Category: Motorcycling


Touring around Cusco

In hindsight, the next two days were very much the highlight of the trip. On the first day after arriving we had the morning to wander the town a bit. I walked a few blocks to the main plaza, had a look around, and then spied the Sign of The Mermaid on the side of a building (Starbucks!) This made me happy indeed, although it was on the 2nd floor of a somewhat large building, and it turned out to be a little tricky to locate the entrance to the interior courtyard so that I could get up to the store. I had completely missed breakfast, so I was very happy for the muffin, Frappucino, and wifi once i found the door!

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In the afternoon, we had a nice tour of four major sights of Cusco. We began with a short bus ride up to Sacsayhuaman, which was likely the palace of the Inca ruler for the entire empire. The main thing about it is the absolutely massive rocks making up the foundation (some up to 300 tons) and fitted very precisely in place. As usual, there are some llamas wandering around the grounds.

We then proceeded to a nearby site called Q’enko, (zigzag) which was of religious significance and has some very interesting altars and things carved out of the large stones making up the ruin.

Back in town, we then visited the main Cathedral which has some wonderful art produced not long after the conquest such as a Last Supper where the group is shown eating guinea pig, and another where camels are replaced with llamas- the artists had never seen real camels! We then finished up with a visit to Qori’Kancha across from our hotel which has some really nice examples of restored Inca architecture including the trapezoidal windows and doorways which have
proven to be tremendously earthquake resistant, due to the mutual support of all the inward leaning angles. I really liked this stuff because it is just so completely different from modern architecture with all of the square angles and corners, and yet appears to have developed for largely practical reasons.

Dinner was on our own, so the group (minus tour guides) headed off to a cafe back in the main square. The food was reasonable and we had a good time, but nothing to particularly write home about. We all headed back to the hotel afterwards, as we needed to be up very early the next morning for the trek to Macchu Picchu.

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Chivay to Cusco

This amounted to a very long day on the bike, in transit. We were up bright and early, and began by backtracking over the 16000 foot pass again, braving the same series of potholes, switchbacks, rock falls, tingling fingers, and llamas for maybe 40 or 50 miles. Once meeting up with the road from Arequipa again, we turned eastward and continued towards the town of Juliaca. Along the way we encountered a(nother) roadside stand of locals hawking llama/alpaca woven goods, wood flutes, etc., along with a cute pet llama.

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I also went to use the facilities and found myself trapped by the door while trying to get out (full size, not “stall” sized. The door frame was loose and I became convinced that it was stuck. The man of the establishment heard my bangings and came into the stall next to mine and reached over the top with a pole and pushed on the latch in a simple fashion that I had somehow completely failed to attempt on my own. I felt obliged to tip him 5 soles (around $1.75) not only because I felt incredibly dumb, but also because it was the only coin in my pocket at the time.

This road ended at a town near Lake Titicaca named Juliaca. The description provided in advance by Klaus more or less amounted to Obi-Wan’s description of Mos Eisley: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”. Actually, he just called it “the world’s biggest shithole” but both appear to be fairly accurate. The outskirts of town had a large tent city of apparently homeless laborers or something, and the inskirts were characterized by extremely unruly traffic and entire streets where the pavement resembled bomb craters more than something you would drive on. Luckily, we negotiated our way through it without incident this time (…foreshadowing…) and made the turn northwest towards Cusco.

Once out of town, the road opened up considerably and we passed through numerous valley villages of a largely agricultural nature. This was some really nice riding with sweepers following the valley floor. After a 14000 foot pass, the landscape through this stretch grew increasingly green and pretty as the altitude decreased, and the closer we got to Cusco the more the towns seemed to have something resembling community- kids on the way home from school in well-turned-out uniforms, more substantial construction and homes, and a generally better sense of economic well being. We also passed through a few on-and-off rain showers, the first (and only) that we encountered on our trip.

As we arrived in Cusco in the late afternoon the skies opened up again, and once again we fought our way through some pretty heavy urban traffic for about 7 miles to the historic center of the city, where after a few rainy and slippery cobblestoned turns, we finally arrived at our hotel, nicely situated just across the street from the famous Qori’kancha Inca ruins, later converted to a Dominican monastery and then somewhat restored as an archaeological site.

The hotel was another in the Libertador chain of high-end hotels owned by Westin, built on Inca stone foundations and evidently occupied by Pizzaro himself at some point during the conquest. Once again we were led to a nice local spot for dinner, this time somewhat of an Italian/Peruvian mix, and the day was done. After several days of pretty hard riding we were looking forward to some time off the bikes seeing Cusco and of course, the main event at Macchu Picchu.

Because the day’s drive was not to be overly long, we got to sleep in a bit and make a slightly later start, around 9:30 am. We got rolling, got everyone filled up with a full tank, and headed out of Arequipa. While we immediately had to fight a little more of that urban traffic on the way out, relatively soon we were on a mostly uncrowded highway and we began a somewhat twisty climb up to higher altitudes. Arequipa is at roughly 7600 feet MSL, but we would be more than doubling that by day’s end.

On the climb over the first pass, the engine on my F650GS died unexpectedly about 3 times and would start itself back up about 200 feet later while still rolling. This was disconcerting, but has not reoccurred since. It has, however, struck one of the other riders’ bikes quite a bit more forcefully and every time we think we have a workable theory as to the cause, something happens to disprove it and confuse us further. More on that a few posts from now.

After reaching about 12000 feet, there was a long flat stretch during which we made a short stop to view a pack of protected wild vicunas. These are a smaller relative of the llama and alpacas, and textiles made from their wool is extremely expensive due the fineness of the fiber and the scarcity of the animal. Shortly after this break, we reach a turnoff for the road leading to Chivay. This is where it gets interesting. This road is in significantly poorer condition than anything we’ve seen thus far. There are numerous potholes, and quite a few rockfalls onto the road, even some bits where sand has come off the walls the road cuts through, leaving an entire lane under a heap of sand and dirt. It’s also quite twisty with a lot of blind corners, due to the way the road has been constructed on hillsides. We continue to climb to a plain well above the 14000 foot mark, and then finally reach the crest at around 16000 feet. While I’ve been taking Diamox since the beginning of the trip to avoid altitude sickness, my fingers start to tingle significantly as we hit the highest point. I’m not the only one- some of my co-riders note the same symptoms. Just getting off the bike for a quick photo stop at the top results in a bit of huffing and puffing.

At least now we start the descent towards Chivay, which sits just under 12000 feet. The potholes and switchbacks continue, making for some mildly challenging riding- I really don’t entirely feel comfortable with this bike yet and so I make a fairly slow and cautious descent towards the back of our pack, without incident.

After maybe 30 minutes or so, with a brief stop to check out one of the ubiquitous mountainside craft vendors, we finally reach the valley floor and our hotel around 2pm. Chivay is a fairly dusty little town and I didn’t see a whole lot to recommend it, but it is the preferred stop for a trip to the Colca Canyon. The hotel, however, one of the Casa Andina chain, was reasonably nice and fit well with the local flavor. After settling into our rooms and grabbing a quick bite, there is no rest for the weary: we pile into the support van and a hired minibus, and we set off for an excursion to the viewing point for the condors who make the canyon their home.

The trip out to the viewpoint is an adventure in itself. Very rapidly the paved road gives way to dirt. Almost immediately we come upon a section which is being built/rebuilt/something by heavy machinery, with the net effect that we’re forced onto even bumpier dirt and the minivan gets stuck briefly in some sand. This being a gang of motorcyclists, however, several people immediately pile out and push it free, crisis averted. Another section was destroyed several years ago by an earthquake or landslide, and has been temporarily repaired with an even bumpier section than usual. After about an hour of bumping and grinding our way down this road, higher and higher up a steep wall of the canyon, we suddenly reach paved bliss…about 100 feet from our final destination, Cruz de la Condor, which is a nicely set up overlook where the condors that live here can be seen. We’re practically the only ones there but Klaus tells us that in the mornings this place is packed to the gills with tour buses. The relatively peaceful surroundings and the terrific light in the late afternoon seem to make this an ideal time to be here. Almost as if on cue, we are treated to an amazing show of five condors coming home from further up canyon, and they glide effortlessly on the air currents from the canyon. One makes a slow pass past the overlook and the shutters are snapping wildly. One sees some furry critter and dives in for dinner. All in all, everyone seems to come away extremely satisfied.

We bump and grind back down the path and arrive back at the hotel a bit after dark, where we have a reasonable but not excessively fancy dinner in the hotel restaurant. This being a tourist town, dinner is accompanied by a talented if slightly over-earnest performance of Andean folk music a la Inti’Illimani, accompanied by two traditional dancers with a great array of costumes. Of course, this is followed by a round of shilling to buy their CD’s, knickknacks produced by the dancers and so forth. They make a few bucks off a few of us, but for the most part, not so much. By now it is well and truly bedtime after a very long day.

First day of Peru

I need to get caught up here, because the first three days have been so packed that there has been absolutely no time (or energy) to write much of anything! So day 1 is below, as best as I can remember it 3 days later- so much to say!

On our first day we left Arica in Chile and rode about 10 minutes to the border with Peru. Much paperwork needed to be shown in order to get out of the country – our tourist cards received on entry were surrendered, plus the bikes needed to be documented as Chilean so that they would be allowed back into the country later. This required 3 separate stamps per person and about 45 minutes or so overall. We then proceeded to the Peruvian side, where it took an additional four stamps per motorcycle to be allowed in (no prohibited agricultural items, proper registration, which people were assigned to which motorcycle, and all the usual immigration stuff. This was another hour. The saving graces in all this were that all of the officials were fairly friendly, and that the clock went back two hours upon entering Peru, thus negating the time we had spent standing around. Our guide Klaus’ fluent Spanish was essential here. I cannot possibly imagine trying to negotiate this process on one’s own without being able to speak the language.

Now finally, the ride to Arequipa began. We buzzed through the desert for a little while to the closest town, Tacna, where you meet the Panamericana highway. This part was easy, straight, flat, and boring. No vegetation whatsoever for miles around. However, you would see lots of itty-bitty little brick and cinder block huts scattered around from time to time. Nobody was living there and there were no people around, so what was the deal? Klaus explained later that this is sort of like the Homesteader’s Act. People do this to stake a claim on a little piece of property, so that in case water or anything valuable is ever found there later, they can claim, “Hey, that’s my house there, I already own that piece of land.” Best of luck to them, whoever they are.

This sort of riding persisted for a few more hours, moving a bit more inland, until reaching the first piece of greenery we had seen in the entire trip, a small town called Moquegua, where we stopped for lunch. As we were parking the bikes, Klaus ran ahead to make sure our appetizer was ordered: Cui frito, or fried guinea pig:

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As you can see, poor fluffy arrives with teeth and all four limbs still attached. All I have to say is, well, it really does taste like chicken.

After lunch, we continued on to Arequipa, which is at an altitude somewhere around 8000 feet. This is where we got our first real taste of urban traffic. It is exactly what you would expect from a small, crowded city where traffic laws are more like “suggestions.” We arrived right around rush hour, and so we formed up into a relatively tight pack and tried to keep together as Klaus led us through a twisty little maze of passages, all alike. We were still regularly cut off by taxis, buses, and trucks of various sorts, but we were usually able to pass them again within a block or so and get back together. However, it was still a mildly harrowing experience overall, and I would wager dollars to doughnuts that even the worst urban U.S. traffic has nothing on South America from a hazard standpoint. Eventually we reached our hotel, the Libertador, which is a truly classy place with a very authentic feel. They opened a gate to provide private protected parking for the bikes, and we gratefully piled into the hotel. They had a beautiful pool and a couple of pet alpacas wandering around the grounds – a real oasis after all of the dry dusty stuff and pervasive poverty we had seen on the way there.

Though everyone was pretty tired from the long day, Dinner was at a nice place nearby called Zigzag, in an old colonial house with a brass spiral staircase that was designed by Gustave Eiffel, probably before going onto larger towers. On the way in, the other tour guide, Axel, and I had a laugh at some other diners wearing some pretty silly looking lobster bibs. We thought it was very Tony Soprano. Well, the joke was on us, because soon our entire group would be following suit. Most of the menu arrives on your plate on a sizzling hot volcanic rock, where the food continues to spit grease at you, and would likely ruin your clothing. So, on with the bibs. The food was delicious, in fact. I personally had a trio of small filets, one beef, one lamb, and one alpaca. The alpaca was very tasty and extremely low in fat and cholesterol, even more so, evidently, than poultry, ostrich, and other lean meats. It was a great meal.

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Arrived in Arica

Well, after the expected chaos of getting through Chilean immigration in Santiago (U.S. citizens have to pay an up front $160 “reciprocity” fee, which I call a “revenge” fee, since evidently this is what Chileans have to pay to apply for a U.S. visa), I flew the 1000 miles back north to Arica without incident. One of the tour guides picked me up at the airport and we drove back into town to the hotel. Axel is my age and lives in Innsbruck, which I visited a few years ago and really liked. He’s pretty technically savvy so I think we’ll get on well.

The hotel is very nice by local standards and overlooks some great crashing surf coming into one of the public beaches. There’s a pleasant bar out back with a terrace by the pool, overlooking the coast, and they make a nice Pisco Sour. Actually, it’s my first ever Pisco Sour, so I really have nothing to compare it to, but I’m not much of a drinker under normal circumstances and this turns out to be a drink I could get really friendly with, so that’s really saying something. (Pisco Sour = some sort of grape brandy mixed with lime juice, egg white, a whole mess of sugar and ice, and blended frothy. Good stuff.)

All the bikes are BMWs. I’m personally riding an F650GS (the derated twin from the F800, not the thumper G-model) and it looks like a nice easy bike, much smaller and lighter than my RT. I helped Axel put my GPS mount on, and looked over my ride for the next few weeks. It’s definitely seen a lot of action, so the pre-existing damage form is pretty loaded up with scratches. Keys were handed over and now she’s mine.

At 5, the main tour guide Klaus, and Axel, held our first rider meeting and gave us a brief description of what to expect over the course of the trip. Most was what’s already in the detailed tour book we were mailed, but they started to point out quite a few things to be careful of. Mostly, they fall into the category of “Peru is a 3rd world country, so expect the unexpected. And definitely don’t do anything to attract the attention of Peruvian police.” Chile, on the other hand, is much more economically developed and more comparable to Europe in many ways and we’ll be able to be a little more relaxed in the riding during the 2nd half. Lots to look forward to.

A little more time to rest, dinner will be at 8:30 at a well-recommended restaurant a short walk down the beach. Border crossing is first thing tomorrow morning, and then this trip really gets going.

We’re off from LAX, en route to Santiago with a stopover in Lima. With a trip this long, I did the thing I never do and sprang for full fare business class. The 767 seat is cushy, but soon after takeoff I tried to avail myself of the reclining functions. The motorized seat has no less than 17 buttons to control its position.
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Whoa. This is not a model UI. No matter what I push, the only thing that seems to happen is that my thighs go up and down about an inch, or the lumbar support moves a little. What about this ramrod straight back!?

The elderly Japanese man next to me has no English, and I have no Japanese. However, he sees me fumbling with this monstrosity and tries to help by pushing a few of the buttoms himself, no change. Around this time, the flight attendant stops by to take my order for lunch and sees our predicament, so she asks me to stand up and she takes a look. No dice. I really thought I was crazy there for a minute, but it really does seem to be malfunctioning. Luckily, she calls over one of the male attendants, and he does something under the seat for a moment and then the other motors spring to life. Reclining achieved. Aaaaahhh. For a minute there I thought I was going to be straight up for the whole flight.

However, the seats are still strangely narrow for what I’ve experienced of business class a few times in the past (on someone else’s dime). Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

The journey to the journey

Ain’t nothing like international air travel to make one feel that we humans are just so many noisy, smelly old diesel clunkers producing waste and consuming all available resources. The LAX international terminal doubly so. It has all the charm of a Soviet-bloc prisoner processing facility.

Well, OK, maybe not that bad. But mechanically induced boarding delays don’t really help the mood.

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