Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Heading to Cusco: The Nazca Lines and Peruvian Pampas

We tried to get an early start out of Lima, but it was hard to break away from such a good time and amazing hosts.  After getting a package sent home from the post office, we hit the road in the early afternoon with our sights set on Nazca to see the famous and mysterious lines.  Again, it was another boring stretch on the Panamericana to get there, but it made for a quick day of riding.  We arrived at Nazca just as the sun was setting, and climbed up into one of the roadside view towers to see a couple of the figures in the dirt.  It was very cool, but we were excited to see more the next day from an airplane. 

After finding a hostel in the middle of town, we figured out how to book a ride in a small plane from the local airport to see the lines from the air.  The hostel owner was very helpful with booking a flight.  She asked us if we'd like breakfast in the morning and we said yes, before we left for the airport.  She said she would only make us breakfast after the trip on the plane because she didn't think we'd keep it all in during the flight. 

Arriving at the airport we waited in line for our plane,  a small one that fit about eight people.  The pilot took us up and flew us over each formation etched into the earth, letting each side of the plane see by tilting the plane sharply over on each side.  I can see why the hostel owner was worried about us eating beforehand. Every maneuver the pilot did was aggressive and actually quite fun. Luckily, no one threw up.  The grand scale of the lines and beauty of the patterns is something you can only truly experience from the air; the roadside towers on the way into town really don't do them justice.

After returning to the hostel, eating breakfast, and loading up the bikes, we took off through the desert and into the mountains, hoping to make it about halfway to Cusco.

World's largest sand dune outside of Nazca, Peru.
As we climbed in altitude, the terrain started to get more alpine and more beautiful. We passed through a natural reserve full of llamas and vicunyas (a smaller, wild member of the llama family).  The road climbed and climbed until, faster than expected, we had gone from sea level to about 13,000 feet.  We could really feel it. 

When we stopped in the small town of Puquio for gas and a quick snack, we noticed the weather starting to turn.  The clouds ahead were ominous, and we still had about 150 miles to ride before the next town.  While we tried to make the break quick, we couldn't help but ask the lady walking by with a baby lamb if we could see it, and pretty soon, all her children were crowding our motorcycles taking turns asking us questions.  

What started as a 20-minute lunch break turned into an hour and a half of entertaining all the local children in the church square.  We had so much fun that it didn't seem important that it was getting late and the weather was looking bad.  The questions the kids were asking us were really funny, and we were having too good of a time interacting with them to be able to leave.

I think kids always ask the best questions when we travel: "What do you eat?" "Do you have any pets?" "What do your pets eat?" "Do you have any children?" "Why not?" Why are you so tall?"  Things like that.  It's a refreshing change from the usual "How much did your motorcycle cost?"

After answering every question from every kid,  letting them sit on our bikes, and push every button, we passed out stickers, cookies, and anything else we had to give and hit the road. 

From Puquio, the road continued to climb.  At about 14,000 feet, we had to stop and put on every layer we had because it got so cold.  Shortly after, at about 14,500 feet, it started snowing pretty hard and the sun was going down.  Looking at the map, we still had about 500 more feet to climb before the road leveled off above 15,000 feet for another 60 miles or so.  When the snow kept increasing in intensity, we made the call to turn around and head back the half hour to Puquio.  If we had kept going, it would have meant riding for at least 2 more hours in the dark in a snow storm.

We found an empty hostel on the edge of town and got a room on the 3rd floor.  Carrying our luggage up the 3 flights of stairs at over 14,000 feet almost did us in with the elevation definitely taking its toll.

You could tell this mountain town saw no tourists.  All the buses must just blow by on their way to Cusco every day. As we explored the old town square, everyone would stop and stare at us like we were aliens.  This was the first time we had experienced this since being in China many years ago.  While everyone was interested in us, it was a friendly curiosity, and people were very nice and happy to answer all our questions.

In the morning, we will try the climb over the pass again and hope to make it to Cusco to explore and figure out our plan for Machu Picchu.

Monday, April 6, 2015

On Our Way to Lima, a Journey through the Pato Canyon

Leaving Trujillo, we ride down the coast for a few hours along the Pan-Americana and are reminded just how much we don't like this highway.  We much prefer the lush green Andes to the dry and sandy coast, so that's the direction we head a couple hundred kilometers south of Trujillo.

Our goal for the day was to check something off our must-ride bucket list, the famed Cañon del Pato. This route, which in English translates to Duck Canyon, is about 100 kilometers long, 70 of which are unpaved, and takes you through a very narrow canyon as you wind up into the mountains.  The real kicker for this road is that in the 100 kilometers, there are somewhere between 35 and 40 single-lane tunnels carved out of the rock (depending where you read).  This could get interesting.

As we approached the entrance to the canyon and passed through a few last villages, the road turned to dirt.  We stopped to air down our tires for the day of off-pavement riding and were on our way.  Upon entering the canyon, we were immediately awestruck by the beautiful geology.

The road conditions were pretty easy,  just dry dirt, gravel, and sand.  Nothing too challenging on the BMW GS's.  The only real hazards on the route were the tunnels themselves.  All tunnels were single lane and were just big enough for a tourist van or construction truck alone to get through.  Really no margin for error.  Since the canyon road follows a twisty river, none of the tunnels are straight, making the exit of each one invisible from the entrance.

The strategy for riding safe into the tunnels is to roll up to the entrance, stop, start honking your horn, then wait for a second and listen carefully for anyone else honking their horn from the other side.  If you don't hear anything after a few seconds, then go for it, and just keep your fingers crossed that there's not oncoming traffic.  Luckily for us, there was very little traffic in the canyon that day, and we only came head-on with a truck once inside one of the tunnels and there just happened to be enough room at that point to squeeze around him.  I guess he didn't feel like he needed to honk his horn.

The weather was hot and beautiful, and we were loving the ride.  Definitely the best road we had taken to date.  After about 70 km of dirt roads, we came to the hydroelectric plant at the end of the canyon.  At this point, the route turned to a single-lane paved road that quickly gained elevation with switchbacks and even more single-lane tunnels.

We arrived at our destination of Huaraz, a beautiful mountain town, just in time for the rain to start again.  At least the weather was great during the day.

The next day we decided to make the long haul to Lima.  The ride from the mountains to the coast was beautiful.  Again, weaving up and down over multiple passes, climbing and dropping drastic elevation changes, and soaking in all the wonderful colors and culture.  Along the way we passed through many villages, saw people herding goats and cattle, and really got the chance to appreciate the old way of life here.  We noticed many rock corrals and fences that had to have been there for hundreds of years are still in use.

Once we hit the coast, it was back to the dry and windy Pan Americana highway.  Four lanes wide, fast, and desolate, it was easy to make miles coming into Lima in the late afternoon.  Lima is a huge city.  They claim roughly ten million people there, and it appears that most of them drive cars because the traffic is the slowest and thickest we have encountered for a while.  Luckily, Johan from Touratech Peru met us at one of the toll booths at the entrance to the city and guided us into their shop.

Touratech Peru just opened up their brand new shop not that long ago, and it looks great.  Unassuming from the outside, once you enter the front gate, it is really impressive.  Complete with a bike washing station, complete workshop, and tire changing and balancing machine, this shop is a traveler's dream. No more than 20 minutes after arriving, Ines and Johan had both our bikes in the shop and our tires swapped to brand new TKC 80's.  I still joke that this was my easiest tire change of the trip.  All I had to do is sit there and watch for 10 minutes.

Access to a nice, clean shop gave us the chance to address our first major mechanical problem of the trip: Brayde's F650GS water pump.  About a week earlier, we noticed the water pump starting to weep coolant from the bottom, a sign that the impeller shaft had worn a groove.  This is a common issue with the BMW 650, so fortunately we knew to carry a spare impeller and seals with us.  After a little over a day of work in the shop, we had the water pump fixed and the bike was ready to roll.

Our friend Dagowin.  Him and his buddy Jeri are headed North from Ushuaia on two Hondas and were waiting for parts in Lima.

Lima is a city we probably would have ridden past had we not had friends to visit there. We're generally not big fans of huge cities, but in this case, we are very glad we stopped.  Ivan and Ines took really good care of us, and showed us all the good things about the city.  After 5 days in Lima we absolutely loved it.  If you just rode past, you'd never get the same impression that we had.

Ivan and Ines are foodies like we are, so one of the biggest highlights for us was going to their favorite restaurants and eating the best of the best.  We had some of the best meals of our trip with Ivan and Ines.  Simply amazing.  Fresh ingredients and awesome presentation.  I think Lima nails it for gourmet food and fusion.  Mexico still gets the medal for best overall, and street food.

One of the coolest places Ivan and Ines took us was this restaurant located at the base of ancient pyramids.  While waiting for your table, you could go on a private tour through the pyramids at night, complete with Pisco Sour in hand.  Pretty incredible!

After more days than we had planned of catching up on bike maintenance, tires, laundry, rest, and riding gear repairs, plus getting to know great people, we were ready to hit the road.  It was a nice break from riding, but it is always good to get back on the bikes.  Next stop: Nazca lines.

Clementina, Touratech Peru's mascot tortoise.