Saturday, February 26, 2011

Looking for adventure in all the dark places

We have a very slow connection so no photos on this one, but I will put them up when I can.

I'm not so sure that coming to Bolivia during the height of the rainy season was such a good idea. Not that we had much of a choice but it adds an element of excitement everyday. The roads in bolivia are famous for having stunning views but they are also famous for being very bad. Add a nice layer of rain on top of the dirt and you get a lot of questions as to whether we can drive on the roads at all. There are of course paved options but these go way far east over to the jungle and we sort of want to stick to the desert for a while. And then as the icing on top, our map seems to be totally wrong when it comes to roads so we are just sort of stabbing in the dark when it comes to our route.
To start things out we left la Paz after getting new expensive Pirelli tires, drove up the autopista out of the valley, and Megan promptly got a flat tire. My first thought was that the tires had been mounted wrong and they pinched her tube but upon closer inspection she had managed to pick up a wicked piece of metal that sliced through the tire and tore apart the innertube. We changed the tire with the help of police force that was manning the checkpoint. After some debate we decided it might be best to go back into town and buy another innertube since we had used up our spare and we probably couldn't find another one for a long time. To sum it up we didn't leave la Paz until 4 and the next town was 170 miles away. Large thunderstorms hung over our route but somehow we managed to mostly dodge them all. Minutes after arriving in Oruro the rain came in full force but we were tucked safely in and headed off to find a Hari Chrishna vegetarian restaurant. Yummy
We met another rider named Lenny from new York and rode the amazing 180 miles to Potosi through terrain that reminded me of a mixtures of Montana, Nevada, and southern Utah. Except at 14000 feet. One of the best days of riding in a while as we managed to dodge most of the very large thunderstorm cells. We stopped to watch the lighting shows and then ran away as fast as we could arriving in potosi just after a big dump.
I recommend looking up Potosi on the web so I don't have to write about it but it is a very cool colonial city with a rich history of silver mining. Enough silver was extracted from the mountain above town to make a bridge from here to Madrid (whatever that means) but at the cost of 8 million lives of miners.
The mines are still being worked today by small cooperatives of miners but at any given time there are 10,000 people inside the mountain extracting silver, tin, lead, and zinc by hand. The conditions these guys work in are dank, dusty, and dangerous. Asbestos dust flows freely through the shafts and most of these guys are pounding holes for dynamite by hand. They make about 100 dollars per month doing this (if they find a vein) and die young from bad stuff in their lungs.
I, of course, had to check this out and signed up for a mine tour along with Lenny. Megan opted out.
Ever since I was young I have loved exploring mines and I couldn't miss this opportunity. We even got to explode dynamite.
With mixed feelings we exited the mines feeling elated because it was super cool, but just as nuclear bombs are super cool, I would rather they not exist. However I still want to learn about it and what better way than to experience it myself. The dynamite was a full on guilty pleasure but when else am I going to get that opportunity?
I will think twice before using silver but since almost everything in this world uses some silver what are we to do except raise awareness of where it comes from and think about the usage. This mine was bad but I am sure there are even worse.
It is pouring rain in potosi as we prepare to drive the 140 miles down to uyuni and the great salt flats. My map shows the road as dirt but I have that there is a lot of payment on it. We'll see. I hate packing up the bikes in the rain but at some point we have to keep moving south and I doubt tomorrow will be better than today. So here we go.
Sorry for no photos on this. We will get Megan's awesome photos up soon.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bolivia and a bribe

[Lake Titicaca] Seems so cliche to have to pay a bribe at the Bolivian border. Megan had a plan to get out of it, but since they asked for 75 cents, I just went ahead and paid it. Especially since we had just paid 270 dollars for visas to get into the country.
[puno] The day started with us in line at the Bolivian consulate in Puno, Peru- about 1.5 hours from the border. We read that if you got your visa at the consulate it was only $100 per person but when the Consulate finally decided it was time to open the office, he told us that we "can" get the visas at the border and that we should get them there. Then he walked past everyone in line (all Peruvians and Bolivians), out the door and straight to the coffee shop to get breakfast.
So we packed up the bikes, drove them through the front door of the Hotel Monterey and out onto the pedestrian only street. We drove a couple of hours along the shores of Lake Titicaca, past ancient Quinoa and Potato fields. For some reason, they were growing Lupin as well which I didn't really know was edible.
After a few turns we arrive at the Peru/ Bolivian border. Getting out of Peru took 5 minutes with lots of smiles and us telling the border people that Peru was our favorite country so far (seems like the right thing to say at borders). We drove over the hill to sleepy Bolivia. After waking up the immigration people, they handed us the paperwork for our visas (Americans need $135 visas to visit Bolivia since we charge Bolivians $135 to get into the US). The agent closely scrutinized all of our $20 bills and rejected a couple of them. One had a series number that he didn't like (starting with B), another had a fray at the edge. Not having a surplus of $20 bills, this started to become a problem. I had to go outside and change the Bolivianos that I had just bought using Peruvian Soles into dollars which as you can imagine was quite profitable for the money changers. Like I say, I always like to do my part to help out the local economy.
[bolivian visa] After some more hemming and hawing we finally got the visas in our passports and the 90 day stamp into the country. The immigration guy joked that he normally charges $5 for the stamp but since we were out of money he would just let us through. It was actually funny at the time.
The paperwork for the bikes was easy and quick and we just had one last needed stamp from the police before we were on our way into a country we both have been very excited to visit since the beginning of the trip.
Leave it to the police to be the rude ones. They stamped our paperwork, told us to make sure we got it stamped at every police check point (yeah, right), talked quietly amongst themselves and then told us it would cost 5 Bolivianos (75 cents) per bike for their time. Megan said we didn't have any money and was ready to go to war with these guys, but then I did the math in my head and realized how little they were asking and promptly gave in. I should have let Megan fight for justice but I caved in quickly.
We spent a night in Copacabana (a La Paz tourist destination on the shores of Titicaca) and then drove over a 14000 foot pass into severe thunderstorms and dropped down 6000 feet of muddy road to the town of Sorata.
[notice the llama in the background] Sorata is an old colonial town perched on the edge of one of those classic Andean river valleys. In theory, there are 6000+ meter (20000 foot) peaks just outside of town but we never saw them. We saw lots of mud and rain. We stayed at the wonderful Altai Oasis just outside of town run by the worlds most hospitable Bolivian family. We waited for a day for the rain to clear, but it never did.
We did, however meet a wonderful street dog we named coalcita and some quirky female doctors (megan's giardia started to come back) who advised Megan to eat vegetarian food- like white chicken. I went for a nice hike in the rain along a raging river and decided Sorata might be a nice place to come back to in the dry season.
We are now in La Paz in a very nice hotel with a wonderful view of the city.
[La Paz] This post is long enough, so I won't say too much about La Paz except picture an outdoor market where a million people participate all the time. This is La Paz. It is pretty cool.
And very last, we found a motorcycle shop here that has tires for our bikes ( and what I hope will be a really good chain. I am getting very tired of maintaining my chain and I want one that won't stretch out so much (and fall off). Hopefully this new chain does the trick.

The next leg of the trip will be an adventurous bit. Bolivia doesn't have a lot of paved roads (or bridges) and is famous for road blocks from protestors. We have a route in mind, but we have no idea if it is passable this time of year. I'll let you know.

Monday, February 14, 2011

How we became bird watchers

Machu Picchu is on almost every travelers list of places to go. Rediscoverd in 1911 by an American looking for Inkan Ruins, Machu Picchu was never found by the ransacking Spanish so it is still in amazing shape.
Just a teeny bit of history here. The Inkans existed in these parts of the world for about 300 years from 1200 AD to 1500 or so before they were crushed by Small Pox and egotistical Spanish conquistadors. If you notice, it wasn't that long ago. The Inkans created a sort of Socialistic system (although they had slaves too) where communities grew food together and shared it. They were masters of agriculture as well as masters of stonework.
The ruins are everywhere in these parts. Since they chose to build with granite blocks perfectly (and I mean perfectly) fitted together, many of their buildings and terraces still exist throughout the area.
Machu Picchu is just one ruin, albeit a particularly aesthetic and intact one. To get a sense of Incan ruins and life, one does not need to visit Machu Picchu but visiting seemed like an important thing to do to share in some sort of Global Psyche. When Machu Picchu is referenced, I now know what it means and that feels important.
Because Machu Picchu is such a desirable place to visit, it is a bit of a goat rodeo getting to it. The Peruvian government has done a good job of minimizing impact but there are a lot of hoops to jump through to get there.
Here is what we had to do:
Drive 50 miles from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo and park the bikes at Los Portadas Hostal.
Buy a train ticket from Ollantaytambo to Aquas Calientes for 60 dollars per person (ouch). There is no road to Aquas Calientes (which is the closest town to Machu Picchu).
Buy tickets in Aquas Calientes for Machu Picchu (45 dollars per person)
[Megan can't focus on the camera because she is looking at something fuzzy in front of us] Wake up at 4:30 am and catch a 5:15 bus from Aquas Calientes up the mountain to Machu Picchu (8 dollars per person) arriving at 5:45 am.
[and that fuzzy thing is a lama] Wait in line with 1000 other people doing the same thing as us.
Hope to get a stamp that allows us to climb up Wayna Picchu (the mountain overlooking MP). We got the last stamp.
Walk around MP for the entire day marveling at how much work it must have taken to make this place.
Too cheap to pay for the ride down, we walked back to Aquas Calientes straining our knees on the endless granite steps.
Machu Picchu was amazing. I recommend everyone go and see it. It was worth all of the effort to get there and I will never forger the site of misty granite mountains with terraces, grain storage, and houses perched along the cliffs with stonework that is truly unbelievable. Despite the thousands of people who visit everyday, the place had a magical charm that sticks with you.
One thing I was particularly impressed by was the "drawbridge" on the side of the cliffs. This must of have been for defensive purposes. In this picture in the background lower right you can see how they built the path along the cliff and then left a gap in it. Pretty cool.
But how did we become birdwatchers?
A Seattle climber named Jim Sykes up and moved to Peru about 6 or 7 years ago. He stationed himself in Huaraz, opened a Cinema, met a fantastic woman named Gladys and is now a Peruvian resident.
A few months ago, they decided to bail on Huaraz and start a birdwatching business near Machu Picchu called Lost City Bird Guides. There are year round tourists in MP, and beside the ruins, there really isn't much else "to do" in the immediate area.
They took us out for a day of birding in the high jungle/ cloud forest of the area. They handed us each a pair of binoculars and out we went looking for feathered creatures. And there were a lot. Birding is an interesting past time. You look up in the trees for moving things, then try to find said moving things in your binoculars. After you see it, you identify it before it flies off. Jim and Gladys are really good at it. Their enthusiasm for finding all sorts of species spilled over to us and we found ourselves looking every which was for yellow, brown, blue, red, spotted, striped creatures. They could identify the birds in seconds and tell us all about the critters, if they were rare, what they eat, where they live and so on.
In these parts, the bird everyone wants to see if the Cock of the Rock (this is the actual English name). You can't always see them, but on this day we saw both Males and Females. In fact Megan spotted one independently and was pretty proud.
The whole package of going birding and visiting Machu Picchu made for a great vacation from riding. If you are reading this and at all plan to go to Machu Picchu, plan to spend an extra day in Aguas Calientes (actually a nice little town with no cars) and go birding. It is so much richer than just popping in for a quick visit to the ruins.

Misery loves company

Saying that the ride from Nazca to Cuzco was miserable isn't really fair. I'd say that about 80% of it was sheer pleasure, but those other 20%, well that was challenging
Now before I go into this I do want to make a philosophical point. I'm sure that in 6 months when I am back in Seattle, daydreaming of riding motorcycles I will look back on the challenging bits and think about how much I would like to be there. However, while you are in the midst of it all you really want is to get through it safely and honk out to the other side where curved roads and spectacular scenery abound. The key is to remind myself during the challenging stuff that this is actually a good thing, that we will get through it and that I should enjoy pushing myself.
I also have to remember that I could be a lot worse off, like these mummys at a very old graveyard near Nazca. We were told not to miss this graveyard, so we rode about 30km out of Nazca (about 10km on a sandy road) and checked it out. About 2000 years ago the locals buried their dead out in the desert using pretty swell mummifying techniques. The lack of water helped to preserve the mummies. Then, about 75 years ago people figured out that there were huge burial grounds out here and tore apart all of the tombs looking for gold (they didn't find any) spreading bones and cloth all over the desert. Then... about 10 years ago, someone decided it would be proper to protect these mummies made and protected the site. Then about a week ago we walked around it looking at very old people. One thing that really stood out for me was how long their hair was and how dreadlocked it is.
Speaking of challenging times, we bumped into Robert sitting in the square in Nazca. Robert is about 2 years into a trip bicycling around the world. He started in his home country of England by quitting his teaching job, selling off his flat and just leaving. He is in his mid 50's and of course is about as fit as a person can be. Look at his website if you have any inkling of doing something like this. It really isn't that hard to make it happen. What I liked about Robert is that you often think of people who do this type of thing as intense and very driven. He isn't really like that. He just sort of started riding and is still going. He takes it day to day which is really the only way to do it if you are riding your bicycle around the world.
On to our story... We left Nazca for the the 400 mile trip to Cuzco. We had heard rumors that this stretch of road is one of the most lovely riding experiences in all of South America. The first 30 miles went well enough as we made our way steeply up perfect twisting road, past a 5000 foot sand dune and into the clouds that lay ahead. And then the fog hit. The thing about riding in the fog is that we don't have windshield wipers or a defrost on our helmets. Riding in the rain isn't so bad because the drops are large enough that they pool together and stream off the helmet, but this doesn't happen in the fog. So between 10 foot visibility and a faceshield full of condensation it was pretty hard to see. We managed to get behind a police car for 20 miles or so which was nice because all we had to do was follow the flashing read lights.
Here's an aside. Why don't drivers down here ever drive with their lights on during the day, or during the fog? In fact, many many drivers will flash their lights at us to tell us our lights are on (at least I think that is what they are saying). This is annoying when visibility is good, but down right dangerous when it is bad.
So for a while we drove at 15 mph cutting through the fog. With 350 miles to go, this was going to be a long ride. At about 13,000 feet we finally broke out of the fog and rode along side a Vicuña reserve where we spotted many of the cutest animals I can imagine.
The we dropped a bit and the fog came back. This time for about 70 miles. It sucked. And it was cold. At about 3 in the afternoon I started to wonder if we were going to need to camp somewhere out in the middle of nowhere. I found a trucker on the side of the road who was coming from the other direction and asked him how much longer the fog was going to last for. To my relief he said 20 minutes. But he also said that there was going to be lots of rain.
Rain we can deal with. We have really nice Arcteryx GORE-TEX® Outerwear (I have to write the Gore logo that way). We both have the Sidewinder AR jackets and Beta AR pants which so far have kept us 100% dry in extremely heavy rain.
As we were mounting back up to drive the 20 more minutes of fog, a large BMW motorcycle zoomed past us on the road. Even in the fog, you can tell a BMW motorcycle by the sound. Misery loves company and we thought it might be fun to ride with this lone soldier out here. But he was ahead of us now and it was not like we could drive fast to catch him.
About 20 minutes later, when the fog did indeed turn to pouring rain we saw a rider on the side of road changing into warmer clothes. Rudolf is a german who parks his motorcycle over here every year and spends some months riding it around. A mid 50's soft spoken professor type (he's a psychologist at an alternative jail in Switzerland), we immediately enjoyed riding with him. We finished up the day in pouring rain across 14,000 foot plains and then a deep gorge down to the half point between Nazca and Cuzco.
The next day was more great riding (with no fog but lots of rain) along swollen rivers, broken down road cuts, and twisty passes into Cuzco.
After quite a bit of looking we found a garage for our bikes and a very nice Hotel near the center of town.

Then at about 1 am Megan's little friends who live in her stomach (we didn't know they were there) reared their ugly Giardia heads and sent us off to a 24 hour clinic where we had to knock on doors and wake people up. Two hours later with an assessment of Giardia as well as some type of infection we were back in our hotel room with drugs and a Megan in a lot of pain.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Finding Penguins

My sister loves Penguins. Therefore by proxy, I love them too. Megan loves all critters so she loves Penguins. 
[Pink Flamingos in Paracas National Park] Oddly, there are Humbolt Penguins in Peru. We learned this when we went Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo with my sister in late December and looked at the Peruvian Penguins.

After studying the map and doing a little research we discovered that the Paracas National Park in Peru is home to Peruvian Penguins. We made a long day of riding from about 100 miles North of Lima, through Lima and its crazy traffic, and then another 150 miles south to Paracas and stayed the night. I ate some more Ceviche (this time it didn't make me sick), Megan drank some Peruvian wine (not bad) and then the next morning we saddled up her motorcycle and went into the park to look for Penguins.
Paracas is a long stretch of protected coast line with giant cliffs that tumble into the ocean. If I had to guess, I would say that it gets less than 1" of rain a year and is therefore a big dry salty desert.
Without a lot of information other than "don't take the boats out to see the Penguins, they disturb them" and "you can see some Penguins from a cliff somewhere in the park" we paid our 2 dollar entry fee to the park and went to a place on the map called La Mina (why not?). 10 km of good dirt road and we didn't find any Penguins. A lot of sunbathers and swimmers. 
Ok... how about going up over this hill on a random single track to see if there are any Penguins. This went on for a while. We hadn't packed a lunch so after a few hours of driving across the desert looking for views of the ocean we were about to give up. 
We saw lots of seals on the cliffs below, we saw lots birds (boobys?) but no Penguins.

[looking for Penguins in all the wrong places]

[Are there penguins here?]
On a last whim, we decided to follow one more track to look check it out. I was hungry, Megan was hot and hungry but we needed to find these swimming birds.

And there they were. Penguins. And they were pretty cute.

[If you look closely you can see some lines in the background] After a nice meal back in Paracas, we were back on the road to Nasca to see the famous Nasca lines. this tower lets you see a couple of them. If you really want to see them, one needs to go in an airplane but since this costs $100 per person I think we will have to make do with the viewing tower.
One a last note about meeting people on the road, as I was sitting on the side of the road trying to figure out why my chain fell off, this guy and his wife pull up in a really nice truck and start asking us about our trip. Well it turns out he is Emilio Scotto who is somewhat legendary in the Motorcycle world for riding a Honda Goldwing Motorcycle around and around the world for 10 years. Now he is out promoting a rally in Argentina by driving this truck around. That's something I could do...

Like a backcountry ski hut, but for climbers

[Leaving Jo's place in Huaraz- a very comfortable place to stay for both us and our motorcycles] This trip was meant to be a climbing trip. I know, it looks like a motorcycle trip, but a significant portion of our precious luggage space is taken up by rock climbing gear. However, not a day goes by where we don't seriously consider jettisoning our ropes and draws and lightening our load. Sure we are climbers at the core, but maybe we should just focus on motorcycling and do the rock scaling back in the states.
This changed for us after driving the spectacular 85 km stretch of road south out of Huaraz and then the challenging 6 km of road up to the climbers hut at Hatun Machay, one of the most impressive sport climbing and bouldering areas I have visited.
I will start with the drawbacks of this area and then reap praise upon it.
14,000 feet elevation. It is just darn hard to breathe up there. But you get used to it.
Short climbing days. This time of year the fog rolls in around 11 or 12 which effectively shuts down the climbing day forcing us to drink tea and read books back at the hut. Apparently this doesn't happen from May to September which we would be nice to be able to climb more than 5 hours a day.
Praise: Anrdres at Andean Kingdom has put together a climbing area so impressive that it just yearns for climbers to come and visit. In 2005 he built a fantastic Refugio (a refugio is a stone house out in the middle of nowhere that people can stay at) to house climbers. 
This thing is super comfortable with running spring water and a gas stove to cook on and at this moment is staffed by an ultra friendly host, Coco, who greets one with a cup of hot tea and a big smile.

[Coca sending his project] Then there is the climbing. The stone forest of Hatun Machay goes on and on and on. So far, there are about 120(?) developed sport routes (routes with bolts) but if I had to guess I would say there is potential for... hmmm... 6000 quality routes. The area just goes on and on and on. I've never really seen anything like it. 

[A 25 meter mega classic 11b on dead vertical volcanic tuff] One of the issues we have had with climbing on this trip is that the climbing areas can be mis-managed with sketchy bolts and even worse anchors. This is not the case at Hatun Machay. Bolts are all supplied by Andean Kingdom as long as people bolt within the standards of safe routes with no runouts and solid anchors. It is so refreshing to see this high standard of safety and quality upheld in a remote climbing area. Hospitals are far away.
I'm not too much of a boulderer (climbing short problems without the use of ropes but utilizing a big pad to fall on). It requires a lot of instantaneous power which is something I haven't developed in my climbing. It also can be scary because every fall is a ground fall and sometimes the ground is less than desirable (even with pads). As a two very wise climbers, Damien Potts and Andy Seaver, once said when developing a perfect bouldering area: "First you look for flat landings and then you start looking for boulders." Finding one of those two criteria is easy. Finding both is hard.

View Larger Map
[This map is about 1.5 miles across and this is just a section of the climbing.]
If Hatun Machay has potential for 6000 climbing routes, it also has potential for 100 times more bouldering routes that fit these criteria. Unbelievable. As you walk through the stone forest there are countless rock formations that come up out of the soft grass, most of which would make for an interesting problem or two. Some have been developed, but the area is simply too large to develop it all.

We planned on staying one day, but stuck for around for two and I could easily envision being there for a month if the road wasn't calling our name.

[One of the other hosts at the refugio]