Longest day yet – and breaking the biking rules

Adrian riding through the desert

Adrian riding through the desert

By Adrian

1 November – Day 102

Arequipa, Peru to Iquique, Chile
Distance: 738kms

Leaving Arequipa and heading towards the border with Chile we were mesmerised at times by the stark beauty of the desert landscapes flowing past us and the myriad colours and shapes the mountains formed. The border crossing was one of the quickest so far, however still not very straight-forward, needing (amongst other things) to fill out a passenger list before exiting the country which it turns out is the means via which they ensure there are no stowaways by the other end of the crossing. Not sure how we’d get a stowaway on the bike?

We were a little shocked that we weren’t surrounded by money changers sticking wads of cash in our face and offering exchange rates stacked in their favour. I missed the to and fro of negotiating the rate… and it also meant we were in a foreign country with no local money and in need of petrol! We ended up finding the bus terminal in the next town to convert our Sols to Pesos.

Somewhat stupidly we thought we’d press on for the next town only to be held up by roadworks.. and the next town turning out to be no bigger than a fuel station and a restaurant. By the time we reached Iquique it was 9pm meaning a full 12 hour day on the bike AND we’d been riding at night, against the golden rule. We were both shattered and further shocked to find out we had lost two hours crossing the border with a time change and that it was actually 11pm.

And… there was an issue with the bike just as we arrived into Iquique… a very loud bang followed by an extended whirring sound had me pulling over to the side as quickly as I could, convinced that – highly inconveniently – we’d just ‘achieved’ our first popped and now flat tyre… late at night, without accommodation, after a loonng day, in the middle of nowhere. However… lady luck was shining on us and instead of a flat tyre, it was actually ‘just’ that the mud flap on the back wheel had snapped off and was dragging against the tyre. Not so bad after all!

Eventually we found some accommodation (at the third place we tried) and that was it for the night.

On the positive side – we got to see (well, Lauren mainly – I was concentrating on the road) a spectacular desert sunset. The colours were amazing… and post sunset, when it was actually dark (and definitely past our ‘riding time’) we both saw a shooting star! Very nice.

The amazing scenery between Peru and Chile.. wow!

The amazing scenery between Peru and Chile.. wow!

The colours kept changing from grey to red to orange to white to maroon and so on... it was just really spectacular.

The colours kept changing from grey to red to orange to white to maroon and so on… it was just really spectacular.

 

Yeouch!!!

A leg wax in Arequipa - very patchy green wax!

Possibly the strangest leg wax I’ve had…

31 October – Day 101

Arequipa, Peru
Distance: 0kms

I am starting to think that women in Central and South America don’t get their legs waxed. Although it’s risky to generalise based on what may possibly be isolated experiences, after another highly unsatisfactory experience I can’t actually come to any other conclusion.

This was so bizarre that I had to take a photo of it. When Adrian poked his head into the tiny room I was in to pass me my camera for the picture on this blog post, he asked quizzically what happens to the bits between the wax. What happens indeed. Just call me patchwork legs!!! Other than not actually being effective, there were a few other issues with this waxing experience. Firstly, on several occasions the wax was too hot and actually burnt my legs (to the extent that I now have two little burn scabs in places). Secondly, any wax left on my legs after the lady ripped it was scratched off by her fingernails. So I also have scratches on my legs (and even then she didn’t get it all!!!!). Thirdly, she’d apply the wax, rip it off, then chuck it back into the pot. I don’t know how many other times she’d done this, for other people… but suffice to say that at the end I had hair stuck to parts of my legs that wasn’t there to begin with – and wasn’t mine. Bleh. And finally, at the ‘conclusion’ of the process, she sprayed both legs with metho… rather a painful experience when you’ve got fresh burns!

Anyway, just so you know – I had bought some DIY wax strips previously so was able to finish the job / unpatchwork myself after we got back to the hostel…!!

That aside, I really like Arequipa – or at least the Arequipa Old Town. It reminds me of Europe with its lovely big square, cobblestones and cute buildings. Arequipa is the second largest city in Peru (after Lima) and it’s clear that there is local wealth here… although there are shops and cafes catering to tourists, I also saw several locals having breakfast meetings over coffee in one of the cafes etc… something simultaneously very familiar to me and yet something I’ve not seen for a while.

I was surprised at the extent of the Halloween celebrations here… we went for a walk after dinner and the streets and the main square were absolutely packed. It was literally shoulder to shoulder the whole way.. or shoulder to elbow, in Adrian’s case. I think people thought at first that his Halloween ‘outfit’ was some form of stilts…!!

(By Adrian: Sorry to everyone for Lauren’s expose on leg waxing – Arequipa was actually more interesting than that!!!)

On the main square in Arequipa

On the main square in Arequipa

View across the Arequipa skyline to snow-capped mountains

The view from the roof top terrace of our hostel

 

No birds…

A sculpture in the street in Chivay

A sculpture in the street in Chivay… note the streaming sunlight… literally!!!

30 October – Day 100!!!!

Chivay, Peru to Arequipa, Peru (via the not-so-forthcoming condors…)
Distance: 267 kms

We rose early to be in the at one of the highest points in the Colca Canyon – and also the best place to spot condors – by 8.30am… apparently, that’s the best condor viewing time. It took a solid hour to get there, mostly on very (VERY!) rough, unpaved, unsmoothed, un-everything roads. Honestly, it felt like someone was shaking my brain inside my skull, that’s how corrugated the road was.

The Colca Canyon is stunningly beautiful. Really, truly amazing. It is more than twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US… and just under twice the height of Mt Kosciusco. So yeah, it’s high. It’s also breathtaking. And just very impressive. We sat for a while admiring the canyon in her full morning splendour while we watched/waited for the condors to show. We did see one, a juvenile, a few hundred metres away. Although.. I didn’t have my glasses on, and it could also have been a black speck floating across my eyeball. Hard to tell!

Colca Canyon

Part of the very impressive Colca Canyon

After the canyon, we headed back to Chivay to pick up the panniers from our hostel and hit the road to Arequipa. Today was the day we crossed the highest point on the trip… 4,900m above sea level. That’s my new personal (non-plane) record! Above the 3,500m mark, I’ve definitely noticed that when exercising – or even just walking up stairs really – I lose my breath more quickly and it takes longer than usual to get it back.

We made good time to Arequipa and eventually found a reasonably priced hostel with parking for the bike – inside the courtyard, of course!

29 October – Day 99

Cusco, Peru to Chivay (Colca Canyon), Peru
Distance: 387 kms

By Adrian

We left Cusco by 9am to continue our journey southwards… with Adrian doing his usual trick of riding out through the front door of our accommodation. We made it all the way to Chivay, which is the nearest town to the Colca Canyon – our touristy activity for tomorrow morning.

We were told the previous day by some Argentinian riders not to venture through Juliaca due to the fact that either they or their friends had been mugged while riding their motorcycles. We also heard later that it is one of the ugliest cities in South America so our decision to ride the straightest road to Chivay proved to be a good one.

It was a 50/50 road/off-road day with the first section being winding and smooth as silk followed by a rough road-works section, followed by asphalt once more into the isolated city of Espinar. From here it was either the graded ‘truck route’ or the unknown alternate dirt road. With road tyres on we chose the graded truck route which was smooth enough to enable a pretty good pace. We climbed to over 4,800m on that road before finishing up in Chivay at 3,800m.

I think the off-road section had Lauren yearning for the train ride with free cocktails she had spoken with Allison and Chris about yesterday…

Adrian riding the BMW GSA out through the door of a hotel

Adrian doing his usual trick of riding out through the door of our accommodation

Incan ruins in Peru (not Machu Picchu!!)

Pre-incan ruins at Pikillacta

The pre-Incan city of Pikillacta, just outside of Cusco

27-28 October – Days 97 and 98

Cusco, Peru (and surrounds)

Distance: 0kms

Well – we had a lovely surprise on our first full day in Cusco.. it was the anniversary of the Patron Saint of Cusco, so the city is awash with celebrations. There were people dancing in bright, traditional outfits in the square, military marching bands and parades galore. It was excellent! We spent most of the day exploring Cusco city, including wandering up to the Incan ruins just above the town, Sacsahuaman (colloquially referred to as ‘sexy woman’), which National Geographic magazine has called “arguably the greatest Incan ruin outside of Machu Picchu.” It’s thought that it was once a royal complex, and the way the giant stones have been slotted together to form massive walls and fortresses was very impressive.

We also met up with another Aussie couple staying at the hostel, Allison and Christopher, and ended up hiring a taxi and a driver for the day on the 28th to visit some of the other sights that are close to the city – but too far away to walk. This included a Church at Andahualillas and pre-Incan ruins at Pikillacta, where you can still see the original street walls over an expansive grid. It also included the highlight of my time in Cusco, Tipon.

Tipon is a ginormous, 500 acre site all about water engineering and conservation. It was incredible! The walls, the waterfalls, the channels, the streams, the baths, the view, the constant sound of gently bubbling water… I loved it. We spent a while just walking around checking it all out, climbing incan steps and listening to the water gurgling away.

For the rest of our time in Cusco, we wandered around the old town in the city, went to the markets, did some washing, got Adrian’s motorbike jeans restitched after they were torn in the wash (oh yes.. understandably he was NOT happy about that) etc etc! All in all, it was a lovely couple of days off the bike.

Adrian at the ruins at Tipon

Adrian at the ruins at Tipon

Terraces at Tipon

Terraces at Tipon

A military march

Marching bands in Cusco celebrating their patron saint… just to the right of this picture is where the dignitaries were sitting… and the leg kicks got MUCH higher as they paraded past their mayor etc, that’s for sure!!!

 

 

Back in touristville – Cusco, Peru

A windy road in the mountainside

Part of the road winding down into Cusco

26 October – Day 96

Abancay, Peru to Cusco, Peru
Distance: 189kms

We are back in tourist town, and wow does it show! I think there are more gringos here in Cusco than in, say, Sydney!! Lots of the signs – and menus – are in English, and the prices back up to western levels. By way of illustration, our entire dinner for two last night in Abancay, which included a bottle of red wine and a pitcher of freshly squeezed  papaya juice (blended? I’m not sure you can actually squeeze a papaya) cost the same as one main meal in Cusco tonight – without a beverage. And at a little grocery store in a small town on the way into Cusco today I bought three bananas, a drink, a slice of madeira cake and two little chocolate bars for less than the cost of a single 500ml bottle of water in Cusco!

That said, we’ve found ourselves a cozy little hostel with very secure bike parking only a couple of blocks from the main square that seems to be excellent value. The bike is parked inside the dining room…and to get there, Adrian (again!) skilfully rode up multiple stairs and through a narrow doorway. It’s becoming a bit of a reoccurring theme this trip, the whole parking inside thing… so much so, that Adrian has already mentioned the prospect of Beamsky being in our living room when we get home. I just keep saying ‘Mm-hmm, let’s see..’…!

It was a fairly easy albeit very windy road into Cusco with a couple of unpaved sections towards the end that were unexpectedly rough… so it was good to be riding fresh, rather than having come all the way from Ayacucho as per the original plan. Plus it meant that we had an extra afternoon to wander around Cusco and do the sort of homey things only available in touristy places in South America, like drinking Affogatos!!!

We spent the afternoon perched on the outside balcony of a pub above the main square, just people watching. It was excellent playing ‘guess which country that tourist is from’ and admiring the coordinated ‘I’m a western tourist outfit’ that many, many couples wear. You know the outfits: waterproof hiking shoes or boots – or reef sandals (with white or black socks, for some of the north European tourists. Never the Australians though; they’re more the haviana thongs type of traveller), khaki or grey pants with zip off legs and cargo pockets. A gortex Northface/Katmandu/Marmot/Colombia jacket or vest. Backpack or, for the Americans, a bum bag. Digital SLR. We saw whole groups of people wearing this uniform. It’s so funny – all the more so because we have exactly the same outfits too!!

We spent quite a while in the shelter of the pub even after we’d had our fill of people watching, hiding first from the rain and then the hail. Needless to say, we were SO happy that we’d decided to push on yesterday to Abancay, otherwise we’d have been riding through torrential rain and on muddy switchbacks all afternoon. In Cusco, whole streets flooded – to the extent that walking back to our hostel involved crossing a road in water above my ankles. And sure, my gringo waterproof hiking shoes are, well, waterproof… but not when you submerge the entire shoe!!

How to read car indicators in Peru

Gum trees by the side of the road!

Gum trees by the side of the road on the way into Abancay… we could even smell the eucalyptus. So good!

25 October – Day 95

Ayacucho, Peru to Abancay, Peru
Distance: 390kms

We drove further than expected today because – not withstanding the 90 minutes we spent riding around Ayacucho in circles and in the morning peak hour traffic looking for a petrol station that sold 95 or 97 octane fuel (*sigh*) – we made relatively good time to our intended stop.

For this reason, we pressed on to Abancay so that we had a shorter day to Cusco tomorrow. We’ll be having a few days off there, and we need it.

Yesterday’s post contains a good summary of the road conditions; it was pretty much more of the same today: windy, roadworks, river crossings, uphill, downhill, gravel etc.

So instead of talking about the day, I figured I’d provide a helpful summary of how to interpret car indicator signals on the roads in Peru and the central/south American region more generally. It’s based on extensive firsthand experience, and other travellers may find it of use.

Left indicator:

  • Please overtake me.
  • I am about to pull out and overtake the car in front of me.
  • Although I am driving very slowly, if you pull out to overtake me I will speed up and move across the road to reduce the amount of space you have to do so.
  • I am turning left.
  • I am turning right.
  • I am continuing straight ahead.
  • I am pulling over to the side of the road.
  • I am doing a u-turn in the middle of the road.
  • I am stopping unexpectedly and have my hazard lights on but I’ve blown one of the bulbs.
  • I am driving “normally” and have my indictor on for no apparent reason.

Both indicators simultaneously (ie hazard lights):

  • I am stopping unexpectedly because there is traffic/animals/an obstacle in the road ahead.
  • Please overtake me.
  • Don’t overtake me, it’s dangerous right now.
  • I am turning left.
  • I am turning right.
  • I am continuing straight ahead.

Right indicator:

  • See ‘left indicator’ above.

Three days in one post…

Mountains in Peru against a blue sky

Somewhere along the road in Peru

24 October – Day 94

Concepcion, Peru to Ayacucho, Peru
Distance: 255kms

It took nearly nine hours to cover 255kms today. Not only was the road unrelentingly windy, included multiple stream crossings and one river crossing as well as several sections of mud and/or sand… there were also roadworks galore! Even Adrian was over it, and that’s saying something. It was so dusty that my once black motorbike jacket is now brown… and the inside of my helmet is coated with a film of sticky brown. We literally spent hours waiting in queues at roadworks, then playing chicken in the mad dash that happens as soon as the lolly pop person turns their sign around. Seriously, it’s crazier than the start of a grand prix.

Once we got through the craziness and made it to Ayacucho It took us a while to find a hotel; our first option didn’t have good parking for the motorbike and the next three I tried apparently had no space (despite looking totally empty). Anyway, we finally found a place near the main plaza and headed straight out for a walk – to get blood flowing back to our legs – and also for some food.

 

23 October – Day 93

Huanuco, Peru to Concepcion, Peru
Distance: 200kms

We said goodbye to Jeremy this morning…he’s spending a few days in Huanaco to work on his bike; we’re continuing our journey south. We left about mid-morning and it took most of the day to get there. Concepcion is a fairly small town and we’re staying in a hotel just on the outskirts. We’re the only people staying here – other than a Kenyan marathon runner who is in training and runs about 200kms a week. He made the Olympic qualifying time but still wasn’t good enough to get into the Kenyan team, so he’s in Peru hoping to make a go of it. 200kms a week?!! Wow. And just for the record, according to Wikipedia the 2012 Olympic qualifying time was 2h15m…

 

In a tuk tuk in Huanuco

In a tuk tuk in Huanuco

22 October – Day 92

Chavinillo, Peru to Huanaco, Peru
Distance: 62kms

Well, it may only have been 62kms, but it took close to three hours due to the windy road and a bit of a challenge to find our accommodation for the night with Toby and Sara. Toby had given Adrian the GPS coordinates to his place, however Adrian’s GPS was 300m different so we ended up next to a cemetery where a few farmers were letting their pigs roll around in mud.

After settling in, Adrian and I caught a tuk tuk into the main square and had a good look around and just watched people in town go about their business for a while. It was excellent.

For dinner, Jeremy and I cooked a super hot (wowsers these chillies here are crazy powerful!!!) stirfry. It was lovely spending some time just hanging out in a house again, and Toby and Sara’s place was great… even though they only moved to Huanaco from Maine, USA less than a week ago!!!

Best day on the bike so far

Snow capped mountains

Our view along the way today

21 October – Day 91

Huaraz, Peru to Chavinilllo, Peru

Distance: 200kms

What a difference the sun makes! Huaraz is lovely. The view is amazing… it’s what I imagine being in the Himalayas must be like, surrounded – no, dwarfed – by incredible, and incredibly different, majestic mountains. Wow. I can now understand why people come here!

Today was the best day on the bike so far. The scenery, road, weather and the riding conditions generally were just fantastic. And ‘best day’ is an even bigger call given I was struck down in the morning by a case of Bali Belly… or, more accurately, Peru Belly. It’s the first time on the trip that I’ve had any sort of health hiccup. Although Adrian wasn’t happy that I was feeling somewhat suboptimal, I suspect a little part of him was happy that – for once – it was me! He was fine. The upside of Peru Belly is that it distracted me from any sore muscles I might have otherwise felt from yesterday’s intervals!

I wasn’t in a state fit for riding until about 11am, and we finally hit the road at noon. Once we managed to get through a short yet crazy part of the town where the roads were dirt and stones, and the tuk tuks moved in all directions ie not only up and down but also back and forth across the street, we were just blown away by the view. We were riding on a smooth, nicely asphalted, gently curved road alongside some of the most spectacular mountains I’ve seen. And they were big… we were already at about 4,200m ourselves, and we were being dwarfed by some of the biggies. Really, I can’t describe it – it was spectacular. The serpentine of the road was matched by the serpentine river than snaked between us and the mountains. There were little towns and small villages dotted along the way, with the brown mudbricks and thatched rooves providing a nice contrast to the fields terraced with rows of small, carefully assembled, rocks. Animals were kept from roaming either by similarly assembled stone pens, or by having their two front feet tied together with a stocking. Seeing pigs and sheep hobble along the road in their own version of a personal three-legged race was really funny, in just a lovely sort of way. We also saw lots of locals, in traditional dress, walking along the road. Sometimes carrying a switch made from straw which they used to spur their animals on, sometimes just walking with their family, always smiling and waving hello.

Late in the afternoon, we got stopped at some roadworks where we were about three cars from the front. When we asked the lollypop lady how long we’d be stopped there for, she told us two hours. Two hours??!!! It was already 5pm and we still had about 100kms to go before reaching our intended destination. Fortunately, the two hours turned into thirty minutes, and we were on our way again… only to be stopped by Jeremy’s bike failing. We’re still not sure what’s wrong with it, and we did manage to limp another 40kms to the next town (we were in the middle of nowhere), but he’s essentially got no throttle control and the bike revs up and down independent of the throttle. Not great – especially when you’re pushing sunset and are riding on windy, narrow roads along a cliff edge.. with no fence, of course.

For now, we’ve got a hotel, the bikes are securely out of sight and we’ve eaten dinner at the only restaurant in town, a roast chicken place right next door to the hotel. Somewhat bizarrely, three Germans arrived here just after we did (I mentioned we’re in the middle of the Peruvian highlands, didn’t I?), only they were in two tuk tuks and are in the middle of a charity tuk tuk challenge around Peru.

We’ve got 60kms to go in the morning before hitting the town we’d hoped to reach tonight. We’ll be staying there in a BnB run by motorbikers and ADVers, so hopefully the fellas will be able to get Jeremy’s bike sorted while I wander around the town.

The road through the mountains... very windy,and in surprisingly good condition!

The road through the mountains… very windy,and in surprisingly good condition!

Older Peruvian couple

The couple who owned the hotel we stayed at

Adrian does some switchbacks on his own

A blue lake surrounded by mountains

Laguna Paron at 4170m above sea level in the Peruvian mountains

20 October – Day 90

Caraz, Peru to Huaraz, Peru
Distance: 70kms

The weather was lovely this morning, so Adrian jumped on the bike on his own to head up 75 switchbacks and a vertical rise of 2kms all on 32kms of dirt road. Jeremy and I did just under two hours of interval training in the courtyard of the hotel where we’d camped for the night. It was excellent! I’ve been doing some form of exercise – even if it’s just a bit of stretching – most days on the trip so far, but never for this long and usually by myself. It was great! And… I know I’ll feel sore tomorrow.

We finally got going after a lunch in the town centre and probably managed about 30 minutes before the rains came. After that, it was a long, boring, wet ride with limited visibility through cold air. That said, inside my heated jacket I was lovely and warm – and dry.

Just as we arrived at our hostel, the heavens really opened up. It bucketed down! Huaraz is supposed to be a lovely little town with lots of hiking and other outdoor activities, but all I saw was a bleak grey sky. Even after the rains eased off and we walked into town for dinner, it just wasn’t that impressive.

On our way to dinner, we stopped to help a stranded overlander, Tim from the US, on a BMW 1200. He was on his way out of town this morning, stopped for breakfast, and then couldn’t start his bike. He’d been by the side of the road all day trying to fix it. Apparently it was the battery; Adrian and Jeremy played around with it for a while without any luck and so decided to go back and get “the mothership” aka Beamsky aka Adrian’s bike and see if they could use it to jump start Tim’s bike. No luck. So then Adrian took the battery out of Beamsky so Tim could ride back to the hostel where he’d been staying, and then walk back with the battery so Adrian could ride back to our hostel.. and then we all went for dinner.

A narrow windy road through the mountains

That skinny light brown ribbon is actually the road.. some of the many switchbacks Adrian enjoyed!

Doing a must do in Peru

Jeremy outside of one of the many one way tunnels through the canyon...

Jeremy outside of one of the many one way tunnels through the canyon…

19 October – Day 89

Huanchaco, Peru to Caraz, Peru
Distance: 310kms

Apparently ‘Canyon del Pato’ is a “must do” for overlanders as the way to get from the coast to the start of the Peruvian highlands. So – today, that’s what we did. The first half of the ride was more of the same dead flat and straight desert road that we were on yesterday. Then we left the lovely smooth asphalt for a shale track through along a river and then up through the canyon. It was part moonscape, part desert, part lush mango forest and about 35 tunnels – definitely an interesting mix!

There appeared to by lots of little, local mines… I think mostly coal, but there were also a few that were clearly mining something that wasn’t coal. I was keeping my eyes out for gold nuggets that might be, you know, just lying by the side of the road, or diamond seams in the rock faces around us. No luck on either front. I did see a few locals panning for gold in the river, but the state of the shacks around the place, plus the vast nothingness of the environment would suggest that they hadn’t got terribly lucky yet, otherwise they may not still be out in the middle of the desert – and deserted – canyon.

We camped again tonight which was good! Our ‘campground’ was a big grassy square in the back courtyard of a very fancy hotel. It was perfect. Close to the town centre of Caraz, yet really peaceful and we could see some of the mountains and glaciers above us from the tent. The day finished well with an excellent meal and a locally run restaurant just off the main town square. I had the best roast veggies I’ve eaten in ages, and the boys tried a couple of the local specialities. Even the desserts were fantastic! Mmm, good food. I like it. It’s one of the things I miss a bit, so I enjoyed it all the more.