Peru – deserts and ice storms…

Since I last wrote the group has continued its epic journey south, passing from Ecuador into Peru and covering over 2,000 miles. Reading the blog I wrote in 2009 it strikes me that very little has changed on this part of the journey, with the notable exception that a few of the hotels are of a higher standard, the route remaining very similar.

Leaving Quito we headed to the World Heritage town of Cuenca, where we once again forewarned the group of the “interesting” stopover in Macara close to the Peruvian border. Back in ’09 the ride down to Macara was spectacular but the road was in a very poor state, all broken up and potholed with loose gravel on several corners. During the ride a couple of guys went down, one quite hard breaking his screen and leaving himself somewhat battered and bruised. This time, the road was simply perfect for most of the way, all resurfaced and with no nasty surprises – so much so that it now ranks as one of the best days riding I’ve ever experienced. Whilst much of the route is familiar and leaves me with a sense of deja-vu, Ecuador has proven to be far more spectacular that I remembered. Not only for the roads which are vastly improved as the country invests heavily in its infrastructure, but also for the wonderful views of fields being cultivated on every patch of land possible, from the flat plains to the high mountains. Simply beautiful.

Macara was its usual crappy self, a small border town with a distinctive wild-west feel to it. I had to leave the group early to get there and ensure the rooms in the 2 hotels were secured (they have a habit of re-allocating them, despite bookings, should other people show up). This proved to be an experience in itself as my Spanish is still not good enough to communicate effectively, and it took some while for either receptionist to understand my request to see each of the rooms they’d allocated to us so I could draw up a room list, giving the rooms with most beds to the couples, those with double beds to the larger gentlemen on the trip and generally trying to strike the right balance across the group. I managed eventually, and as both hotels are right next door to each other soon had my list drawn up before I popped round the corner to one of the few “restaurants” (the term “cafe” would be more appropriate) for a spot of lunch. Which proved just as interesting as trying to sort the rooms out, as I became the town spectacle sat eating my soup whilst being stared at by the locals who don’t see many gringos here. Once the group arrived and we had the bikes parked up outside the hotels though, the feeling of being an alien in a foreign land was at least shared with others. We even attracted the attention of the local TV news who came out to film an interview with Kevin and Baltasar (as he speaks fluent Spanish and so could translate the questions). During our daily meeting, held on the street as there are no suitable rooms, we even had a young woman stop her car and come over for photos, interrupting the meeting as she sat and posed on one of the bikes!

The following day we rode to the border in two groups again, Kevin taking the first batch and me the second. Back in ’09 this was one of the easiest and most photogenic of borders, the group able to pose for photos on a bridge under a big Peru flag, but now there’s a new bridge which lacks the aesthetic appeal of the old. Getting out of Ecuador was easy, but entering Peru wasn’t. Once we’d checked ourselves in and received our tourist entry ticket, then had this stamped by the police we had to check the bikes in, and this is where things got tricky. First, the border guard wanted a photocopy of the usual – passport, V5 (title document), and driving licence, but he also wanted a copy of the tourist entry ticket we’d just received. Only there were no copiers at the border (which is unusual). Kevin finally managed to convince him that it was impossible to get these and so he proceeded to use his printer to make copies instead. Slowly the group processed their bikes into the country, whilst I ensured that they double-checked everything and waited for my turn. Once they’d all been processed and entered Peru, it was my turn, and then the border guard’s computer crashed. It took a further hour before it was working again, by which time the group was long gone and so it was a lonely ride for the first few miles in Peru! At the border I did meet and get chatting to a few other travellers, including a family (mum, dad and 3 young kids) from Chicago travelling in a 4×4 with trailer, a couple from New Zealand on a bike riding down to Ushuaia on the same route as us and a lone Frenchman doing the same but also heading into Bolivia.

That night we were in Chiclayo, which those of you who read my 09 blog will recall is the scene of the first Pisco Sours debacle. This time I was much more restrained, old age and common sense seeming to have finally reduced my tendency to over indulge. The Pisco Sours were still delicious, and very, very strong, and the chinese across the road was just as good as I remembered. With a day off the following day for the group to visit The Lord of Sipan museum, I tended to some jobs and kept myself busy. The following day we rode down to the coastal town of Huanchaco, home of the reed boats and South America’s no.1 surfing destination. Unlike last time the weather was very kind with clear skies and sunshine. I even visited the ruins at Chan Chan, which I skipped in 09 due to an excessive hangover – seems my new-found restraint is already paying dividends.

It was whilst here that we got further news of Boonie and the van. Following a change in customs procedure in Ecuador, the van had been shipped instead to Colombia, where it had proven incredibly difficult to get it back again. Boonie had already spent 3 weeks trying to get the van released before succeeding and was now speeding his way southward to try and catch us up. Just short of Popayan, Colombia, his luck turned sour again, as an uprising by the indigenous peoples resulted in him being trapped in a roadblock as they systematically blockaded the Pan American at several points across the country. They basically created a roadblock, then when they had sufficient vehicles trapped – something like 20-30, including Boonie and the van – they cut down trees with chainsaws to prevent them turning round and escaping. They also overpowered the soldiers and police who were on the scene, disarming them and holding them hostage too. Boonie and the others had to spend an uncomfortable night in their vehicles whislt the UN negotiated for the release of the soldiers & policemen. When he was finally free to go it was only back North as they continued to blockade the road south. Then the army went in to try and resolve the matter (God only knows what really happened then). It took a further couple of days before Boonie was on the move again, further delaying him joining the group and necessitating Jairo continuing his journey further away from home to Nasca. Boonie had been expected to catch us up in Huanchaco, but we now knew that wasn’t going to happen and at this stage we weren’t sure when we’d see him again!

But the group still had riding to do. Leaving Huanchaco we headed across more desert before turning off and into the mountains to ride the spectacular Canon del Pato (duck canyon). This was one of the many highlights of 09, and it was still as stunningly beautiful as I remembered it. This time, instead of charging up the dirt road, I stayed at the back of the group, riding with Angelica to ensure she made it successfully and with Julia for additional company. The road surface was much better than in 09, now being fairly smooth and nowhere near as rocky as in 09. We stopped several times to admire the view and take photos (see my photostream, details in an earlier post). Julia was trying to get the perfect brochure front-page shot, so who knows, maybe I’ll make the cover! One thing that did strike me strongly this time was the amazing geological structures of the rock walls of the canyon. One particular stretch clearly showing how the mountain had risen and twisted, the lines of the different layers of rock forming beautiful arches. On arrival at our hostel in Caraz we counted up the bikes and discovered that for the first time ever the entire group had got through the canyon without a single bike being dropped. Testament to the improved conditions on the road as well as the skill level of the group.

From Caraz we rode back down to the coastal town of Barranca, another town off the tourist route, but accessed via spectacular riding roads. This was very much like 09, the ride fantastic and the hotel at the end of it basic. From here it was a day of pounding south past Lima to Nasca, a day of making the miles through the desert on the Pan Am. The ride round Lima was crazy to say the least, the traffic darting for gaps with no warning, making it necessary to once again adopt a “combat motorcycling” riding style, which I thoroughly enjoyed but wouldn’t want to do on a daily basis. Bryan and Kelly witnessed an accident, as dropping into lane 1 to slow and rest his clutch hand a driver in lane 2 was so fascinated with the bike and the stickers on the panniers that he failed to notice the traffic in front had stopped, promptly ploughing into the stationary vehicle in front at around 40mph! Scary stuff indeed…

At Nasca we stayed in town as opposed to outside as we had in 09, which worked much better, enabling us to walk to the Rico Pollo for roast chicken and chips. Here I also sorted out flights over the Nasca lines for the group and arranged a bit of combined culture and fun with a dune-buggy ride into the desert the following afternoon. The Nasca lines flight should have gone smoothly, with the travel agent arranging for a 12-seater plane to take the group of 10 up in one go. Only the flight is planned on an average passenger weight of 80Kg, and with our group predominantly male and with several of them being gentlemen who enjoy the finer things in life (that is, a tad on the large side), they had to split the group with 2 taking an alternative later flight. But they all got to see the lines as I had in 09, and most managed not to get too air-sick, itself surprising given how much the plane banks to afford the passengers a clear view. The afternoon dune-buggy ride, though, went very well, as I joined a subset of the group and we drove off into the desert, taking in the circular aqueducts built in ancient times to provide filtered water for crop irrigation, the spectacular pyramids at Cahuachi and some open graveyards where there were scattered human remains (including mummified corpses) all over the desert. After the cultural part we drove into the desert proper to play on the sand dunes, first driving around on a roller-coaster ride up and down the dunes, then using snowboards to sledge down the dunes, getting sand firmly in every conceivable place. Then we witnessed the sun setting rapidly over the desert before driving back to the hotel. Shortly after we got back Boonie also arrived, having driven almost constantly since being freed of the hold ups in Colombia – so now the team was complete once more, and we said a fond goodbye to Jairo who could now head back home to his family.

Leaving Nasca and the desert heat the following morning we rode up into the mountains proper, gaining over 4,000m of altitude in just 60 miles as the road twisted upwards in spectacular fashion. Crossing the high altiplano we had to be extra vigilant, watching out for the very well camouflaged and skittish vicunia, as well as Llamas and alpacas. Whilst gaining height the temperature dropped dramatically until at one stage at 4,500m it dropped to 0.5 degrees, and started to sleet. The road was covered with a thin layer of ice, and the first corner provided a serious squeeky-bum moment as gently leaning the bike in to the turn both tyres started to slide across the road! I brought the bike vertical and slid a good foot before managing to find sufficient grip to get round. After a couple more corners like that I stopped in the pouring sleet and biting wind to turn round and warn the riders following of the hazardous conditions. We all got through without issue, though, but once again that evening in Tampumayu Boonie had the best story to tell. He’d been following in the van and on noticing the sleet on the windscreen had slowed to about 25mph whilst the VW Tiguan 4×4 in front continued at pace. As it reached the first treacherous corner, the brake lights came on, followed by obvious signs of the ABS attempting to control things before it left the road and slammed front-first them sideways into the solid rock face, airbags deploying and the car “exploding into a thousand pieces” in Boonies’ own words. He stopped to help the shaken and slightly injured driver and rear seat passenger, convinced had it not been for the side-impact airbags they’d be dead. Scary stuff indeed…

After a very relaxing evening in the lodge at Tempumayu (so much better then the hotel in Abancay we stayed at in 09), and an early morning alarm call by the resident peacock, we rode once more up into the mountains and down into Cusco. This was all very familiar to me, the sense of deju-vu strong as I found my way to the hotel without difficulty. Which is more than can be said of my route to the car park a few blocks away – I was told the road was blocked so using my memory headed up the hill to approach from the top, only to discover it was the top of the road that was blocked. This resulted in an interesting ride round the back streets of Cusco, most of which are cobbled, narrow and with a wide drainage channel in the centre! But it was no drama as I simply worked my way round and back to the parking lot using my sense of direction and the GPS.

Yesterday was our first of two days off in Cusco, the group heading off to see Machu Picchu, as I had in 09. I used the day to wander aimlessly around Cusco, admiring the architecture and generally enjoying myself. I had planned to eat lunch at a curry house I’d found in San Blas on the hill, so found it early morning before returning to the hotel then heading back later. Half way there I got a text from Kevin asking me if I could sort out Joachim’s boots which needed taking to a cobblers. Kevin had done similar a few years back and gave vague directions to where he thought it might be, so I set off to take the boots for a walk round Cusco. I did find the cobblers after about 40 minutes, and they did a sterling job of repairing them whilst I waited, the 5 cobblers working in the tiny back room surrounded by old dusty shoes and boots, whilst I sat on a chair with them, breathing in the strong glue vapours which combined with the thin air (we’re at altitude here, Cusco being at 3310m) making me glad I’m not a cobbler! With the jobs done I wandered back up the hill to San Blas to discover the curry house only opens in the evening, so wandered back down again to the Cross Keys English pub, where I enjoyed a chicken curry and a pint of draught Abbot ale whilst watching Manchester United beat Liverpool on the telly. With the pub being just like a real English pub (it’s run by a Mancunian, after all), it was a surreal experience, and had the beer been any good (it wasn’t) I could perhaps have stayed longer.

That night in Cusco we had an almighty storm, with torrential rain, hail, sleet as well as thunder and lightning. Truly spectacular to watch as the streets flooded and the large number of tourists and locals huddled under the archways. When the rain cleared we also had a spectacular fireworks display in the main square, the noise easily the equal of the earlier thunderstorm. I bought an empanada from the bakery and spent a happy half-hour watching the display and wandering round the square before retiring to my room and trying to sleep.

This morning I was woken around 6am by yet more fireworks – it’s a bit like trying to sleep in a war zone (I imagine, I’ve never tried and don’t want to!). But now the rain appears to be finally easing up, so I’m going to head out once more for a wander round this beautiful city. Tomorrow we head off up into the mountains once more and on to Lake Titicaca and Puno, which at 3,855m is the highest point we’ll sleep at on this trip. After 2 days of not riding, I’m really looking forward to getting back on the bike – I just hope the rain stays away!

Crossing the Equator

It’s amazing just how different this trip is from the one I did back in 2009, despite much of the route and many of the hotels being the same. For a start, I’m not writing a daily blog, and that in itself means I’m not as reflective as I was back then – now I’m constantly looking forwards to the next few days, anticipating what may need doing and trying to ensure that I can help keep the group informed on what is happening.

So now I’m in Quito and have a few minutes to spare, I’ll get all reflective again and look back over the past week or so since the trip started for real.

It already seems a long time ago that we left Bogota for the long ride to Medellin, which was every bit as enjoyable a journey as I remember it being in 2009. We rode out of Bogota as a group, the journey taking much less time than it did in 09 as it was a Sunday and the traffic very light. Once at a peage out of town Kevin pulled the group over and let them off the leash, something he refers to as “emptying the bucket of frogs” for very good reason! I hung back with Bryan and Kelly whilst they fixed their intercom, leaving me at the back of the group and on I went, riding on my own through the small towns on the outskirts of Bogota and into the hills. The road soon became as twisty as a twisty thing and once more my love affair with Colombia was well under way. Every now and then I’d encounter a slow-moving truck belching thick acrid black smoke into the crisp air, providing me with ample opportunity to hone my overtaking skills. Back in 2009 it was dark before we reached the outskirts of Medellin and the fantastic winding 2-lane dual carriageway that provides a spectacular entrance to the city. This time I arrived mid-afternoon, but missed the turn-off marked in the route notes and so ended up at the far Northern end of the city, a journey through which to the hotel was nowhere near as beautiful as the official route!

We had a day off in Medellin, and put it to good use, as I organised a mini city-tour for a few of the team (Alex, John & James) and we caught the metro downtown. We visited the Plaza Botero where a large number of statues by the city’s most famous artist were scattered among the trees, before strolling through the streets for a while, then catching a tiny taxi to the Pueblito Paisa, a small reproduction of a traditional colonial village high on the hill near the hotel. It was being renovated which was a shame, but the views over the city made up for the parts of the town covered in tarpaulin and the crashing sounds of workmen restoring buildings. Rather than catch another taxi back, Alex and I opted to walk, taking a path down the hill towards the main road back to the hotel. Near the bottom we encountered a perimeter fence with no sign of an exit and a disused fairground. Looking past one of the attractions I saw and open gate leading to another downhill path, so hopped over the first fence to explore. I discovered a few small buildings in one of which a young woman with a pierced nose was washing up – she was most surprised when I knocked on the door and asked for “Salida” (exit). Nevertheless, she showed me to the main gate, which was padlocked and said she’d go and get the key (in Spanish, of course). I got Alex and we both walked through the remaining circus buildings to the gate, which was duly opened allowing us out onto the open road. The story now goes that we ran away to the circus…

After our day off in Medellin we road south once more, on some truly spectacular roads through the mountains to Alcala, where we stayed in a beautiful coffee plantation. After an enjoyable evening and a good night’s sleep we hit the twisty Colombian roads once more, heading to the white city of Popayan and our hotel in an old monastery near the centre of town. That night we had a very large meal in a local Italian restaurant before another relatively early night. The following day was a late departure, with a short-ish ride to the town of Pasto, a small uninteresting town close to the Ecuadorian border. Back in ’09 we rode all the way from Popayan, across the border to Otovalo, a trip that resulted in all of us arriving after dark and some not until after 10:30pm! Keen to avoid the same, the stop-over in Pasto was a good idea, even if it wasn’t very memorable.

The following day Kevin took half the group to the border early, departing at 7am, whilst I led the 2nd group, leaving at 8am. A short 50-mile ride to the border was straightforward, despite a bit of confusion due to a new road layout and some roadworks diverting traffic through town. The border was very familiar and it didn’t take long to get my half of the group out of Colombia and to the start point of checking in to Ecuador. Now in 09, this border was the slowest of the trip, but this time they had 2 customs guys working the aduana, allowing for a slightly quicker entry. I was last through the border having taken just 2 hours to get through, much quicker than last time! Once clear of the border the ride to the outskirts of Otovalo and the wonderful 300-year old Hosteria Pinsaqui, where we were welcomed by a senior member of the owner’s family with a local liquor that tasted remotely of aniseed. Our evening meal was in the hosteria’s restaurant whilst a thunderstorm raged outside. When we got back to our room we discovered a lovely real fire crackling in the fireplace and hot water bottles in our beds! Bliss!

Following a night in the spectacular Hosteria Pinsaqui, we rode as a group to the Quitsato Sundial monument on the Equator, where we rode the bikes onto the cobbled sundial, lining them up straddling the equator itself – very cool! After lots of photos the group once again dispersed as we headed into Quito city and to our hotel, another wonderful eclectic building called Cafe Cultura, which was once the French Embassy. Here the parking was interesting, to say the least, as we rode our bikes over the pavement and through the front gate, parking the bikes on the small front and side gardens!

With a couple of days off in Quito, it seemed only fitting that a small group should revisit the scene of one of the many parties from ’09, the infamous Tapas y Vino restaurant where a single price ($27) gets you all the tapas you can eat and as much wine as you can drink. Which would have been just fine, had Dave not insisted that on the way back to the hotel, having consumed more than our money’s worth, we should visit the micro-brewery for a beer nightcap. A litre of beer nightcap. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that the following day was more of a rest day than perhaps I’d intended. That day was also a group meal to celebrate Kevin’s birthday (which is actually today but we’ve a long ride tomorrow). Needless to say a few of us were not celebrating with our customary gusto…

Which brings me up to date. Today is our last day in Quito, and I took a couple of the group to the Mitad del Mundo, another equator monument and one more frequently visited by tourists. It’s a lot more touristy than the sundial, with countless souvenir shops, a big monument and a yellow line marking the equator. Only it doesn’t, as it’s in the wrong place, being some 240 metres away from the real thing!

Now, if you’re wondering why there are no photos of all these wonderful sights, then you need to read the previous blog entry. All the photos from this trip are being loaded onto a photo stream, which you can subscribe to and comment on.

Busy in Bogota

For those of you that were expecting a daily blog like last time, if this week is anything to go by, you’re going to be sorely disappointed! I’ve simply not had the time to sit down and compose my thoughts since we arrived in Bogota on Monday. And I’ve probably only got a few minutes now before I need to meet up with Kevin and Jairo (pronounced Hi-Ro) to discuss tomorrow and run through what’s in the support vehicle.

So a quick run through what I’ve been up to.

Julia and I left the hotel for Heathrow at 3am, only to discover that it was in night-time mode and we couldn’t check in until 4.30. Then we had the worst long haul flight of my life with Iberia, via Madrid. The food was inedible, the entertainment consisted of a few small screens down the centre of the fuselage showing rubbish films and the toilet door didn’t lock. The cabin crew we inattentive and within minutes of the seat belt sign being switched on the toilets resembled those in Nepal during the mani-rimdu festival (see an earlier blog for gruesome details). Just before landing in Bogota we had to complete the customs declaration forms, on the back of which was a stern warning that it is illegal to bring in automotive parts, which was a minor concern as I now had a rocker cover, engine bars, screen support, spotlights and various other bits and bobs needed for the bikes that are already on the trip stowed in my luggage!

Customs was a doddle, though and we were met at the airport by Jairo who drove us into the traffic jam that is Bogota, weaving in and out of the lanes and dodging the tiny yellow taxis and motorcycles that buzz along like pinballs bouncing across the wide roads. We got to the hotel safely, showered and changed and then drove back to the airport to pick up our first arrival, Alex the Austrian photo-journalist and motorcycle instructor. We finally got back to the hotel at 9pm, had one beer and then off to bed, ready for the next morning’s jobs.

Tuesday morning was customs day as we tried, unsuccessfully, to get our bikes out of the bonded warehouse they’d been moved to when they arrived. We were unsuccessful only because the customs inspector needed confirmation all our paperwork was lodged correctly and this hadn’t been given before he left his office to come to the warehouse. Still, we had an entertaining few hours uncrating the 6 bikes that had flown in from around the world – for Julia, John and me from the UK, Alex and Joachim from Germany and James from Canada. Most of the bikes were in the same crates that they get delivered to the dealer in when new, but James’ bike was housed in a wooden box that was several levels of quality higher than the poor families’ tarpaulin home that we saw just round the corner from the warehouse.

With the morning’s work complete, the afternoon was spent meeting the other arrivals – James from Canada, then the group from Panama arriving with Kevin (Angelica, Baltasar, Bryan and his wife Kelly, Sir Charles, Darren, Dave and Tim). We then ferried them back to the hotel before I went back to the airport once more to pick up Joachim who arrived at 7:30pm. Another busy day done, I collapsed into bed, reflecting that I need to ensure I eat as I’d had nothing but a small empanada since breakfast.

Wednesday was back to the warehouse in a rush as we weren’t expecting the customs inspector to go to the warehouse at 9 – we found out at 8:30 and the warehouse was a 45 minute drive away! But all was good and after several hours of form filling we managed to get all 6 bikes out, including John’s despite him not being present, something we were repeatedly told was a mandatory requirement! Having ridden them back to the hotel, our first taste of riding in South America being Bogota in rush hour (eek!), I went back to the airport yet again to collect the final arrival, John. Meanwhile, the rest of the group were dropped off at customs to start the clearance of their bikes, something they’d hoped they could do in the morning but were told they couldn’t until 4pm – it was 9pm by the time they were back at the hotel. At least I managed a trip out to a restaurant with James, Joachim and Alex to get some food inside me.

Thursday and it was bikes to the dealership day for those arriving from Panama, and a day for me to try to arrange a city tour, which turned out to be non-viable as it cost over $60 per person for just 4 hours!! In the afternoon I led a small group (John & Alex) out to see the salt cathedral at Zipaquira some 45 Kms north of Bogota. This wasn’t as challenging as it sounds, as we simply followed Jairo in his pickup!

Thursday evening was a quick meeting and Kelly’s birthday presentation followed by a trip to the Bogota Beer Company, where, because it started pouring with rain, we also ate. Now I know what you’re thinking, “here he goes again, the p*sshead”, well, you’d be wrong because I only had 3 beers.

Friday was pretty much free, although I did spend the morning trying to sort a few things out before John and I caught a cab to the old town for some sightseeing, including the excellent free Museum Botero and the Musea de Oro (Gold Museum). Friday evening was a group meal in a very good steak restaurant and again I was sensible, returning to the hotel with the 2nd taxi and into bed by 10pm.

That was because of the early start this morning to take Alex and Charles’ bikes to the dealership and to pick mine up which was being fitted with road tyres (it had inexplicably been sent out with full on knobblies on, not ideal for the lovely Colombian roads), Alex’ bike had been knocked over in the hotel car park by another guest in a 4×4 and had a dented tank, broken screen and twisted hand controls whereas Charles’ had been overheating on the way back from its service. So I skipped breakfast expecting to be back quickly (I’d been told my bike was ready, it wasn’t), and then spent all morning at the dealers making sure the various tasks were completed, missing out on the pre-departure briefing Kevin was holding for the team.

Which pretty much brings us up to date, just in time for me to head off for another meeting. Just like work, really!

Oh, and if you are wondering about photos, I’ve not worked out how to upload them here yet and don’t have time to sort it now, but if you follow this link, it will take you to my photo stream… PHOTOS