Just Deserts (2013-05-08 – 2013-06-06)

So, after our lovely time in Cusco, all that was left of our journey was to head over the altiplano, ride around the gigantic beach that is the coast of Perú and Chile, crate up the bikes for shipping and give them and ourselves a lovely sendoff.

First up was the ride over the altiplano and our final taste of the old Inca homeland down with its relatively lush scenery to an older civilization of Nasca, home of their eponymously named lines scratched into the surface of the desert.

2013-05-07T14-26-02Up we go.

2013-05-08T10-46-07The road up.

2013-05-08T16-40-22Down we come.

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The way down.

The Nasca Lines are very much the only show in the town (Nasca) and the locals definitely try to big it up. You’d think after all our time traipsing around this part of the world we’d be wise to a scam by now, but, perhaps as we were feeling the tug of home and so were trying not to miss anything before we left, we got suckered in. Flying is the only (real) way to see them, so up we went. Shouldn’t have.
2013-05-10T08-21-04The most interesting thing about the flight.

2013-05-10T08-39-05The hummingbird. They’re really small from up high, no matter what you thought after seeing them in that copy of Nat. Geo. as a child…

2013-05-12T12-45-54I like meat, so here’s a pic of superpork, Perú style.

2013-05-13T09-59-48A ravine on the way to the coast, to be our first sighting of it for months.

2013-05-13T12-56-56Some rocky Peruvian coastline. And my wife.

2013-05-13T13-09-55Some sandy Peruvian coastline. And a big truck.

2013-05-13T13-10-17More Peruvian “beach”.

2013-05-13T13-31-17Perú’s southern coast is rocky headlands interspersed with lovely looking little river valleys like these, water winding its way from the mountains to the sea. There are also a few in Northern Chile, but then it gets so dry that they cease as you go further South.

A little bit inland and up a couple of thousand metres is the surprising city of Arequipa. I’d never heard of before it either, but it’s the second city of Perú. The heart of it is another world heritage site, all made from the local volcanic rock, some of it crafted spectacularly. The city sprawls a bit but is hemmed in by some supergigantic mountains (6000m or so) and, as usual, the mountains don’t look very big in the background of our pics, but in reality it’s rather dramatic.
2013-05-14T11-20-12UNESCO World Heritage city square.

2013-05-14T11-25-46UNESCO World Heritage church.

2013-05-14T13-04-05UNESCO World Heritage potted plant.

2013-05-14T17-33-22UNESCO World Heritage evening in the square.

As we left Arequipa, we started to get into the real desert, the little bit of Perú that’s next to the Atacama in Chile.
2013-05-16T09-16-26That’s a mountain made of red boulders with some grey sand somewhat covering it. We rode through this scenery for a little while and it’s totally beautiful.

2013-05-16T09-17-02Hooray we’re alive! Our headsets stopped working just as I lost view of Eveline in my mirrors as a truck was passing her. After a brief panic I returned up the road to find her safe and well taking pictures, and not smeared over the road as I feared.

2013-05-16T09-51-13Pretty barren, but a lovely road surface. Pity it was so straight…

We crossed into Chile, well ahead of schedule, with high hopes of doing a bit of sunbathing and swimming as we’d heard that there’s some good surf in the Northern towns of Arica and Iquique, after all they are in the tropics (we’d decided not to risk a swim in the brownish waters off the stinky Peruvian beaches). We’d done but one day in the sun and then the clouds duly rolled in. It rained while we were in Arica. First time in 5 years so they said. Hooray.

2013-05-20T12-04-00Back to camping!!! After so long in the cheap Bolivian and Peruvian hotels we could finally get our freedom back in the open air (well almost).

2013-05-22T12-31-35The famous “Giant hand in the desert” by That Guy. A convenient place to wee, judging by the rivulets around the back of it.

2013-05-22T16-59-03Sand and a heavy, overloaded bike.

2013-05-24T15-56-37The closest we got to a sunny day for about a week.

We had ridden through the driest desert on the 6 non-icebound continents and seen almost nothing but clouds. I was quite impressed by the total lack of vegetation for about 1500km. I thought on our ride up the coast North of Santiago a few months ago we’d seen some dry country, but as we approached it now riding South, it seemed positively verdant, almost so that I thought it wasn’t the same place.

We were now approaching Valparaíso and the end of our journey. At km 19980 out of our total 20000 (yes, just 20km shy of then end) we had ridden I finally came a cropper. See watery pool below.
2013-05-29T16-02-40I had decided, after a poke around with a stick that the right hand side next to the fence wasn’t very deep and that I would try going through without any special preparation. Wrong.

I had tried to be a bit cocky and ride through with some speed with my feet in the air so that my boots didn’t get wet. Front wheel hit a submerged rock and over I went. More than my shoes got wet. Very wet. My pride was hurt more than anything else and my bike stayed surprisingly upright and my luggage stayed dry, but I was off and lying in a deep puddle.

2013-05-29T16-03-17The aftermath. We don’t have pictures of my bike or me in the water or the rescue attempt. I’d like to say it was because it was Eveline was too busy helping me or worrying about me. That she was too busy laughing at me is the true reason.

2013-05-29T17-04-52Valparaíso on a lovely clear day. You can see the ~7000m of Aconcagua in the distance with a little hat of clouds on.

P1000436Hard yakka crating up the bikes. This time we were very aware of the size of the crate and really tried to minimize it. Probably saved ourselves $1000 by making it much smaller than the crates we shipped them over in. Beginners mistake.

P1000448Another view of Aconcagua on our way to Madrid.

 

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Cusco and Machu Picchu (2013-04-27 – 2012-05-07)

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Well, looks like this, the old heart of the Inca Empire, is about as far North as we go. We’ve therefore decided to taken an extended stay in Cusco before we start the mega-ride back down to Valparaiso to ship the bikes home. Luckily for us Cusco is a very nice place to stay, and our hostel (Hospedaje Estrellita) is among the very best of our trip. Right in the heart of town and for the mere pittance of $10 we get our own room and very secure parking for our motos.

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Cusco was the capital for the Incas and there’s quite a bit of lovely architecture around here from that period. I love the individually crafted stone block walls that the Incas seem to have been equally fond of. When the Spanish came along and ruined everything for the bloodthirsty Incas they also took to recrafting the town in their usual whitewashed adobe walls and terra cotta roofs, the two ancestries giving the whole centro historico a clean but hefty feel.

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More importantly, it seems that Cusco is a very liberal city in this very macho and conservative catholic country. How else can one explain the outpouring of gay pride to be seen everywhere in town? Witness:
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It seems they are even celebrating the recent decision by the French parliament to legalize marriage and adoption by gay couples:

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Cusco is also choc-full of nice restaurants. Some of the best we’ve had on our trip. In particular, Jack’s Café serves up a mean breakfast and lunch and for dinner we discovered Baco Food & Wine (thankfully not at all like the ‘food & wine’ Pakistani groceries found in Blighty) for all our haute cuisine/Guinea Pig munching needs.

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After the good fortune at not having to pay very much to stay in Cusco, we decided to blow all our dinero on a short jaunt up to Machu Pikachu. It’s one of the premier tourist fleecing locations in the world. The landscape is so mountainous and uninviting that there are very few ways to access the archaeological site itself, so a local industry has sprung up to make it as difficult as possible to visit without spending megabucks. “You have motorbikes, so why not just ride there?” you ask. Try riding through 150km of mud to a campground full of the smelliest of smelly backpackers. “Why haven’t they paved the road?” Well, your guess is as good as mine. Perhaps something about killing the goose that lays the golden egg that is the most expensive train fare per-kilometer-travelled in the entire world?

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Then it would be a huge hike up a jungle trail (700m vertically), by which time you’d not be in much of a mood to see a bunch of old stones. Not to say the site itself isn’t awe inspiring, but the sting of the fee might not be worth it for some.

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La Paz and Copacabana (2013-04-18 – 2013-04-25)

So we finally left Cochabamba and after a lot of trouble getting fuel we were off to La Paz. Again a fantastic ride through mountains and altiplano ending in a spectacular finale with the sight of La Paz.

La Paz

Nuestra Señora de La Paz (to give it its full title) is situated in a valley, but still very high up, amongst the snowcapped mountains of the Cordillera Real and it is just about the only city in the world where the house prices are more expensive the lower down you get (where it’s possible to breathe a bit easier). We carefully drove downhill on the slippery cobbles and were amazed by the outlay of the city. The traffic, as predicted was pretty terrible, but we could watch all the energetic people hurrying to buy or sell stuff at the local markets. Again we were lucky to find a decent hotel with good parking, Hotel Sajama where we stayed for four nights. The markets in La Paz are super extensive and you can buy whatever you need. The cholitas (locally dressed women from the Queucha or Aymara clans) know their business and sit professionally behind their stalls observing all the things going on around them. They sell locally woven products, handmade scarfs, wool, all kinds of electronics, whitegoods and much more, and they know exactly what the price is or should be and haggling with these knowing women is a difficult business. My mother had spotted a manta (exquisite hand-knitted large shawls) and Ben and I had been hunting for one ever since my parents left, and finally we were successful (now I hope she likes it…). We enjoyed the city, despite its lack of tourist attractions and just walked the streets and went to nice coffee places and restaurants.

Need wool Typical La Paz bus Stalls everywhere

After four days we moved on to Copacabana (not that Copacabana!), just 140 km Northwest of La Paz. After a short and easy ride we arrived in this pleasant town next to Lake Titicaca. Also a hotel was easily found which left us plenty of time to enjoy a beer at the lake side and to watch the sunset. Despite it being a tourist town, and all the usual suspects, hippies, youngsters with trendy llama jumpers and drunken Brits, it was a nice place to stay.

Lake Titicaca Ferry At the Copa

We visited the Isla del Sol, where you go by boat to and island claiming to be the birth island of the Incas. We walked from North to South on the Island, which was 11km at 4000 meters. The walk was a bit more than we bargained for and every time we had to climb uphill we were out of breath in no time. Even though knowing we were at 4000 meters, I had never felt so unfit. The hike itself was nice enough, but at the end probably the boat ride and a short hike around the south of the island would have been sufficient.

Hiking on Isla del Sol - 4000m Traditional reed boat

The last night we were hoping for a nice restaurant, but what Copacabana has in charm it lacks in gastronomic experiences. In general the food is terrible, it is like searching for a good restaurant in Covent Garden where the pretend Italian food tastes like rubber and the bread is at least five days old. I think Copacabana can compete with this.

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Potosí, Sucre and Cochabamba (2013-04-07 – 2013-04-17)

After saying goodbye to my parents in Salta, we had a couple of lazy days in our hotel and enjoyed our last nights having Argentine steaks. Thereafter we drove in one day to Tupiza and thus back into Bolivia. The usual border crossings take between one and three hours, so we braced ourselves for a couple of hours waiting at the Bolivian border. We thought it must be worse in Bolivia, but when we approached the feisty young woman sitting at the border office, she took our papers and was finished in 5 minutes! A record for the holiday, for sure.

The next day we left for Potosí. We had heard terrible stories about the road conditions in Bolivia and heard that it was more like desert and mud than an actual road. However, lucky us, the current government is investing heavily in infrastructure and the 400km to Potosí was newly paved. What a pleasure, a new road with great corners and going up and down all the time – for motorbikes it does not get any better.
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Potosí was a bit of a maze, but finally we found our way into the centre and found a place to stay, where we rode in the front door of the hostel and parked in the courtyard. We expected a poverty stricken city, but actually it was quite nice, with colonial buildings closely huddled together amongst the dozens and dozens and dozens of churches. We visited the national mint museum, where for centuries silver coins were minted for Spain. Bolivia was an important colony for Spain, they relied heavily on the silver coming from Bolivia and especially from Potosí, reputedly the wealthiest city in the world at the time. The mountain next to Potosí is heavily mined for minerals and legend tells that silver used to run down the mountain, like blood flowing through veins. Nowadays, many people work in the mines and work and live under very poor circumstances. We did not opt to visit a mine on a tour, since we thought it inappropriate to gawk at how these people have to work.
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Two days later we left for Sucre and boy, were we in for a surprise. Again a lovely road awaited us rolling through the mountains of Bolivia. Once we entered the city we could not believe we were in Bolivia. While searching for a hotel we rode past the many white colonial buildings, small alleyways, green lanes, cobbled stone streets, and people sitting outside while drinking their fruit juices or mate de coca (tea with coca leaves). We found a remarkable hotel with parking and enjoyed staying in the centre of town. The next day we strolled, like many other tourists and Bolivians, amongst the white houses and took our time sipping coffees and visiting the local markets. We even managed to find a genuinely good Chinese restaurant, which reminded us of the beginning of our trip seven months ago.
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We were sad to leave Sucre, but decided to take a slightly more adventurous road towards Cochabamba. A new experience awaited us – cobblestones as the road surface. High up in the mountains we went up and down along a narrow road filled with cobbles. It limited our speed to about 30km an hour, since the corners were sharp, cobbles were slippery, and both ascents and descents steep. The views were stunning and the riding fun.

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The fun ended in Cochabamba, where the evening traffic was terrible, the worst we have had so far, the road turned into a clogged stream of taxis, little vans, people and everything else that moves. It took us two hours to ride about 20km and to find our hotel, which was so badly signposted that we ended up riding the maze of back roads about five times each. The place was not so great, so the next day we moved on to an “ecolodge” called El Poncho. The first day this was a great place, but the subsequent days not so much. We discovered that “eco” is a code-word for no hot showers, patchy electricity, no Internet connectivity and incredibly uncomfortable handmade furniture. We ended up staying a little longer than planned since Ben was unwell, but we were very happy to leave the place when we eventually could.

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Unboliviable! (2013-03-26 – 2013-03-31)

I was going to write some sort of meaningful essay about the traveller’s constant search for superlatives, but instead I’m just going to gush over the lovely scenery of the Southwest Circuit in Bolivia’s, well, Southwest.

The Southwest Circuit. Don’t worry, I’d never heard of it before either. It’s a great loop in the mostly uninhabited high and dry part of the country that passes by the many Volcanoes straddling the Chilean border and includes a jaunt across those big salt flats near Uyuni. The inhospitable conditions mean that the only human presence in this very cold and barren area is the odd llama or quinoa farmer and the hordes of tourists (replete with happy pants, friendship bracelets and snotty attitudes) riding the local beast of burden, the Toyota Landcruiser, through this terrain.

Unfortunately we weren’t mounted astride our two-wheeled metal steeds for this part of the journey (and so weren’t able to look down our noses properly at the other tourists). Due to the total lack of service stations or any sort of fuel repository on the Circuit, as well as Connie and Willem being in tow, we thought it prudent to keep our bikes stashed in Salta as before and take a tour from Tupiza, a stone’s throw across the border from Argentina.

We’d been advised to take a longer tour, so that we could get off the (very) beaten track and this we did. In retrospect, even though the additional spots we visited weren’t quite as spectacular as the main attractions everyone visits, it did put us in a remote frame of mind so that the convoy-esque travelling in the latter stages of the tour wasn’t irritating as it could have been on a more rushed itinerary.

Anyway, enough guff, here are the pics of our loop in chronological order with a little bit of a description.

2013-03-26T09-18-13Leaving (and arriving in) Tupiza through its canyons was very impressive. Wish we’d taken more pics…

2013-03-27T10-42-20On the more deserted part of the Circuit. The “road” down to Laguna Celeste.

2013-03-27T11-08-56The Laguna Celeste. Like most of the lakes in the region, pretty poisonous being full of arsenic and other bad stuff. The flamingoes seem to like it though.

2013-03-27T14-38-53There is quite a bit of water in the area really, snow melt probably. It’s not much use to most life though as it mostly freezes at night, but there are a few areas like this where things are going ok for the grasses.

2013-03-27T15-11-39Lots of flamingoes everywhere. We managed not to get bored of seeing them, amazing creatures.

2013-03-27T16-38-00We are always up for dipping into thermal baths. Some on this trip have been a slight disappointment. Too cold, too murky, too stinky, full of people, no world-class view. This one managed to be none of these. Just us in the cold air, aaaaaaaahhhh.

2013-03-28T09-38-21At the most South-Westerly of our Circuit. When booking the trip, we decided against doing the full climb of 5900m Volcan Licancabur as the climb starts at 3am. I still struggled up to 5000m or so and looked down into Chile. Climbed a bit too fast it seems, I had a lovely little altitude headache that evening. I hope to take it easier in future.

2013-03-28T10-36-12Laguna Verde. Not so verde anymore. An underground eruption a few years ago fed into the lake and made it a bit brown. Still nice though.

2013-03-28T11-58-06Back in the thermals on our way back North after joining up with the main trail. It was a bit more crowded this time, because everyone has lunch right near here. Nice but.

2013-03-28T13-57-32Doing some more posing at about 5000m. There are some excellent geysers and fumaroles here, and unlike our previous visit in Chile, there are ZERO safety measures here, so one is free to wander around the dangerous ground, which I duly did.

2013-03-28T14-04-25The geyser fields. I took loads of pics, but like many things shot in the bright light in the middle of the day they don’t really look that impressive and this is the best of the lot.

2013-03-28T15-02-26Down at the Laguna Colorada, hanging out with my camelid mates. There are Llamas in the most unexpected places here in Bolivia. Good job they’re quite tame and were more interested in the grass than us.

2013-03-28T15-08-57The Laguna Colorada would have to be the highlight of the Circuit. Fringed by volcanoes, full of red bacteria and flamingoes with llamas roaming all about. The only way it could get more South American would be if there was some muzak pan pipe covers of Celine Dion.

2013-03-28T15-27-14The fam. We never did manage to get everyone looking in the same direction for one of these.

2013-03-29T09-47-25More flamingoes in yet another lake. We managed to get really close to them this time without them all madly flying away. Very special.

2013-03-29T11-05-39The Laguna Negra. Not on the usual tourist trail. I guess that it’s because it’s just a freshwater lake and there are ducks instead of flamingoes. One of my favourites though.

2013-03-29T11-45-09They have some impressive mosses here.

2013-03-29T15-29-39The Salar de Uyuni still wet! I was pretty bummed. Luckily this was just the usually wet bit, and we got to the dry dry flat flat white white bits later on.

2013-03-29T16-33-13Unintentional Tarantino re-enactment near the salt hotel out on the flats.

2013-03-30T06-26-44Sunrise over the Salar. A magical time of day. It seems people on the shorter tour do the sunset the previous evening instead. Indeed, while we were having our dinner the previous evening we saw the immense convoy returning after their outing, us smugly slurping our soup.

2013-03-30T06-29-54Just before dawn. We also had a lovely full moon heading out onto the flats before it started getting really light. Very lucky.

2013-03-30T07-37-13The very-odd “Inca house” or Fish Island right in the middle of the salar. Cacti everywhere.

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Ta-daa! Part of our obligatory perspective photo taking session. Go look up some more on the Internet, some of them are pretty amazing.

2013-03-30T09-59-08Obligatory smooch shot. Apologies, but it was also the best weird-perspective shot we got. Was lots of fun trying to think up new shots, just wish I had had my good camera with me then the execution of the shots would also have been a lot of fun.

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From cloud forest to red rocks, the altiplano, the Atacama desert and back (2013-03-18 – 2013-03-23)

We left Salta through a bit of cloud forest where the evergreens thrive. We drove up the hills on a very small and windy road and were rewarded with fantastic views along the way.

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After San Salvador de Jujuy the scenery slowly changed from the lush greens to the famous coloured rocks of the Quebrada de Humahuaca. At Pumamarca we took a left towards de Paso de Jama and ultimately to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile. Soon we were rewarded with our fist salt plains called Salinas Grandes, which are perhaps the largest in Argentina but they are dwarfed in comparison with the Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. We continued our route over the Altiplano, with many a nice view and ended in a small village called Susques. Here we stayed in the only hostal available, which was surprisingly cosy and we got served a great meal of Milanesa de Llama (Lama schnitzel).

Salinas Grande Paso de JamaBen enjoying the view Windy lake

The next day we drove over the actual pass and crossed into Chile and ended in San Pedro de Atacama. We were lucky to find some nice Cabañas just outside the town centre with a view of the Licancabur Volcano.

Volcan Licancabur

San Pedro de Atacama is probably the most touristy town we have been to so far, with over 40 different tour operators in a town of around 2000 inhabitants. On our first night we visited an observatory and gazed through telescopes at the moon, Saturn and the Magellanic clouds while listening to our Canadian guide who made the stars come to life by giving a detailed history of, and by pointing out the different visible constellations with his trusty laser pointer.

Close up moon Ben and telescopes

The following day we visited the Atacama desert itself, a vast area of salt, brine and small bushes seemingly able to survive in the harsh environmental conditions. The Atacama is home to many flamingos that live on the brine shrimp in the exposed salty pools dotting the desert.

Flamencos in the Atacama Close up salt Eveline and her parents in the Atacama

The next day our alarms went off at 03.30 to go by tour to the Tatio Geysers north of San Pedro de Atacama, since they are alleged to be most active around dawn. It was quite a spectacular sight – the fumes of the geysers against the night sky and later in the early morning light. It was -5 degrees Celcius outside, but nevertheless Ben and I had decided to brave the cold and take a dip in the thermal pool in the middle of the geyser field. It was not as hot as we hoped and getting out meant freezing our arses off!

Tatio geysers Big geyser Thermal pool

The last night we watched a spectacular sunset at the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon).

Eveline's parents in the valley of the moon Valley of the moon

The next day we left for Argentina, but decided to take another mountain pass: the Paso de Sico. We drove through and past the Atacama desert and marveled once more at its size. After about 80km we hit the dirt road, which would continue for at least another 160km, so a long way ahead. First we visited two spectacular lakes at almost 4000 meters and later we stopped at a magnificent small salt plain with aquamarine water pooled on top. It was mesmerizing and we would gladly have spent hours watching this particular scenery, but the road called and we drove on. The scenery along the remainder of the road was also breathtaking, even more so than along the Paso de Jama.

Two lakes towards the Paso de Sico Aquamarine salt plains Paso de Sico views

After the Argentinian border, however, events turned against us. We had our first flat tire while driving on horrible washboard. So violent were the ridges that the wheel rim bit right through the sidewall of the tyre, no repair possible! After Ben faithfully replaced the wheel with the spare, another 10km brought us another flat tire – oops (definitely since we had no more spare tires)! There we stood in the middle of nowhere, no phone signal and not a single car had passed us during the day. We drove slowly on, but decided to stop out of fear of breaking the rim as well. Luckily and finally another car drove past and one of the guys spoke English. Ben went along with them into the unknown to fix one of the ruined tyres and luckily returned not much later with two locals and some tyres. However these were not the right size, so we tried stuffing one of the half-shredded tyres with some tough local grass, which utterly failed. So again we waited and another tire was brought out, not the right size but it had to do. Finally four hours later we arrived in the tiny village of Olacapato (20km from where we were) and stayed at Casa de Emma. Fitted with slightly the wrong size tires we made it back to Salta.

Flat tyre number 1 Stuffing tyre with grass

Who had thought that going by car would be such an adventure? My parents, Ben and I were happy to be back in civilisation and that evening we went to one of the best steak restaurants in Argentina and ordered ourselves a bottle of Salentein Merlot Roble (for the wine-lovers amongst us, this is a fantastic wine and seriously worth a try). What a great night sleep afterwards.

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Saved the best for last (2013-03-10 – 2013-03-25)

Our home for a large part of the last 4 months, Argentina, has been an eye opener in many ways. We left London with high hopes that somewhere in this huge country may indeed be a place we could spend the next few years but for quite a few reasons (largely that it’s either too hot, too cold, too remote, too busy, too ugly or too expensive) we’d turned our eyes elsewhere.

Then, as almost an afterthought we arrived in Salta (capital of the province of the same name) as a final stop in the country. To coin a phrase, what a pleasant surprise! I’d expected yet another sunburned, windy and dusty Argentine city peppered with the usual shanty towns. The city sits in the Yungas (or cloud forest to you and me) which is up just high enough to be cool even though it’s a gnat’s whisker away from being in the tropics and wet enough to keep the dust where it belongs, beneath the grass instead of in my eyes and teeth. It’s festooned with all sorts of colonial architecture, all colourfully adorned to make a nice break from the sometimes drab cities down this way.

Pinkglesia

Thanks to the Easter high season we were essentially barred from staying in the city centre by the exceptional prices. It seems other Argentines also know that Salta is very much nicer than wherever it is that they live, and so there is a surfeit of tourists whenever they have public holidays. No matter, we ended up in a little town a short bus ride out of town, San Lorenzo, which seems to be where the well-heeled of Salta retire to for even higher, cloudier and cooler climes. Needless to say, we had a few lazy days doing not much here apart from visiting the lovely Parrilla restaurants…

San Lorenzo

Our real motive for even being in Salta was that Eveline’s parents had booked a tour of Argentina (basically to meet up with us somewhere) and their itinerary included a few days on a self-drive tour around the nice bits of Salta province, so we thought we should probably fill up the spare seats in whatever conveyance they managed to get for that leg of their tour.

The best part about the Andes is that they’re so long (North to South) and high (the passes  to Chile around here are at least 4000m) but relatively narrow, so you can cross multiple climatic zones in a day’s drive, from low and sweaty sugar cane and tobacco plantations through the cool, epiphyte infested Yungas, some seriously lunar landscapes with correspondingly thin air, and then the driest desert on the 6 non-ice-clad continents. Our little tour included a loop through the wet Valles Calchaquies amongst the clouds (not so good for photography)

Totally fogged

and then on through the cactus fields towards the remote town of Cachi,

Cactus patch Cachi title

on to the heart of the wine region of Northern Argentina, Cafayate and then back through the vividly colourful Quebrada de Cafayate (Cafayate Cliffs).

Synchronized swimming

Quebrada road  Quebrada

p.s. For those who have taken a look at our map – tracker page and think that we’re fabricating all this from my parents’ basement in Wahroonga, it’s all due to my laziness at getting some web shizz working. For now, just get Google Earth and open up this file.

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Riding through a painting (2013-03-05 – 2013-03-07)

We took off from Santiago early-ish in the morning to make it all the way to Vicuña, approximately 500 km North. We arrived towards the end of the day at a small hostal, where we could camp in their avocado tree orchard. After a week of relaxing in Santiago we had forgotten about sore bums and small village shops, but luckily there were some open and soon we were able to sit down for a nice meal with home grown grapes for desert.

Hostal Vicuña

The next day we booked ourselves a stargazing tour at the Mamalluca observatory. We noticed it was cloudy during the day, but we had high hopes for the evening and surely they would not have sold us tickets if there were no stars to watch. How very wrong were we, we arrived by taxi at the observatory to find out that the tours were cancelled due to the weather conditions – clouds! In the desert! Despite the lack of fore-sight from a renowned observatory about the ability to see stars, we got our money back for the tour, but not for the transport – that would have been way too organised.

We had decided to take the Paso de Agua Negra (the black water pass) into Argentina, which would reach almost 5000 meters. We left with beating hearts, since this would be the highest unpaved roads so far on our trip and we had no idea what to expect, it could have been snowing up there, blowing a gale, etc. The ride started with a lovely green valley turning into smallish hills with lots of goat herders and a good road. The gravel started after about 80 kilometers and continued for the next 150, but was great to ride on, no loose gravel or sand. Once on the gravel the colours of the landscape shifted from green and grey to all sorts of red, orange, green, yellow, and white. After every corner the views changed completely and we would both ooh and aah and make yet another picture of the painting we were in. It felt like we were the painting brush, moving from colour to colour and pattern to pattern. If we had been artists, we would have painted a dozen paintings, each as phenomenal as the other.

Beginning of the Paso Agua Negra Changing colours Coloured mountains Riding in a painting Abstract Ooh and aah Jagged snow Great roads

However, since we are no Picassos we rode on and enjoyed the spectacular sights the whole way. The pass itself was 4750 meters and very cold indeed. We had thought to stop there for a break, but after a picture or two we quickly got back on our bikes and went downhill again to escape the elements. Even though it took us yet another three hours to the border post, it was never boring and I would say it was one of the most beautiful roads I have ever ridden on.

Artistic

This time we arrived very late at a small hostel in a small town called Rodeo, where we dropped our stuff on the floor of our room, lay on the bed and fell acutely asleep to dream of fading red hills, multi coloured mountains and our faithful motorbikes.

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Here we go again! (2013-02-25 – 2013-03-05)

The only place so far that we’ve visited twice (apart from a little backtracking way down south) is now Santiago de Chile. We would naturally avoid big cities with their traffic, expensive accommodation et al, but we had a little bike maintenance to do (new tyres and a new chain kit for the BMW) and Santiago is the best (only?) place for these sorts of things. Coupled with the fact that our first visit was so short, during a haze of jet lag and left us with a bad impression we thought we might try to see the place a bit better.

Santiago Skyline

Well, what a difference a few months makes. We’re not sure if it’s because we’ve had our expectations of urban South America significantly lowered during our travels or that we were now in a different (right) part of the city but it’s really a nice place to kill a week. We visited the lovely malls (quite arespite after the desolation of Patagonia) and generally bummed about having a nice meal here and there.

Initially I was dreading having to fork out for a central hotel in the most expensive big city in South America, or being stuck on the outskirts of town with no transport while the bikes were being looked at. I’d hoped we could do some couchsurfing with some of the acquaintances we’d met along the way, but as it turned out, one of Marije’s classmates from her IMD MBA course decided that he’d like to couchsurf in his own apartment while we got the good bed. Hurrah for Rafa! It was very nice to meet Rafa (although I think I might remember him from the fateful Russian Party at IMD in Lausanne). He’s a very genial fellow, happy to have a chat and not at all afraid to ask the tough questions. Plain speaking Eveline and Rafa butted heads occasionally but it was all good natured and very interesting.

Rafa and Evie

As I said, the main reason to be here was to get some bike servicing done. Sparing you the gory details, a chap named Ruben “Johnny” Contreras at the eponymous “Johnny Motos” did a sterling job on our bikes, and even took me parts shopping so I could see that he really was getting me the best deals. He’s not your usual cowboy mechanic and took a series of photos of sections of the bikes to email to me as a way of explaining the progress he’d made as the language barrier is still a big one. In the end, our bikes were purring along again and we’re now primed and ready for the next stage of our trip.

Ruben and me

With regards to the remainder of our trip, the observant out there may notice that it has taken us AGES to complete a lap of this (relatively) small corner of South America. We were never going to contemplate Brazil in all its hugeness, but prior to setting out we were fairly confident we could pootle along the length of the Andes from Southern Patagonia to Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the 7 or so months we had before our deadline in June (after all, some Americans make it from California to Ushuaia, through Central America and all its hardships in as little as 4 months). Not possible for us. I’m afraid we’re actually interested in seeing things as we go along, not just ticking off countries, so with heavy hearts we’re scaling back our ambitions and will probably only get as far north as central Peru or so and save the sandy shores of the Caribbean for some other time.

Sayonara chicos!

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Sleeping giants (2013-02-14 – 2013-02-22)

Our first encounter with one of the many sleeping giants of this landscape, the Lanín volcano, was slightly less than spectacular, since it was shrouded in a veil of clouds.

Veil of clouds

We crossed the border back into Chile beside Volcán Lanín where after seeing some splendid monkey puzzle trees (araucaria in the local lingo) we faced a couple of hours of rain before heading for our destination for the night – Pucon. Luck was not upon us and for the first time in months we hit traffic, at first we thought here had been an accident, but then it became clear that there were simply too many tourists. This particular area of Chile is like the south of France and therefore a mass of people descend upon it at the height of summer every year. Even camping was expensive, we got quoted 30.000 pesos for a piece of ground to pitch a tent upon, which is about 50 euros, so we decided to ride on towards Villarica and possibly cheaper opportunities even though it was getting dark. We finally came across a sign ‘Hosteria de la Colina – English is our language!’ and we decided to try for a night at this hotel instead, or at least a chat. The owners, an American couple, let us camp in the backyard of the hotel, while letting us use all the facilities of the hotel. On top of this they had a splendid restaurant and we ended up with a fabulous dinner on Valentine’s day, how romantic…

Valentine dinner

We stayed another day, camping on the concrete, which after all was not that great, since the merciless rain found its way under and into our tent. Meaning that we woke up at least twenty times to ensure we were not entirely soaked yet and we could continue sleeping. Therefore we decided to stay one more night in the spare room of the hotel, which was located in the bar area. There we spent a rainy day watching movies and cleaning all our gear and slept really well in a rain-free bed.

The next day we headed for the Parque Nacional Conguillo, with the very active Volcán Llaima. The road was spectacular, but tricky. Volcanic dust and lava fields filled the first kilometers of the park only to turn into lush forest and wet earthen roads.

Volcano Llaima 2 Volcano Llaima

We rode through puddles the size of small lakes before making it to the reception of the park, where we had to register for a campsite. This was all very convoluted, but finally we were located a place to camp. We were a bit disappointed with the campsite at first, but after a long ride we started to set up camp anyway. Of course, once we set up camp at the located number 7 on our ticket, a park ranger came up to us, telling us we were at the wrong number 7. Apparently there were two, how very confusing. We had set up camp in the waiting area, where people stay one night to move the next day for a ‘proper’ campsite. Both pretty chagrined we took our stuff and put it on the other number 7, which granted, was much nicer. We quickly made dinner and were both wearing all our gear, since it was around zero degrees Celsius outside. The night was cold, very cold, but armed with down sleeping bags and a hot water bottle, we survived.

Monkey puzzle trees

The next day we hiked sixteen kilometers around the lake and through dense araucaria forests, with an occasional view of the beautiful sleeping giant.

Time to move on, we left the next day for Curacautin. The reception had warned us of the road conditions ahead of us, so we left with caution. The first obstacle was a rather high hill covered in slightly wet dirt, there was really only space for one car, there were many holes and large tree roots plus the fact that it was rather steep uphill. But I would be lying if I said this was not fun, adrenaline racing through our bodies, a beautiful surrounding, an adventure motorbike built to do this, and a portion of feeling like you are on top of the world.

Adventure riding

Later there was the inevitable gravel, which I guarantee you, is not much fun compared to the road before. We arrived in time for a coffee and a shop in Curacuatin and stayed in a rather cheap and ramshackle hostel. The next day we decided to explore another volcano in Reserva Nacional Malalcahuello. We rode a great asphalted road towards the park and even part of the park had good roads. We decided to test our riding capabilities by riding closer to the volcano over a track consisting mostly of gritty volcano ash, with occasional patches of volcanic dust so fine that is was like sand. It was spectacular to ride so close to the crater and next to the lava fields, however we had to turn around rather quickly, since the clouds pushed up by the volano, decided to drop hail and snow on us. This was utterly unexpected and soon we were both soaked and cold to the bone. Luckily we made it safely downhill again and rode back to our hostel for a hot shower.

Pargue Nacional Malalcahuello Hail and snow

The last of this area we visited was called Termas de Chillán, known for its hot baths and good skiing during the winter. The area is stunningly green and therefore wet, but has many things to offer for tourists. We stayed at the bizarrely named ‘Riding Drink & House’ hotel for two nights, since the price was equivalent of that of camping in the area. We spent a day at the Termas itself, which were a number of baths, of which the hottest around 39 degrees Celcius. This was very relaxing indeed, except for the fact that in the evening we were both the colour of a lobster – a sunburn for sure!

Termas de Chillán

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