Peru, Chile and Argentina – altitude, scenery and fantastic roads

As seems to the be norm now, it’s been a good week and a half since I last put hands on keyboard and committed my thoughts to the Internet, but again there have been mitigating circumstances for this particular lapse.

First, we had a couple of days of dealing with the altitude of riding to Puno and then relaxing by Lake Titicaca, visiting the reed islands of Uros and generally soaking up the lack of atmosphere. Altitude is a funny thing, and does odd things to a person. First there is the undeniable shortage of breath. Not as in the “I can’t breathe, I’m suffocating” variety, but the “I need to take 2 breaths when 1 would normally do” kind. Simple tasks, like stopping to take pictures and then pulling the bike upright off the side-stand can result in several minutes where each breath seems inadequate, and has to be followed by a supplementary second one just to maintain a sense of equilibrium. Then there’s sleeping. Or not. At altitude, each breath doesn’t contain enough oxygen, so when you fall asleep and your breathing becomes shallower and more rhythmic, the lack of oxygen starves the brain, until you wake up gasping for air. A bit like snoring too badly after way too much beer and waking up with a a start. The lack of sleep that results eventually becomes a bigger problem after several days, the resulting tiredness affecting almost every aspect of life. But I’m not complaining, not in the least, because the visit to the island people of Uros, who live on reed islands in the shallows of Lake Titicaca was as memorable as last time – perhaps even more so this time as our local guide spoke the islander’s native language and we got a real insight into their simple lives. I almost wanted to abandon the journey for a while to live in their peaceful world, devoid of pollution and stress but the call of my motorcycle is too strong…

After Puno we headed back into the mountains, over spectacular 4,800m high passes with distant views of smoking volcanos, to Chivay, a small insignificant town that serves the tourists heading up Colca canyon to see the massive Andean Condors. This was one of many highlights of 2009, the dirt-road ride up to the mirador (viewpoint) seriously good fun. This time was no different, although part of the road has now been asphalted, reducing the fun factor and increasing the number of tourists in buses. Perhaps the increased numbers of people were responsible for the absence of condors – this year we didn’t see a single one, the huge birds (with a wingspan of over 11ft they are truly a sight to behold) staying away. Disappointed, the group moved on to the beautiful city of Arequipa, a personal favourite of mine with spectacular white walled building and a massive square with a huge cathedral spanning the whole of one side. And we arrived on Halloween. Which meant that the whole town came out to party – not wild, booze-and-fight UK-style party, but laid-back, chilled, friendly, latin-American-style good-time party. After dinner a few of us wandered through the throngs to the main square, where more than 3,500 people were gathered, seeing and being seen. Many dressed in fancy dress, all happy and relaxed, young and old, children and adults. It was quite something, and Boonie and I made it our mission to get our photographs taken with as many young women in costume as possible – our favourite was the very attractive traffic policewoman who stole herself away from whistle-blowing and directing traffic to pose for a picture with us!

Whilst in Arequipa we also did some “work”, changing tyres and generally sorting out a few minor niggles with the bikes. No real dramas, just basic maintenance.

On leaving Arequipa, though, we had to deal with 4 of the group being unwell, the water/ice/food not agreeing with them. James had to resort to the van, whilst Sir Charles battled on alone (as is his want), and I rode with Darren & Dave to offer moral support (that is, not piss-taking until they felt better!).

We all crossed the border to Chile without issue, and spent a lovely night recovering in the seaside town of Arica before heading on to Iquique and then back up into the mountains close to the Argentine border, staying in San Pedro de Atacama. This, of course, meant crossing the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth. In ’09 the route we took was over Paso de San Francisco, where I had my big accident – thankfully this year the route brings us to San Pedro. Just outside this hippy-backpacker town in the middle of the desert is Valle de Luna (Valley of the moon), a spectacular landscape where the sunsets are particularly awesome (a word I seldom use, but is justified on this occasion). On arrival I rode up the dirt road leading to the valley only to find it closed – a further exploratory 15-mile dirt ride failed to reveal an alternate entrance, so I was not expecting much when I finally rode into town at the tail end of the group. But it seems that whilst the Northern entrance is now closed, the main eastern entrance isn’t. So that evening I led a small group up the dirt road into the valley, where we walked up a small hill and were rewarded with a truly spectacular sunset.

From San Pedro we crossed into Argentina over Paso de Jama, a truly spectacular ride over very high (and cold!) passes, with barely another vehicle in sight. With thoughts of my accident in ’09 very much in the fore-front of my mind, the tarmac road was most welcome, the day passing without incident (except for a minor issue getting John’s ex-GlobeBusters bike into Argentina, the computer insisting it was already there from a previous trip!). Our destination after crossing the border was Purmamarca, a small town with a lovely hotel in a valley surrounded by hills of the most amazing colours and geology. Red hills next to bright green, with yellows and browns all around – no wonder it is known locally as “the valley of 7 colours”. Simply beautiful.

I didn’t think it could get any better – the decent from the high mountain to the valley had instantly made my top-10 riding roads – but it did. As we continued on to the Argentinian wine region via Salta and on to Cafayate the scenery and roads turned the dial up to 11. Ruta 9 or the Cloud Forest road a particular delight, the size of a normal road shrunk by 50%, all tight and twisting and with views to die for (literally – taking eyes off the road for more than a second or two was risky!). And then Cafayate itself. A small wine-growing town with a lovely plaza and spectacular wine. So spectacular in fact, that as I type this I’m being “serenaded” by a small subset of the group “singing” American Pie in the courtyard of the hotel having been drinking the local produce since lunchtime… but that’s my fault too, as I organised a trip to the local Bodega (vineyard) for a tour that then didn’t happen as despite the reassurances of the staff in the hotel, the tours don’t run anymore! Rumours that I can’t organise a piss-up in a winery are now proven!!

And so the trip continues. There’s more going on behind the scenes I’ll discuss in a later post – particularly with regards to one of the bikes and charging system problems made worse by the rider failing to listen to the expert advice of our mechanic, not to mention planning for our arrival in Santiago when we lose 3 of our riders/bikes and gain 6 more people and 5 more bikes, but more of that later. I think perhaps I should rejoin the party downstairs and teach them how to sing – “Got my first real 6-string, played it at the 5-and-dime…”

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