiful view over the Beagle channel come really surprising. So does the great new asphalt road that winds its way through the beautiful landscape of mountains and lakes towards Ushuaia - since some 90 percent of the maybe 700 km from Torres del Paine to Ushuaia are very boring, flat and straightforward. After having passed several days through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego one is rather fed up with flat and featureless landscapes. So I was quite happy and grateful for the beautiful landscapes around Ushuaia.
In Ushuaia I tried to add some fork oil. Unfortunately I had to find out that during the last inspection the brazilian BMW mechanic had fixed the fork's screws so hard that it was impossible to release them without destroying them. So I have to go ahead losing fork oil without refilling it until I find a mechanic on my way to Santiago. I asked for advice in the horizonsunlimited.com bulletin board and everybody told me that I could go ahead even completely without fork oil - the bike would just get a little worse in handling but nothing would be destroyed. So this is what I did - for several thousand km - without any obvious problems.
After one night I left Ushuaia, spending a night just before the border crossing to Chile, in a run-down but cheap 70ies style hotel, which would have been really nice (lots of brown and orange colours and typical late 70ies/early 80ies interior) if not quite neglected. So to compensate for this, I spent the next night in quite a luxurious place in Puerto San Julian, a few hundred km further north. I got there taking the Ruta 3, which is perfectly asphalted and allowed me to cover a large distance at some 120 kph. I had seen enough of Patagonia and was fed up with Patagonia's gravel roads - so I wanted to get into Chile's south and on the famous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) as soon as possible.
When I arrived at the hotel I noticed that I was almost deaf: At a continuous speed of 120 kph the wind was so loud that I had my auditory buzzing the entire evening and still the next morning. So I decided to use my (almost) brand new silicone ear plugs. I heard about people (mainly female) who have this substance implanted into their breasts to look sexier. I understand that, I looked already a lot sexier with that stuff in my ears. However.. I would not like to have it implanted in whatever part of my body...
The funny thing about the small town of Puerto San Julian in the middle of nowhere was that in the evenings the youngsters had nothing better to do than drive the town's only Avenida up and down, apparently for hours and hours. Incredible, isn't it? However it seems to be a kind common mental disease in the South Argeninian countryside (maybe a follow-up of mad-cow-desease?), since the next evening I saw the same ritual happening in Perito Moreno town as well. Poor guys, so bored and no better ideas what to do...
Heading further north on the Ruta 3, I took a short 100 km gravel road detour (who would do this in Europe?) for one of the famous "Bosques Petrificados" (petrified forests).
The naming "bosque" is quite an exaggeration since it's about a few (in this park maybe less than 10) extremely old (150 Mio years) but reckognizable tree trunks, lying around in a complete desert. However, it's amazing - these trees have actually turned to stone but you can still reckognize the annual rings (Jahresringe) and knotholes (Astloecher). Some of the trunks are still 30 m long. Anyway, it's rather interesting for (Hobby-) Archeologists than for the common (philistine) public like me.
After this excursion I stopped in a small kind-of restaurant by the roadside, asking for a sandwich and some coffee to recover forces. However, first thing I had to do was to pose for a couple of photos in front of my "immense" motorbike together with the entire family and then with different family members. Once again I felt like a martian - but this is still better than being robbed, isn't it?
After changing from my direction from northbound (Ruta 3) to westbound (Ruta 43), I had to pass through a short 60 km strech of gravel road and then through the towns of Pico Truncado y Las Heras. These towns usually don't appear on tourist maps, and now I know why. They are situated in a flat and ugly landscape of oil fields with the typical pumps and surrunded by an amazing amount of trash. The soil around these small towns is covered by tiny bushes and there is not a single bush at a 2 km diameter around these towns, that is not covered with plastic bags or other trash. Luckily when having passed these towns, also the oilfields soon end, and you are alone again on the perfect new asphalt highway, heading towards the setting sun. Only once in a while your contemplation is disrupted be a truck moving in the opposite direction.
I was very lucky with respect to the wind. During the preparations for the trip I heard and read a lot of horror stories of people being pushed off the road by the storm or having to stay in the middle of nowhere due to the wind being too strong to drive. I did not experience any of this. Even during my journey towards the West, when the wind should have been blowing directly into my face, it came just from behind and actually pushed me towards the Andes.
Finally I left Argentina (probably for the last time during this journey) and entered Chile. After all the Patagonian flatlands I was really happy to enter the south chilenan landscape of huge forests, mountains and lakes. The weather was changing (worsening) and thick clouds were hanging over the immense and beautifully situated tourquoise-coloured Lago General Carreras, which gave it a particularly impressive aspect.
After being rather spoilt by the perfect asphalt road during the last two days and for maybe 1400 km, the chilenean road along the lake was rather shocking: Very rough gravel, partly not allowing more than 20 kph. But some 50 km after the border it got better and I could risk to catch a glimpse of the marvellous landscape without stopping or falling into the lake.
On my way I met a BMW Enduro training group: 7 men in their 50ies+, without time but with loads of money, riding on gravel roads on their new big BMW enduros from Bariloche to Ushuaia in approx 2 weeks. They carried no luggage but had a support vehicle behind (not a BMW X model !), a trainer, brand new equipment and probably loads of fun. They did in one day what I did in three... well I really took my time to enjoy and take loads of photos - I assume they could not. But maybe they had digital cams fixed to the bikes and to the escort car. ;-) The trainer, wearing a red BMW overall, was the youngest of all - and recommended a motorcycle repair shop on the way, where I could get my front suspension fixed.
On 31st, new year's eve, a german couple, Tanja and Martin, on Honda African Queens ;-) overtook me, we stopped and had a chat. They turned out to be on the road for 21 months, having crossed Canada, Alaska, California and several national parks in the US, Mexico, Central America, great parts of South America and now approaching the end of their impressive journey in Buenos Aires. They seemed to be really tough (especially Katja) and much better gravel road drivers than me. They slept most of the time in tents and Tanja, despite being significantly smaller than me, drove a bike at least 50 kg heavier than mine, significantly higher than mine and heavily packed. She had impressed quite some people on the road with her driving skills but however was dreaming of a less heavy bike.
We arranged to meet and spend the night in the next village, Cerro Castillos. Having arrived there, we had a very well improvised sandwich and some coffee in the village's only and recently opened internet café. The café was actually the owner's family's tiny private house and we had the sandwich in the living room and used their only bathroom. Before we left to pitch our tents on the nearby campground, they invited us for their new year's eve celebration with a Cordero (lamb) roasted the Patagonian way on an open fire. We started at around 9, brought some beer and wine and had a really nice evening with some really great people. Nivaldo - the host and father of the owner of the internet café - and Gerardo - a local who works in Arica, some 3800 km from here - had just returned from a 2-day rescue horse trip in the mountains. They had rescued a young israeli hiker who injured her knee and foot when crossing a glacier. Gerardo was not used to horse riding and his entire body hurt. But he was happy. They don't take any money for this service, just do it out of pure idealism.
On New Year's day - just after one day - we decided to split up again: Katja and Martin wanted to continue the asphalt road northwards while I decided to check the gravel detour recommended by Gerardo. After a few hundred meters on the gravel road I was already fed up: The bike's steering behaved really strange and I presumed that I was finally noting the contiuous loss of fork oil. So I decided to return and take the asphalt road and look for a mechanic in the next town, Coihaique.
It hardly took a kilometer when I came across with Katja and Martin again, who had stopped to talk to another couple of german motoqueros travelling in the opposite direction. Martin had a short look at my bike and told me that I had a flat front tyre. Great. Luckily he offered his help since he knew how to change it and quickly did so - largely without my own intervention. Apparently when the tyre had been changed in Buenos Aires, the mechanic had punctured and patched the tube - but now the patch had peeled off. Great. So now we had to replace the expensive and resistant motocross tube by the cheap Pirelli replacement I had bought in Argentina. However again fortune favoured the fool (ich hatte mehr Glueck als Verstand) and thanks to Martin's attentiveness, knowlege, skills and his electric compressor (and thanks to the fact that they had stopped on the road), the repair was done smoothly.
So we continued together to Coihaique, where we had lunch and then said farewell once again. I stayed in Coihaique to do my laundry, update my blog etc. while they wanted to go straight to the Ventisquero Colgante, the hanging glacier.
Coihaique is not a particularly nice town, but it served as good place for all the little errands I had to do, find a new book, new tube, change money, do laundry, update blog, clean chain from dust etc. I stayed for two nights and then did another 200 km northwards to the little and idyllicly situated village of Puyuhuapi. I spent another two nights in this tiny village in the Casa Ludwig, a huge 4-storey German wood house - and took the time to take a walk to the famous hanging glacier. Although clouds were hanging deep and it kept raining all the time, I was lucky (once again) and cought some beautiful views of this mass of ice hanging between two moutains.
I left Puyuhaipi (or whatever this place was called) during a short rain pause - and arrived 200 km later completely soaked in Chaitén. The last 50 km had been like driving though a very long car wash, just without getting cleaner.
Luckily in Rita's place, a very basic and low-budget but cosy hostel, there was a kind of fireplace where I could dry my stuff.
However there was no point in drying my bike suit since the next day I rode into the Pumalin park to have a walk - and got completely soaked again. Would it ever stop raining?? The worst thing is that always very shortly after it starts raining, I sit in a puddle of lukewarm water (since the seat catches the heat from the engine), which is like sitting in your own pee. How can we be flying to the moon and still not be able to create really waterproof bike suits??
Southern Chile's landscape is extremely green and seems to consist mainly of steep mountains and swamps. So it's not really a place for human beings but rather for frogs. The frogs were even feeling well enough to sing all night on the lawn of Rita's Hostel - right under my window - although it was just a normal lawn, not a real swamp. However due to the incessant rain it had turned into a kind of frog-friendly swamp, just like the entire town. When I complained about this "beautiful" summer to a native, he just answered indifferently "Well, that's what it's like". You really need a tough personality to survive here...
The Parque Pumalin is a private park, founded and funded by Douglas Tompkins, who is as far as I remember the founder of Esprit and The North Face and therefore a multibillionaire and luckily also an environmentalist. He bought immense estates in this area with the aim to protect the rainforests from commercial exploitation. By this means he virtually cut off southern Chile from the central and northern part, which obviously caused some criticism, especially with Tompkins being a "Yanqui". Some years ago Tompkins donated the Park to a Chilenean Foundation which takes care of it. The park was declared a Nature Sanctuary in August 2005.
After the wet but beautiful walk in the Pumalin Park, I would have liked to pamper myself in the close "Termas", a vulcano-heated natural spa, but the rainstorms got worse again, so I preferred to stay in-house and have a bottle of wine instead (Frustsaufen). The next day - when I was preparing to hit the road (or better: to hit the ferry) again - and to eventually leave the Carretera Austral northwards, the sun finally came out.
From Chaitén I I took the ferryboat to the island of Chiloe (which turned out to be a nice although not spectacular place) and went more or less straight to Temuco, having short looks at Puerto Varas (small & ok), Puerto Montt (outstandingly ugly and rainy but nice people) and Valdivia (ok so far, with a very friendly and helpful policeman on the central square).
In Temuco there should be two fork seals be waiting for me at Edgardos "Servitren" workshop. However, the seals had not been delivered and Edgardo did not really seem to care at all. He had also forgotten that I wanted an inspection to be done on my bike. Lucky me: I did not remind him, since the looks of the workshop did not really inspire confidence.
However, he recommended a (good) place (MotoMaster, Caupolican 380), where I could get some new tyres - which I did. The bloody Bridgestone TW did not even stand 9000 km, hopefully the brand new Pirelli MT60 will serve a little longer. Anyway, they already feel much better on gravel. No wonder since the Bridgestones had almost no profile left. The mechanic who changed my tyres even managed to loosen the fork screw that I had failed with, so finally I would be able to add some fork oil.
The first evening after having left Chaitén - i.e. after a 10-hours ferry trip and a few hundred km ride - I had realized that I had left my chain lock in Chaitén. It had cost me some 100 EUR, and you don't find such a strong chain lock in all South America. So what could I do? It would be more expensive (and a complete waste of time) to return, so I discussed this with the very helpful concierge of the Chapelco hotel and she recommended "Chilexpress", Chile's national delivery (and money transfer) service. So I sent the key back to Rita's place in Chaiten (4 EUR), sent the money for the package (10 EUR) and Rita (helpful as always) sent me the Chain Lock to Santiago. So when I arrived there later, I could just happily pick it up. Once again, fortune favours the fool :-)
After spending two nights in (fairly ugly) Temuco, in the (fairly nice) Hotel Chapelco, I headed east towards Cunco, the Colico and Caburgua lakes and finally the Andes. On the map I got from the tourist info, there was a very tiny gravel road passing southwards between the andean foothills and the lakes. According to a roadsign the road was called "Carretera Entre Lagos" (The road between lakes). It was really tiny, narrow, partly steep and washed out by the torrential rains but the landscape was absolutely great, green, idyllic and tranquil, with rivers, waterfalls, green hills, snow capped mountains and deep blue lakes.
I spent the night in nice Villarica at the lake of the same name and finally found a good Chile road map, so I could do some more detailed plans for the following days. The next day I went further southeast, passing on mostly good gravel roads along the Calafquen, Pullinque and Panguipulli lakes to Puerto Fuy. On my way I passed by a little accident where a tiny car had crashed into the ditch. A public-transport bus was standing nearby, so were approx. 15 peoble staring at the car. Obviously my help wasn't required (I'm not Samson, neither did I carry a tow rope with me), so I went ahead on the narrow gravel road.
Every half a kilometer there were groups of village people standing at the road, obviously waiting for the bus I had just seen. I got quickly fed up with these chilenean ''country bumpkins'' since they were staring at me like I was green with antennas on my head and riding a spaceship. If the had waved and smiled at me like the Argentines do, it would have been fine - but they just stared like idiots (sorry) and didn't even wave back when I hailed them. By the way: I was used to being hailed by Argentine truckers as well - another thing I rather missed in Chile.
Finally after crossing thick forests and apparently unspoilt lakeshores and swamps I finally reached Puerto Fuy at the shore of the Pirihuelco lake, which is long and narrow like a tube. I had two maps with me, both issued by the Chilean tourist office. One showed a road along the lakeshore, the other didn't. The latter was right: The was no road at all - you had to cross the lake by ferry: Some 90 Minutes ride and I was very close to the border. Just a few minutes more through thick forests on good gravel and I reached the Chilean border post. An hour later I had already passed the Argentine border post and I was in Argentina - San Martin de los Andes - once again.
Actually I did not want to stay in Argentina but cross the border again after a short stop in Villa la Angostura - since it was getting late. Unfortunately in San Martin I had the great idea to finally fill up my fork oil. I did not know how much I had lost - and there was no "MAX" sign visible - so I filled it up completely - rather by accident than willingly since it filled up quickly. This turned out to be a big error. On the first 50km, which was asphalt road, it was fine, the suspension was just a little harder than usually. But then the (rather bad) gravel road started and immediately I ralized that I had commited a big mistake: Actually there was no front suspension left at all: Every pothole caused a severe shock that shook the entire bike so hard that I was afraid something important would break. Great: Winne the mechanic again.
I managed to remove some of the fork oil but did not want to use the oil drain plug, since I was in a national park and everybody knows about the effects of oil in nature. So I had to go VERY slowly, evade every pothole and every stone. Apart from that, in the meantime it had begun to rain, or better: it was pouring down again, so I could double enjoy the trip. The road turned to slippery mud, the potholes filled up quickly and a friendly speeding bus driver managed to get me (and the bike) soaked with mud up to my waist. Actually I had expected it would only be raining on the chilean (western) side of the Andes and be perfect sunshine in Argentina. But: Pustekuchen! (I was wrong.) Once again I was really really drenched when I finally arrived in the small tourist village Villa la Angostura - and of course there was no room left for me in the recommended (i.e. good-value-for-money) places.
So I had to take what was left - the overpriced (50 EUR) but cosy and warm "Pichy Rincón" outside the village. The concierge was a poor idiot. He kept talking to me in english with me talking spanish to him (really, my spanish isn't SO bad ;-)). But the best was when I asked him for a restaurant he described one for which I had to walk half a mile through the rain. I asked him for an umbrella or an alternative solution, which he did not have. When I arrived at the restaurant it turned out that it their main business was food DELIVERY (!!). When I took him to task (zur Rede stellen) when I returned, he just shrugged and shortly apologized: he had forgotten to tell me.
However, the important issue was that my rags dried until the next morning - what they did. The heating was running the entire night, so everything was warm and dry - and the next morning even the sun came out and the road dried quickly. I heavily reduced my fork oil level at the village's service station and headed for Chile again (Entre Lagos/Osorno). I passed through the argentine border post and enjoyed the perfectly paved and perfectly curved mountain road. Finally I had a chance to really use the flanks of my brand new tyres. This was great fun and I realized again that roads like this - which are very rare in South America - are the real "reason for existence" of a motorcyclist like me. ;-)
Chilean border formalities were quick and efficient as always and I soon reached Entre Lagos where I stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant. Two young chilean couples - one of them with a baby - invited me to their table and we had a nice chat and a great meal, finally exchanging e-mail adresses and phone numbers to meet in Santiago. This seems to be the difference between Chilean country and City people. ;-)
From entre Lagos I passed by Lago Rupanco to Puerto Octay in order to drive round lake Llanquihue counterclockwise. This turned out to be a rather spectacular ride, since the famous volcano Osorno had freed itself from clouds and now stood there majestically and incomparably as a perfect sugar-capped cone, dominating the entire landscape, with the big blue shining lake in front of it. I also visited the small but famous village of Petrohué at the lake "Todos los Santos" but just failed to find out what was so special about this place - apart from the thousands of tourists pouring out of hundreds of buses and onto the ferries, crossing the lake on their way to Argentina.
For the 700 km from Temuco to Santiago the information in my guidebook was rather sparse. Since I did not want to do the entire trip on the motorway (which would have been possible in one day), I asked in Temuco's tourist office for the most interesting route. The answers I got were little satisfying, since of course they only had information for their small region and didn't know anything (not even from private excoursions) about the roads and landscapes beyond.
What the young lady told me was that in Collipulli, some 100 km north of Temuco, there is a famous bridge - the largest of its kind in Chile - built by the famous Mr. Eiffel, the guy who built the Eiffel Tower.
So I went for it - and it turned out to be a rather unspectecular rotten railway bridge. From Collipulli I headed West via Cañete towards the pacific coast. The the green hilly landscape could have been beautiful if it didn't almost exclusively consist of Eucalyptus monoculture plantations. These dominate central Chile and are almost entirely owned by large companies. So the vast majority of vehicles that crossed my way were wood transports, carrying Eucaliptus wood to one of the numerous sawmills and ill-smelling cellulose factories. Apart from the large number of trucks that crawl uphill and speed downhill, the roads are very good for motorcyling: Good tarmac and lots of perfect curves. Just the "forests" (plantations) are sooo boring.
"Chile is home to the world’s most expansive tree farms, 3.2 million acres of non-native pine and eucalyptus that have replaced the native and precious “evergreen” forests. Unfortunately, Chile's wood exports reached record levels in the 1990's, particularly to its primary market in the U.S., causing the Chilean government to ignore calls for legislation to protect these unique forests. The result has been a transformation from a vibrant, biologically diverse region into millions of acres of monoculture—a country of non-native tree farms that are a drain on precious water resources and are choked with pesticides and fertilizers that have sent many local residents to the hospital." [www.forestethics.org] Luckily there are people like the US-american Douglas Tompkins, who spent his money in saving large chunks of native forests from this stupid destruction. (see parquepumalin.cl).
Approaching the city of Concepción I passed along the seashore with views of several beaches. Although it was rather cold (an estimated 20 degrees centigrade with a cool breeze from the sea), there were several people enjoying the beach, having a sunbath or swimming. The Chileans must be really tough - I hadn't even put a toe in the water, which is supposed to have some 10-12 degrees.
Concepción is Chile's third biggest city with some 800.000 inhabitants. It's not really special - and for me it was just a place to spend the night - although I was quite impressed by the fact that there was even some not-so-bad live music in a bar round the corner of the Hotel "Cecil" where I stayed. What also struck me, was another chapter of the "Smoking Chileans" story. I believe that every Chilean (male or female) above 15 smokes. Everywhere. They have never heard about smoke disturbing people who are eating or smoke disturbing non-smokers in general. The best was the Hotel Cecil's concierge. Smoking was forbidden in the breakfeast room, there was a sign indicating this. However when the next morning I came to have my (rather poor) breakfast, the concierge was sitting in there, having a smoke. Even when I was eating, he lit another cigarrette. This is just normal here. It's the same for example in internet cafés, with clear non-smoking signs - just nobody cares - nobody but me. Bad times for militant non-smokers. ;-)
From Concepción I went further north through the Eucalyptus plantations along the pacific coastline. The road was mostly perfect for motorcycling - I did not have to bother about looking at the monotonous landscape and therefore could fully concentrate on enjoying the bike and the curves. Finally I entered the motorway near Curico and drove the last 180 km to Santiago on the motorway.
I arrived in Santiago's city center at 9 but did not reach the Hotel Paris before 10, although this is also situated in the center. I just hadn't anticipated the Chilean's reaction to the results of the presidential elections that had taken place that day: The socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet had won (first ever female President in South America) and the entire city center was blocked by thousands of people partying hilariously and hundreds of cars full of people happily waving Chilean and "Bachelet" flags. With the help of my city map and some friendly policemen (who didn't actually know a lot more than me about the traffic situation) I tried out various alternatives and finally and very slowly arrived at the hotel in the middle of the friendly chaos. The moment I got off my bike, a woman stopped and asked me from which newspaper I was. Hu?? Newspaper?? Do journalists recently show up on motorcycles??? Very weird.
First thing I did in Santiago was to bring my bike for inspecion to the "Bimota" service, which had been recommended as expensive but very good. Well, at least "expensive" was right - they wanted to charge me some 1000 EUR for inspection plus change of fork seals - approx double what it would cost me at home in Germany - and this although the hourly rate for the mechanic was approx 1/3rd of what they usually charge in Germany. So how could I find an alternative? Easy, just Google for something like "workshop recommend* santiago" and only let it search chilean sites - by this means I found some independent recommendations of Johnny's workshop. He did good work, is quite a nice guy and charged me less than half of what the others offered. The internet is really a great invention!
It seems I already spent too much time in Chile - I'm finding out things that bother me, like the Chileans perception of Client Service and their ability to drive. The latter is virtually non-existent. I have come to the conclusion that apart from the long-distance Bus drivers, they are completely incapable of driving. They are eihter speeding like crazy (very few) or (the vast majority) wobbling around the central line of the road without realizing what is happening outside, at least 20 kph below the allowed speed, turning off suddenly and without warning in any direction, stopping in the middle of the road without apparent reason, overtaking you and then slowing down on motorways, overtaking trucks at the truck's speed plus 0,05 kph etc. I think they are the worst drivers in South America - and this includes the Taxi drivers who are usually among the best drivers - but not in Chile. Actually during my tour up to now, when I was new to a country, I always thought that there were the worst drivers. But looking back I must say that the Chileans actually are. ;-)
Their perception of Cient Service is equally bad. Want a cheeseburger at McDo at 12 noon? "Sorry, we have only breakfast at this hour." No way to get a burger. Want a hotel reservation in Santiago? Well, you must arrive before six. Need a rest somewhere on a 200 km gravel stretch of Carretera Austral? Not a single roadside Café or restaurant available! Internet access on a Sunday in a tourist town like Coyhaique? Forget it! Taking a foto of the sunset over the city of Santiago from Cerro Santa Lucia? Forget it, no access after 8 pm! Order a book that is not available in the largest bookshop of Santiago? Are you kidding? etc. Well, no country is perfect... oviously. ;-)
After finishing the motorcycle maintenance and other stuff that I had planned to do in Santiago, I had a little more than a week left and did not want to spend this time in Santiago. It's not really that much a thrilling city (although it's certainly not too bad either). So I decided to go to Valparaiso, Santiago's famous harbour.
It took me less than 2 hours to get there and to find my accomodation (pre-booked since it's high season), the Villa Kunterbunt with a large portrait of Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Langstrumpf covering the entrance gate. The Villa Kunterbunt is owned by a chilean-german couple Enzo and Martina, who are living there with their 3 children. Enzo claims himself to be a Punk - although without the looks. I had a long discussion with him and he turned out to have his very own definition of Punk which I would rather call conservatism, to be somewhat euphemistic. However both are nice, friendly and helpful people who have quite a notion of customer service (despite him being chilean ;-)). They are keen to have motorcylist guests and offer their help to motorcyclists all over Chile.
Valparaiso itself has the usual charm of a harbour city, i.e. a little run-down and busy (it reminded me somewhat of Bremen). The city center is surrounded by hills that are mostly covered with nice and colourful buildings and can be reached by a number of funiculars. The most impressive building however is the nacional congress, which is so enourmous and ugly that it must be designed by a socialist government architect. I also explored the coastline south of Valparaiso which has a few nice beaches (usually covered in mist until afternoon), some good twisted new roads and is largely covered by coniferous woodland (finally no Eucalyptus).
After two nights I left Valparaiso heading north, looking for some nice virgin beach to spend some days, enjoying sun and water. There are a lot of more or less nice beaches - with sand and rocks - north of Valparaiso, but they are far from being virgin. The entire coastline consists of resorts and holiday villages - which surprised me since even in high summer (the equivalent of July in Europe), the climate is rather cool and the sun usually does not dissolve the typical mist of the pacific coast before afternoon. Once the sun comes out, it is so very strong that you won't spend a long time under it. I spent only one night in the small town of Papudo, enjoying the quite populated town beach and the sun.
Continuing northbound, heading for the famous town of "La Serena", I left the coast and took the overland road through a hot and mostly arid landscape of mountains and valleys. Proceeding further north, the lower parts of the dry brown hills were increasingly covered by green geometrically looking spots: Vinyards. They got bigger and more dominating the further I approached La Serena. Anywhere where water is available, it seems to be pumped up the hills to feed the vinyards, converting the brown, arid landscape at least partly into a green and fruitful - although oppressively hot - region.
La Serena is a surprisingly nice and calm town with a couple of beautiful colonial buildings. The town is situated a few km apart from the beach and therefore not too much affected by tourism. The beach itself is of course completely spoilt by dozens of high-rise hotels and apartment complexes. However, I didn't want to spend too much time on the beach since most of the time the sky was grey and it was max some 20 degrees, with a cool breeze from the sea. Nevertheless the beach was full of obviously much-tougher-than-me chilean families, with a couple of people refreshing themselves in the icy cold pacific ocean. I also had a look at the close-by habour town of Coquimbo, which was not particularly interesting but dominated by a very ugly huge and accessible concrete cross that was built on top of the "cerro" above the city.
I realized that I had still some time left and had to decide what to do. A look at the map and the decision was done: Some two hundred km eastwards from La Serena, there is the well-known Paso Agua Negra to Argentina, which I wanted to take already at the beginning of my stay but couldn't, since due to its high altitude of 4700m it's only open in high summer. The only insecurity was the fuel again: I had given away my extra can after leaving the Carretera Austral, some 3 weeks ago - and I did not know how much fuel the bike would consume at that altitude - neither did I know the exact distance between the last service station in Chile and the first in Argentina. However, there was no problem at all to cover what turned out to be a distance of just 270 km - and I arrived tired and sweating but without any problems at the Argentine border post (and the close-by filling station). I was really happy when I found a spa hotel nearby, which was exactly what my tired bones and muscles needed after this ride.
I had planned to continue the ride to Mendoza - but chatting with some Mendocinos at the hotel these warned me of 40 degrees at day- and 30 at nighttime. So I decided to stay at this altitude and take the road the led some two or three hundred km southwards alongside the Cordillera Andina, heading for Uspallata on the main road from Mendoza to Chile. Uspallata was not as bad as I expected - for just a little roadside town. It has friendly people, at least two or three decent hotels, an internet cafe with perfect opening times (until 2 a.m.), a big service station, a variety of restaurants and all kinds of shops. On saturday night there is quite some movement - much more than e.g. in Paraguay's capital Asunción - but with a very relaxed atmosphere.
In Uspallata I met a biker couple from Bavaria and another from England: Lisa and Thomas. Thomas had just recovered from an incredible accident somewhere in Brazil, when a small bridge broke under the weight of his bike. He had broke his neck but managed continue riding his bike for 23 days until he got to Sao Paulo and finally entered a hospital. He was operated and needed 2 months of recovery (Actually they wanted to keep him longer but he just wanted to ride again...) (see their website 2ridetheworld.com).
From Uspallata I took the road back to Chile, via the "Paso de los Libertadores". With its huge rocks and colourful mountains and the "Puente del Inca" (a natural bridge over a stream) it's one of the most impressive passes between Chile and Argentina. On the way I met Paúl from Bilbao on his very old and torn Yamaha FJ 1100. He is an ex-teacher who has become a painter a few years ago - but still can afford such a journey... lucky guy! :-) (see his website euskalnet.net/saituapaul/ and euskalnet.net/gametxogoikoa).
Being back to Santiago, I just had to do the final preparations: Make an appointment with the forwarding agency, have the bike cleaned, bring the bike to the airport and strap it to the skid. The last part turned out not to be that easy: Some two weeks before, I had sent an e-mail to my travel agency, asking whether or not the skid was still there. The answer was "Everything fine." Well, bullshit, the skid was gone - somebody did like my strong self-made 200x75 cm skid and had taken it away. As you can imagine, I was rather pissed - but then I told myself that it's just south America - what did I expect?
Hector, the guy from the forwarding agency who had been looking for the skid together with me, got a 2nd hand skid 200x100cm from somewhere and took it and me to his father's place, where we adapted it to my needs. Hector's father is a kind of carpenter and worked hard in the afternoon heat - doing everything manually without electric powered tools. I only had to say what to do and give a hand once in a while. In the end the skid was almost as good as my own one and served perfectly fine. I had still enough time to strap the bike to the skid (with a dismantled front wheel, mud flap, windscreen and handlebars) and finally Hector even brought me in his car to the next metro station, so I could return to the Hotel quickly. So in the end everything worked out fine - why getting upset? :-)
The flight to Cancun was long but without major incidents. 9 1/2 hours from Santiago to Dallas, and 3 hours later a 2 1/2-hour flight from Dallas to Cancun. Loads of Yanquis, but all friendly people (how can this be in Bush-country?? ;-))
Cancun itself is all-right. Well actually I like it. It's clean, safe, warm, has the carribean beaches - but no historical buildings at all. You got all facilities, free open-air life concerts at weekends, cheap and small open-air restaurants run and visited by locals, various interesting restaurants, great ice-cream, equally great tropical fruit juices and loads of very modernly equipped internet cafés.
Luckily most of the gringos stay outside, in the vast hotel zone (where you actually find some nice hotels - "Riu Palace" is my favourite, although far beyond my budget). The hurricane Wilma had heavily struck the entire hotel zone, which is located directly at the seafront. It seem that at least some 90% of the hotels is closed for renovation, some have lost nearly all their windows. In comparison to that, Cancun itself and villages like Puerto Morelos remained pretty unharmed.
Almost all the infrastructure including the towns like Cancun and Playa del Carmen as well as the hotel zones are little more than 20 years old. The entire area had been planned and realized (quite succesfully) as a huge holiday resort by the Mexican government. So Cancun itself is a planned city with loads of green spaces and wide avenues. I like that. The mexican drivers (at least those in Cancun) are the best drivers of all Latin American countries I know up to now. They are quite calm and considerate towards pedestrians. I think the Cancun state ("Quintana Roo") is one of the best places to live in Mexico or even in Latin America. That's probably why there are so many huge expensive cars (mainly those f***ing SUVs), even Porsche, Mercedes and BMW. Probably a great place to retire - so buy your real estate now!! ;-))
On the other side I was not too lucky with my motorcycle, especially with respect to timing. Generally customs here is straightforward, efficient and 100% corruption-free. However, you should not arrive on a Friday afternoon, and even less if the following Monday is a public holiday. So on Tuesday I got my papers and had been told that the responsible customs office is only open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Well, so I had to wait until Wed to get my bike and it'll be Thursday (tomorrow), almost one week after my arrival (!!), when I finally get on da road again. Getting the bike out of the customs area was no problem and cheaper than in Santiago. I put the bike together, connected the battery and started it. It came on the second try and ran smoothly. That's how it has to be!!
Since I had some time to spend, I did a bus trip to the famous archeological site of Chichen Itza, some 2 hours from Cancun. Of course it was one of those typical tourist tours which always approve my decision to do the trip by motorbike. However it was not too bad and we had quite a qualified guide who told us a lot of stuff that I have already forgotten. Similarly to what had happened to me at Iguazu, the main attraction - the huge pyramid - was inaccessible.
We were offered an additional stop at a beautiful underground pond (so-called "cenote") which was really as beautiful as praised by the driver, and an "authentic maya community" which turned out to be a typical bullshit tourist market. I am already fed up with maya calendars... Why can't they think of anything else and maybe more useful to sell?
I already applied my "Alemania" stickers as well. What's that?? Well, according to a recommendation of some German bikers I met in Chile - and according to my own conclusions - it's better not to be taken for a "Yanqui" (citizen of the US) here, especially with the current US government. Germany has a very good reputation here - and it's not unusual, that you get much better (e.g. hotel) prices than a "Yanqui". And - by the way - a little pride of your country is nothing bad - although rather unusual in Germany (the "3rd-Reich-complex"). So I got a couple of black-red-yellow "Alemania" stickers manufactured in Santiago which I now placed on strategical parts of the bike. This does also answer the most common question you are usually being asked in latin america: "Where are you from?" :-)
Didn't I just praise the Mexican drivers? Forget about it.
I just had entered the outskirts of Merida on the main road, when the traffic light at a crossroads turned yellow. A good german as I am, I stopped. Bad idea: The usual instinctive glance in the rear view showed a car approaching me at high speed and at the very same moment I heard its wheels squeeling on the pavement.
I swerved the bike a little to the right to avoid the impact - but only almost succeeded: I heard and felt a crash, saw my left pannier overtaking me, but did not fall. I yelled angrily under my helmet described an elegant U-turn with the bike and parked it on the roadside. I put it on the sidestand, got off, took off the helmet and greeted the culprit who had also gotten out of his car with a handshake. My pannier was a mess but the car - a VW Polo looked even worse - probably due to the pedestrian-protecting soft crush-zone at the front. The police showed up some 20 seconds later, since they had been waiting a few hundred meters back.
So what do you expect? Well-informed policemen? Swift formalities? Helpful insurance agents of both sides, showing up quickly and coming quickly to the agreement that it was 100% the car driver's fault? The pannier repaired quickly, maybe even the next day? A compensation cheque from the opponent's insurance company? Next day? Are you kidding? In Mexico? That's not even possible in Germany!
Well, I expected none of this - but this is actually what happened. Everything was done within 30 hours, i.e. Pannier beaten out (didn't even expect that this was possible at all), pannier floor riveted, rack straightened and 250 Dollars cash in my hands. Who told you funny stories about Mexico??
I really liked Mérida and the tranquil accomodation (a rare thing in Mexico) but Mexico is huge and I have only two months. So after two nights I hit the road again, heading southwest, passing by Campeche and entering Chiapas at Palenque.
There were 3 military checkpoints on the road but only one stopped me and kind of searched my luggage. However, these were very young guys (with German G-3 rifles) and I was about to ask them why they stop me - is it because European motorcycle tourists are notorious for arms smuggling? Well, I didn't ask - better run no risks.. ;-)
Crossing the Yucatan peninsula is as thrilling as crossing Paraguay: It's above all green, hot and humid. Before you enter Chiapas, you have to cross a small strech of the state of Tabasco. It was not as spicy as I expected.
Chiapas had been notorious for fights between the Zapatistas (an indigenous rebel movement) and the mexican army. Currently there are no fights but the conflict has not been settled. However, the Zapatistas fight for their cause with modern means like the internet. Quite an interesting organization, look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapatista_Army_of_National_Liberation for details.
Entering Chiapas is entering a mountain landscape of intensely green jungle-covered hills and mountains up to little less than 3000 meters. Like in southern Chile, reaching Palenque I quickly learned why the landscape is so green: The evening I arrived, thick clouds hung threatening over the city - and minutes after I had checked in at the hotel, the rain started. It rained heavily all thru the night and the next morning still it wouldn't stop. Palenque has one of Mexico's most important archeological sites and three (supposedly) very beautiful waterfalls - but I decided to simply ignore them and just escape from the rain. On my way back I'd still have a chance to visit these touristic highlights.
As so often on my Latin America trip I was completely wrong with regards to clothing. Since it had been quite hot the last days, I guessed that it would be just as hot and additionally wet on the road and therefore just wore a shirt under my Goretex gear. Bad idea. Climbing the Chiapas mountains on a narrow and twisted road through the green jungle, it got more and more freezing - and I got more and more drenched. So finally I had to stop in the rain and put on a winter pullover and waterproof winter gloves. I was a little less cold but still freezing enough when I finally reached San Cristobal de las Casas at an altitude of some 2200m. San Cristobal is one center of the Zapatista uprising and funnily in the crafts markets you can buy Zapatista t-shirts, zapatista postcards and so on, usually showing men or women masked with balaclavas (Sturmhauben), so you can only see their eyes - and indicating their pseudonyms like "Subcomandante Marcos".
San Cristobal is a nice, genuine and coloured place in the middle of the "Sierra Madre de Chiapas" - but IMHO it's not worth staying longer than an afternoon. So the next day I continued my ride towards the west, heading for the hot and sunny pacific coast.
Of course this time I was dressed very well, with termo underwear, long underpants and a warm pullover. And of course, after little less than two hours, I was so hot that I had to remove a couple of clothes. The special challenge is to take off the long underpants at a public lookout point at the "Sumidero" canyon near Tuxtla Gutrierrez - without being arrested. But I succeeded in doing so since it was early morning (at least in Mexican terms) and there was almost nobody in that park.
Finally I reached the pacific coast and spent the night in the very authentic and almost (apart from myself) gringo-free town of Tehuantepec. Actually I did not want to stay there but it was almost 5 pm and continuing would most probably mean traveling in the dark. As my Cancun hotel manager had warned me particularly of this road - especially at night - I had decided to look for accomodation here. I liked the city - since it was lively and really looked like you imagine original Mexico. I liked especially the three-wheeled motorcycle taxis, driven by men and always with two women standing full of dignity on the back with their hair and skirts waving in the wind.
From Tehuantepec I took a nicely twisted road along the pacific coast, through a hot land of hills and dry bushes - a really enjoyable motorcycle road - and finally arrived at "Bahias de Huatulco" - a rather new and upcoming tourist resort center, a lot calmer and a lot more exclusive than Cancun. However I was very lucky and found a nice and comparatively cheap place (25 USD per night) in a very tiny village directly at the beach. Here I spent most of the time on the beach, in the beach bar or in my room, bathing, sunbathing, reading, relaxing, eating delicious seafood, drinking beer, taking showers... But also this paradise was not perfect, since - typical for Mexico - noise prevented me from sleeping well. This time it wasn't the traffic or city noise, but a dog barking for hours in the middle of the night in front of my window and a cock starting to scream at 5 in the morning - in front of my other window. It could just have been Orscholz (insider joke ;-)).
From the hot and sunny beaches of the Mexican pacific coast I rode into the green coastal moutains towards Oaxaca, the capital of the state of the same name. The road almost exclusively consisted of curves, so I had to alternate between enjoying the landscape and enjoying the road. The cool mountain climate was very pleasing after the oppressive heat on the coast.
Oaxaca is a beautiful colonial city with a strong atmosphere of culture and history. It has loads of curches, fine colonial buildings and loads of tourists and those who want their money. It also has a famous archeological site, the Monte Alban, from where you have a magnificent 360 degree round view of the city and the barren valley surrounding it. The other major tourist destination outside Oaxaca is the tree with the worlds biggest trunk in Tule.
Since the last three days in Huatulco had slightly overstrained my budget, I decided to stay the two nights in a (single room in a) hostel. That's the kind of hygenic aventure I can live without. Rather "rustic" if you know what I mean. Well, you get what you pay for.
My next destination was Puebla. I started in Oaxaca at 8 in the morning and did some 500 m when during an ascent suddenly the oil warning lamp started glowing. SHOCK!!! I switched off the engine immediately, standing in the middle of the busy road. When this light glows, the engine is very close to exitus - since it means that the oil level is far below minimum. So with the engine switched off, I could not go forth since it was a too steep hill, I couldn't go back, since it was a narrow one-way road. I asked a mexican passer-by to help me pushing the bike into the next side road - of course he helped without heasitating. Immediately when I had parked the bike, another young mexican passer-by, who was walking his dog, asked me if I had any problems. I explained it, he hurried home and one or two minutes later returned with his BMW F650GS and a virgin new 1-Liter bottle of engine oil, which he gave to me and of course did not want any money for it. Great people.
I still was wondering how this lack of oil had been possible. I had just checked it, hadn't I? Mmmh, when was that? Huatulco? - No. San Cristobal? Palenque? Merida? Ooops, I'm afraid I had last checked the oil just after arrival in Cancun - and never ever after. OK, after 3000 km in the Mexican heat, a loss of 3/4 liter lies within the allowed range. So it was just another stroke of genius by Winne the manic mechanic. ;-)
One of the things I like most about Mexico, is the VW Beetles (the original old ones), which you find everywhere. Actually every 2nd car in Mexico seems to be a Beetle or the old VW Bus. Every time I see one of them, I get excited. But also the huge ancient american Chevrolet and Cadillac coupés are lovely. Well, that's really a lot of excitement over here!!
Driving through central Mexico (around Mexico City) is no fun. This is the most densely populated part of the nation - and you spend 95% of your time behind some slow bus or truck. So the only means you have to more or less avoid this is to take a toll road (which also significantly enhances your life expectancy). But these are usually very expensive and (what really pisses me off) you do have to pay the same for a motorcycle as for a car or pickup truck. Grrrr. In South America you usually pay nothing at all. Only in Chile you have to pay but that's usually half of what a car driver pays. So my little protest is to be reeeaaallllyyy slow at the pay stations. Sorry for the guys behind me...
I took the toll road to Puebla. Contrary to what is indicated in the Mexican Guia Roji Map - and unlike European or most South American toll roads - it turned out to be a single carriageway. But it was good asphalt with some nice scenic views of the barren mountain landscape. I made a short stopover in Tehuacán, a smallish city with a pleasant Zócalo, where I had my 2nd breakfast. An hour later I arrived in Puebla and was surprised how beautiful it was. Actually one of the most beautiful hispanic city centers I have seen to date. I found a really nice hotel with bike parking , breakfast and use of washing machine included. When the concierge stated the price, I moaned that it exeeded my budget but I would accept it. Bad negociation tactics. However the girl immediately offered me a 17% discount. My charming charisma again.
In Puebla I spent a day with sigthseeing and eating, including a short visit to the famous Amparo indigenous arts museum - which once again showed me why I hate museums: I am so awfully uncultural, I was just bored stiff.
From Puebla I headed straight westwards towards the Volcanoes of Popocatepetl and it's neigbour, Itzisomething. Popo is still active, which becomes manifest in a quite unspectacular and hardly visible trail of smoke over its peak. I passed wetween the two volcanoes on a dirt road and through a small national park, then I dived into the densely populated area south of Mexico city with its heavy traffic (mainly trucks and buses) and speed-bumps every 200m.
As quick as I could I found a toll-road, which allowed a decent cruising speed and reached the idyllic mountain town of Taxco within a few hours. I immediately fell in love with this place - not because of its hundreds of white beetle taxis that fill the streets like ants - neither because of the expensive and poor-quality hotels but because of the way in which the white, well-tended houses cling to the steep mountain, connected mostly by stairways or steep and narrow cobblestone streets. It's fun to discover the small city center walking, climbing, ascending and descending on foot and almost without orientation. The narrow, steep, chaotic market below the church is a must-see. And it's also fun to take one of those VW bus taxi-collectivos, which can transport more people than you would ever imagine.
The next morning I started very early since I had to take a toll-free road and I wanted to avoid the dense traffic. It worked - I really enjoyed the first 100 or so km of twisted mountain road heading for Acapulco. Close midday, when the traffic got denser, I took the toll highway and reached my destination "Pie de la Cuesta" west of Acapulco quite quickly. I arrived early afternoon, so I even had time to get myself roasted on the beach and have a bath in the Pacific ocean. The beach was almost empty and the waves really infused respect - but they looked worse than they were. I waited until somebody else got into the water (without being killed by waves or undertow) and then tried myself. It was no problem at all, you just have to keep a look on the waves, otherwise they might surprise you from behind and swallow you.
I did not visit Acapulco itself. Despite its legendary name, it's not a very attractive city, mainly hotel and commercial complexes and loads of traffic and pollution.
After a short day-stay in Pie de la Cuesta near Acapulco, I drove another 300 km on the mainly nice and twisted coastal road to Barra de Nexpa, a really tiny beach place the mouth of the river Nexpa. The place mainly consists of a few rentable huts, one or two B&Bs, and a really pleasently laid-back crowd of mainly north american pot-smoking surfers in their late 40ies or early 50ies.
However it's really rather a surfer than a swimmer or snorkler paradise, since the water is not as clear as in other places and the beach is mainly pebbles (although there is also a sandy stretch). So Huatulco remains my favourite. For the evening I was invited to a delicious barbecue and once again I almost regretted to detest so much the taste of smoke. ;-)
I somewhat took the habit to get up at 6 in the morning and hit the road latest at 7, so I can enjoy the road with hardly any traffic and with pleasant temperatures. So I started from Barra de Nexpa with the first dawn and drove a long way along the pleasantly twisted costal road with the sun rising in my rear view and hardly any traffic at all.
One characteristic of Mexican roads are the loads of dead animals - dogs, cats, raccoons (Waschbaeren), even entire horses and cows are rotting at the roadside. Another are the unpredictable speed breakers, the so-called "topes". Sometimes these topes are announced, sometimes they are not. Sometimes they are logically erected in villages along the road but sometimes they surprise you at a insignificant crossroads in the middle of nowwhere and without any previous warning. So you quickly learn to concentrate on the road and not dream about, or otherwise you'll quickly learn to fly...
It was around noon when I arrived at my planned destination, the tiny Laguna La Maria between the small city of Colima and the volcano of the same name. The Laguna had been recommended to me - and I was willing to spend a night in a tent. However it turned out to be just a simple pond with some nice green surroundings - just like you find it anywhere in southern Germany or northern France. For a mainly dry place like Mexico it might be spectecular, but I was rather disappointed. Apart from that, the owner of the place wanted 8 USD for a place for a tent with virtually non-existent sanitary facilities. So I quickly came to the decision to continue the journey to Guadalajara. Two hours later I arrived there, sweating and smelling (my gore tex gear needs a laundry again) and checked into the hotel.
Guadalajara is Mexico's 2nd biggest city - but it's a lot smaller than MX-City and it's a really attractive place with a fascinating big historical center and the charming neighbourhood Tlequepeque. Tequila is - apart from certain sorts of Grappa - the only hard liquor I like. The town of Tequila is very close to Guadalajara, so you find Tequila shops everywhere, some offer detailled explanations and offer tastings. I shouldn't have participated - now I couldn't resist buying two bottles (one "Joven"/"silver" and another "reposado"), both very delicious and traditionally made.
What really strikes me in Mexico is the lack of friendliness of almost all mexican service staff. Be it in a hotel, a restaurant, café or petrol station: You'll be happy to get a 'Hello' but rarely get a smile and never ever get a good-bye, let alone a friendly farewell. They just simply ignore you after you have paid. This is quite the contrary of what I have experienced in South America and I still have not become used to it. First I thought it might have to do with Tip - but you can try out any percentage between 0 and 20%, you'll allways get the same reaction, i.e. none at all. It doesn't either have to do with being Gringo, since the Mexicans are treated in the same way.
On a motorcycle you are much closer to your surroundings: You notice the landscape more intensively and do more intensively perceive impressions like heat, cold, rain or smell. Mexico is the country of roadside smell adventures. Apart from rotting animals and smelly industry of the strangest kinds, you should take a nose of the heavily contaminated rivers or the mexican speciality: Fire.
Apparently they love burning things, e.g. when in Europe (or any other more developed country) the weeds on the roadside are cut or mowed, in Mexico they are burnt. Or even better: As in any other latin amerian country (and most other countries), the roads are lined with (mostly plastic) trash. In Mexico many small towns and villages have one or several semi-official dumps on the roadside near the village where they simply leave their trash building large heaps of it. This gets a lot more enjoyable when they set fire to the trash - the mexican variant of "thermal trash recycling". Anyone passing by is tempted to stop and take a deep breath.
Zacatecas is a beautiful small old city, which became rich due to the close-by silver mine. Especially the huge elegant theater building looks rather inappropriate for a city of this size. The silver was dug out by indigenous slaves aged usually between 12 and 30something (when they died) and made the local spaniards rich. I arrived in the early afternoon and had time for a walk around and a guided visit to the silver mine. The mine is beautifully prepared for visitors, with all kinds of light and sound effects and some art objects on display. It's impressive to see the large cavern that has been the silver vein now dug out. Nowadays there's just 2 of 5 levels accessible, the rest is flooded and the visitors can see the illuminated water deep below their feet.
The next day again I started early and took the extremely boring road thruough the Mexican steppe-like highlands towards Guanajuato (via Aguascalientes and Dolores Hidalgo). For a change there was not a single toll road, the traffic was light and I wasn't stopped at the military checkpoint. No wonder: I went the opposite way than the drugs. However once I took the wrong way which I only reckognized after 40 km when I had to return. Due to the high altitude of some 2000 m , it was surprisingly cold on the road.
Early afternoon I arrived in Guanajuato which turned out to be a spectacular maze of old underground streets, tunnels and alleys. The town is squeezed in between two hills and is real fun to discover on foot - but an absolute horror on motorbike. I got lost completely, driving in circles without finding any of the street names mentioned in my guidebook's plan. Yes, was looking on the right plan. :-) So finally I gave up and chose the next hotel on the way, which was the Alhóndiga. There they let me know that they wouldn't accept motorbikers. A fine example of Mexican hospitality? Luckily next door was another hotel with own garage, where I found a room for the night. After taking a shower I walked through the city and ejoyed the fine views from one of the hills.
A young biker couple I had met in Chile had highly recommended Edward James' Gardens "Las Pozas" to me, a park landscape near the village of Xilitla in the middle of the Sierra Madre north of Mexico City. They had been so enthusiastic about these gardens that I took the 600 extra km - and did not regret it. It turned out to be something like Dali's surrealistic paintings made reality.
The gardens are situated in a beautiful steep green jungle landscape in the middle of nowhere. There are a couple of completely useless but utterly beautiful structures with steps leading in circles to nowhere, balconies, towers, little waterfalls, basins etc. Hopefully I took some nice pics with my old non-digital Nikon
The landscape around is also quite impressive. I had left the very busy highway 57 in San Juan del Rio, heading northwards. After passing some busy and dusty towns, I entered a landscape of arid hills, growing larger and larger, while the highway gradually became a twisted roller-coaster like ride up and down and along mountain ridges with the abyss at both sides. The highway climbed more and more until the grey desert-like landscape suddenly flipped into a cool and pleasant alpine scenery of intense green, steep, wood-covered peaks with some marvellous views.
In Xilitla I stayed in a pleasant (and cheap!) hotel with a great view of the forest-covered valley and the surrounding dark green hills. Leaving Xilitla and heading for the famous Pyramids of Teotihuacán (I always have to look up the name in the guidebook), the landscape was equally spectacular, although I had to cope with some denser traffic and virtually millions of speed bumps.
Teotihuacán posesses probably the most impressive pyramid of Mexico, being the second biggest in Mexico and third biggest in the world (Cheops is bigger). But what makes the site even more remarkable, is the combination of the two huge pyramids (the Sun and the Moon pyramid) and the entire complex of avenues, temples and dwelling areas. The city's supposed administrative complex, the so-called citadel (Zitadelle/ciudadela), a large square area, lined with pyramids, reminded me of the Reichsparteitag complex in Nuremberg - maybe Teotihuacán is just a cheap copy... ;-)
From Teotihuacán I went straight to Puebla, trying to avoid Mexico City as far as possible. On the map it looked like easy-going via some kind of "Autobahn", i.e. dual carriageway highways. Unfortunately these turned out to be mainly chaotic, dirty and dusty inner-city avenues, with places signposted (if anything) that I rarely found in my map - and of course the signposting was completely inconsistent and unreliable (this is not Western Europe, is it?). Luckily I had a good description from the Teotihuacán hotel's exceptionally helpful and friendly concierge, and finally found the toll "Autopista" direction Puebla. You might guess that I was really happy having escaped Mexico City's tentacles.
Two hours later I was in famous Veracruz, which is nice but not half as impressive as its reputation - and double as hot and sweaty. Quite a contrast after close-to-zero temperatures when I started the trip in Teotihuacán - at an elevation of 2300m. Veracruz is a rather rundown seaport with some fine buildings around teh zócalo and a wide harbour esplanade. However, the hotel was cheap and friendly and had a safe bike parking possibility and cable TV. That's something for a start - especially when MIB2 is on TV :-)
Next early morning I left Veracruz towards the famous laguna Catemaco, a blue lake which is surrounded by small green volcanoes. I spent a tranquil night there and then hit the road back to Palenque, where I had already been some 4 weeks ago. Now the weather was much better than 4 weeks ago - and I could visit the ruins and the waterfalls. The special beauty of the Palenque ruins is their location on and around some jungle-covered hills at the edge of a great plain. This gives them - especially in the early morning - a magnificent atmosphere.
With the end of my journey already in sight, it seems my equipment is slowly falling to pieces. My jacket stinks, lost the zip which connects it to the trousers, keeps loosing buttons and its lining and velcro fasteners are dissolving. My trousers stink as well (and with 3 weeks to go in the hottest parts of Mexico, I see no point in washing them). I wonder why they don't dissolve with all this sweat ;-) The bike's rear mudflap had already broken in Brazil. The chain-oiler had given up in Argentina. The left pannier has ceased to be waterproof since the crash in Mérida. The rear tyre's tread (Profil) is close to zero. Finally on the trip to Catemaco my helmet's vizor just broke and I have to drive with the toned vizor by day and night. Luckily I don't have to drive at night :-) And you might guess but not want to know: My underwear is evenly dissolving - especially my socks do look disastrous ;-)
Since I had decided not to enter Mexico City by bike, I will do it by Bus, starting tomorrow night and arriving in the morning. The bike will remain in the Patio (courtyard) of the tiny and extremely cheap hotel Yun-Kax - and most of my luggage will remain in their "bodega" (basement/keller). Hopefully everything will still be there when I return. :-) But I am in Chiapas - the peope here are trustworthy.
(check for latest pics under http://fotoalbum.web.de/gast/winfried.lichtblau -> Album "Digicam5 Mexico")
The 14 hour bus tour to Mexico City was surprisingly easy. I had two seats for myself and actually slept some hours, which I did not really expect. The bus and its passengers was checked by highway police and immigration three times on the way - once even with a drug search dog - and 3 or 4 guys where taken out by the authorities. Luckily I weren't one of them.
Mexico City is just as expected: Above all it's endlessly huge, quite hot, there's always a thick brown smog layer over the city (which seems to be less thick on Sundays) and the traffic is chaotic and aggressive. Cultural (and Night-) life seems to be more diverse than anything I have seen before and the people are surprisingly helpful, friendly and seem to show quite some solidarity with their paupers and beggars. The poverty was actually the most striking thing to me and I could hardly pass by an aged man or woman or child begging or selling chewing gum without leaving a few Pesos. At the same time the third richest person in the world is a Mexican. Something seems to be going completely wrong in the world.
Mexico city's public transport system is quite good and extremely cheap, with a Metro ticket costing less than 20 Eurocents and the buses being similarly cheap. I made a lot of use of it and visited some of the more relaxed and snug outside neighborhoods which until not long ago had been independent villages. Of course I also visited the SAP offices, which are situated in a modern building on a former garbage dump on a hill over Mexico. The modern architecture business centre is called Santa Fe and - according to Sven - is designed in the style of "La Defense" in Paris. One eye-catcher there is an office building that looks like a huge washing machine. There's also a huge shopping centre, which looks just like any other shopping centre in Europe, the US or Asia, with prices mostly beyond what an average german household could afford. Luckily shopping is one of the pastimes I can very well live without - so we just had lunch at the (evenly exchangeable) "food court" and then I continued my sightseeing trip.
One striking impression of Mexico is the endless number of (mainly inofficial) street markets. You can buy all kinds of stuff here: clothing, food, all kinds of cheap plastic junk but above all original-looking music and software CDs and movie DVDs for very competitive prices. So I bought some fantastic Jazz, Blues and Latin CDs - and obviously was completely surprised when I discovered that it was all pirate copies.
The Mexican fiesta was another positive surprise to me (although it was nothing positive for my health). Sven (my host) and me were invited (indirectly) to the birthday party of somebody completely unknown. It turned out to be a really enjoyable evening with loads of dancing, singing and Tequila - and the Mexicans ending up calling me "Pepe", since they could neither pronounce nor remember my real name.
See Mexico pics under "Digicam5 Mexico" and "Film17.." to "Film19..".
Having safely returned by night bus from Mexico City to Palenque, I was very happy to realize that my bike was still in the courtyard of the little hotel, where I had left it. Even my left luggage was complete and untouched. Well actually I did not expect anything else - I have great faith in the people of Chiapas! :-)
I took a shower, had a good breakfast with loads of coffee and re-arranged my luggage. Around midday - the hottest time of day - I started the 300something km trip to Campeche at the Gulf Coast of the Yucatan peninsula. Campeche is nice, very tidy, with a city centre full of neatly painted houses in pastel colours. It's Unesco world heritage but I am getting the impression that nowadays every doghouse is appointed Unesco world heritage... (I'm sooo bad.. ;-)). With regards to bathing in the Gulf .. forget it. It does not seem to be suitable for swimming, just amazingly shallow, supposedly quite muddy and somewhat looks like concrete since the water does not move at all.
So I spent a night there and the next morning, returned some 100 km southwards from where I came - and then took the road eastwards, directly towards the carribean coast. After a 3 or 4 hour ride through a not-too-boring landscape of jungle, small lakes and farmland I reached the idyllic village of Bacalar at the lake of the same name. The small lake has a white-sand bottom and twinkles in turquoise colours. I rented a tiny hut right on the lakeshore and enjoyed the rise of the full moon over the lake - and the next morning I could also admire the sunrise right from my bed.
I continued just 200 km further northeast, quickly reaching the caribbean coastal village of Majahual. The village itself has nothing of interest, apart from a quay for cruise liners, which actually is a problem. Apart from the money the passengers bing into the village, they also bring the noise of huge groups of Quads withouth silencers, of high speed boats and jetskis - and they very efficiently promote the destruction of the famous coral reefs and the wildlife along the coast. Some clever person once said something like "in the near future the question won't be whether or not we can get to any place in the world, but it will be whether or not that place is still worth it". This is what I thought when I saw the huge cruising ships at the seashore and the masses of noisy tourists streaming into the tiny village and its surroundings.
Following the advice of the "Lonely Planet" guidebook I found a really beautiful place on the beach, some 7km away from the village, owned by a welcoming mexican-american couple. I rented a little hut 10 Meters from the waves. Lying in the bed I could listen to waves and the wind in the palms, watching the yellow-red moon rising over the sea. This must be paradise. Well, however even this paradise was not perfect. The water was full of seagrass (good for nature, bad for swimming) and the tranquility was frequently disturbed by the thunder of huge groups of quad-driving tourists from the cruising ships. Another "problem" there is the absence of infrastructure i.e. electricty and water, both have to be generated on-place, which involves a noisy generator running after nightfall - by day solar energy replaces the noisy diesel generator. Luckily the generator was well-hidden and hardly audible due to the constant wind from the sea.
After two nights in paradise I continued northwards, slowly approaching Cancun. The next stop on my way was the very touristy town of Tulum, which is famous for its Maya ruins directly on the beach and for the beautiful beaches, diving and snorkling possibilities. The sand is extremely fine and white, the colour of the water is so beautifully turquoise that it seems unreal - and the caribbean holds what it promises. This includes international hords of bagpacker tourists and many hotels along the coastline. However these hotels are not like "El Arenal" on Mallorca or "Lloret del Mar" on the Costa Brava but usually quite tasteful locations with wooden huts or elegant villas which do not really destroy the beach - as far as you like urbanized beaches. Well, I doubt that in the future any non-urbanized beaches will remain - or at least none where an average person can afford to go.
The Caribean is really paradisiac, but of course quite touristy (and with the corresponding price structure). I was tempted to stay on the beach all day and swim, enjoy the sun and the beach bar - but in the end I actually could not do it since I would be bored quickly - and I wanted to see as much as I could before returning home. So I did a subterranean snorkeling tour through a few of Yucatan's thousands "Cenotes" (natural ponds), which turned out to be amazingly beautiful stalactite caves.
There I got to know an equally amazing Californian biker couple, that did the same tour together with a gorgeous girl from Austria. After the fiasco of my first all-alone snorkeling tour, I was quite satisfied with this one - and when they proposed another snorkel tour at a beach nearby for the next day, I joined in quite happily.
Hurricane Wilma apparently destroyed most of the famous coral reefs but still I saw a swarm of beautiful blue fish (among others), a stingray (Rochen) and a couple of seaturtles. Quite beautiful and a unique experience! (And of course much better than my very first snorkel adventure a few days ago!) What also made this snorkel tour unique - and very healthy - was the annoying litres of salt water that I inhaled through my nose (the diving goggles leaked): This is actually supposed to be an ideal cure for my (usually very dry) nasal mucosa (Nasenschleimhaut). The healthy effect of this adventure was somewhat compensated by the decent sunburn I caught (well, this happens if you refuse to use sunscreen ;-)).
The Californian couple just matched with the experience I had had up to now (mostly on Mexico's coasts) with people from that part of the world: Those I met were so suprisingly open-minded, laid-back and affectionate, you just have to love them ;-) So California climbs steadily on my personal want-to-visit charts - and this is not only because those guys stated (to my entire surprise) that smoking pot is more socially accepted in California than smoking tobacco. Sounds like a really interesting place...
After the tour we said good-bye and the next day I continued my ride northwards, getting into more and more touristy areas. I made a quick stopover in Cancun to make a hotel reservation for my last days in Mexico and to check with the forwarding agent for the motorcycle transport - and then returned a few km to Playa del Carmen, since the car ferry to Cozumel should leave the next day from a nearby pier.
I actually wanted to see famous Playa del Carmen but got fed up with it within just a few minutes. It seems to be for the US-Americans what El Arenal/ Mallorca is for the Germans. I found it just overcrowded, "overtouristed", overpriced and all in all horrific. Luckily I just spent one night there...
Cozumel is Mexicos only significant caribbean island, it's famous for snorkeling and diving - and it's a nice, calm and not too expensive place to stay. After El-Arenal-like Playa del Carmen, Cozumel was quite a positive surprise - although of course also here you have the inevitable hords of cruise ship passengers and hence hundreds of tourist-trash-shops, all selling the same useless junk - with bored mexicans sitting in front, shouting at you "amigo, come in!!". I wonder when they will learn that this is putting people off rather than attracting them.
Another interesting and little surprising fact is that the only shop (of probably a hundred), that did not sell useless tourist crap but actually very beautiful handmade textile products (handbags, scarfs, plaids etc.) was owned by a canadian expat and the stuff was produced in Guatemale since (quote) "in Mexico you don't get that quality". Do I have to say anything else?
Reaching Cozumel is not easy at all - that's probably why the beaches are so uncrowded. First you have to find the car ferry, which up to now departed from Puerto Morelos, which is some 40 km north of Playa del Carmen. Unfortunately this ferry has secretfully been moved to Calica, which is a rather hidden place some 6 km south of Playa del Carmen. If you want to know about the departure times and prices, you will have to go directly to the quay (via a sparsely signposted gravel road) and ask - since nobody apart from the one official at the tiny "terminal" knows prices and departure times. Now that you know the times, price and place and decide to visit the island maybe the next day, don't be too eager to get to the pier, since the few paved parts of your way are extremely slippery in the curves, so that being a motorcylist you might suddenly and without apparent reason find yourself skidding over the slick concrete. Having survived this, recovered your bike and yourself, you will hopefully be toughened for the next trial: The first glimpse of the "ferry", which is so corroded that it seems to have more in common with the "ghost ship" than with a regular ferry, probably makes you re-think your plans. Is Cozumel really worth the risk of being buried alive in this death-trap? But then you just do the same as all the Mexicans around you - ignore the lethal hazard and enter the boat. The rest is easy-going: Two hours in the fresh air at a speed that could hardly keep up with a bunch of children on a rubber dinghy (Schlauchboot), then you arrive at Cozumel's half-demolished ferry pier and quickly find your way to the rather inexpensive and uncrowded accomodation.
I had selected the Hotel "Papita", which made a rather calm and quiet impression - exactly what I needed for a sound sleep. Well, I hadn't counted on the Mexican genius: At 10 p.m. all the aircon units were switched on and the entire patio vibrates with the deafening roar of some thirty prehistoric airconditioners at full power - and they are not switched off until 6 or 7 in the morning. I will never really understand these people.
Anyway I decided to enjoy the beauty of the place and booked yet another snorkeling tour: This time the equipment was really good and fit perfectly - no salt water in my nose!! :-) So I could so much enjoy the caribbean underwater world that I forgot to wear the t-shirt that I brought as sun-protection - and caught another light but annoying sunburn. Again I saw a seaturtle, many colourful fish and lush reef rocks - but the best was a flock of funny fish - approx the size of pigeons - that again and again appoached me curiously to see what strange kind of animal I am... I also enjoyed the air bubbles slowly rising from the divers below me like millions of little gemstones - or like swimming in sparkling water :-) So all in all it was a beautiful little adventure. However - as the guide book had announced "some world class snorkeling" - I had expected more. But I assume that also here hurricane Wilma had destroyed much of the forme beauty.
The snorkel trip was finished around lunchtime, so I had some time left for an island discovery tour - finding out that the rest of the island is very flat and boring (exactly like the northern Yucatan peninsula) - apart from a few beautiful beaches with beach bars where you can very well enjoy the setting sun - as far as the beach access is not closed at 5 p.m.
There's a small island at the northern tip of the Yucatan peninsula and it's called Holbox. It's rather off the beaten track, i.e. less touristy and you get there by a one-hour ride on a kind of waterbus from the mainland. It makes most sense to leave the bike on a guarded parking lot on the mainland - and this is what I did.
Holbox is very tranquil and a little hippie-like, it has only sand streets, loads of cockroaches and supposedly mosquitoes (the latter at least in summer) and the main means of transport are golf carts. I've only seen two real cars, one of which was the police. I decided to make up a little with my deficit in body exercise and walked along the loooong deserted beaches. There are some quite beautiful places - although it is a rather cool and windy place - don't know if this is normal or I just caught a "cold" day.
The main beach is huge, windy and full of purposlessly cruising golf carts and a few speeding motorcycles. So it's nothing you'd like when you are looking for a calm place - but it seems to be a preferred place for kite surfers. There's also a few ruins of not-so-old looking hotels, that had been built directly on the beach and apparently recently destroyed by Wilma or a similar storm.
Apart from that there's a kind of central plaza with a few restaurants - and this is basically all the features of this tiny place. So I left the island after two nights, caught the ferry and headed for the next and last island on my list - the "Isla Mujeres" ("women island") close to Cancun.
This is another small place which is - due to its vicinity to Cancun - completly built upon. There is not a single space without hotels, bars or private villas. Nevertheless it's not too expensive and still a nice place to stay. But also here - after 2 nights - I had enough and left for Cancun, where I had to prepare for the return trip.
The customs formalities were rather hassle-free and easy-going and took me about half a day - and gone was the bike. So there was little more than one day left to get some more sun, beach and sea and to pack my bags. Tomorrow I'll take the plane and Saturday morning I'll touch down in Frankfurt/Main. That's the unspectacular end of a great adventure.
Even 6 months can be over so quickly - coming monday I'll be back to work...
You won't be surprised to read that I thoroughly enjoyed every single minute of this extensive motorcycle tour. During these 6 months I covered some 35000 km (on my '99 BMW F650), of which some 27000 in South America. I crossed Argentina (almost entirely), Bolivia, Brasil, Chile (entirely), Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay.
I have been extremely lucky: Not only because I had the opportunity to do this trip but because I had no problems whatsoever during the entire tour, i.e. no technical problems or breakdowns with the motorcycle, no significant accidents or crashs, only one flat tyre (which somebody else repaired for me immediately), no illnesses or injuries (not even a cold), no assaults, thefts or significant corruption and no real border hassles. I almost exclusively met friendly and helpful people and was always helped when I asked for it.
Many people ask me which of the countries I visited I like most - and I cannot answer this question. Every country has its beauties - only Praguay is just boring ;-). Argentina has Patagonia, the Puna, the Iguazu falls, the glaciers and the women of Buenos Aires. Bolivia has the bizarre Altiplano landscapes and the green valleys of the south. Brasil (I have only seen such a small part of it) has the Iguazu Falls and the beaches of Santa Catarina. Chile has the vast Atacama desert, rain forests and glaciers. Mexico has an innumerable variety of beautiful beaches and colonial architecture. Peru has the Titicaca lake, Machu Picchu and the marvellous landscape in between (Still a lot to be visited...). Uruguay remainds me of a nice big golf course on the beach with a friendly and lively capital.
However, if you asked me in which of the world's metropolis I'd like to live, I'd probably say Berlin. That's one of the lessons I learned on this trip: To appreciate the standard of living we have in Europe. But of course this is not the only impact this trip had on my views of life and people.
In case you like to read more in detail about the impressions I got during my 6 months tour - or if you like to spend a few days or weeks on watching photos, here is the link.
Anybody who tinkers with the idea of starting such a trip or a similar one on their own - just do it - it's not as risky as it sounds - and you'll never really be alone.
I'd be happy to see you again - in Germany, Europe or wherever...
Good luck to you
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