Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Amazon, Lake Titicaca, La Paz , Potosi and Salar de Uyuni.

A belated Happy New Year....

I wrote this post a week or so ago, and it is only now that I am in Argentina that my connection is sufficient to upload the photos

One of my most frequent companions on the road are large tourist buses (think National Express or Greyhound), that whisk many thousands of people every day around South America. For the most part they are generous road users, and give slow-moving motorcyclists ample room when they overtake. It is not always the case, but that is the nature of the twisting roads in most situations, rather than casual driving. Anyway it was interesting to be a passenger and they set these buses up with almost airline business class type seats, so the journey is actually pretty comfortable.

I was on my way overnight to Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon, from where we took a two hour boat ride up the river Madre de Dios to the camp. I think my imagination was that it would be quite a small establishment with a few fellow guess. In fact it turned out to be more like Butlins on Amazon. Capable of housing 200 guests and organising it in quite a regimented way so that we were all  fed  at very specific hours, with a very defined  tour routines etc. I say this only as a reaction to the independent and self determining nature of my usual journeying habits. That said we were given a fantastic trip into the jungle and exposure to lots of creepy crawlies,  mind-boggling scale of trees and fauna, abundant birdlife and lots of Caimen (an alligator type creature). It was three days immersed in a situation new to me and very enjoyable. My fellow guests came from all over the world and their society only added to the experience.

Fire Ants live on this particular tree and in days gone by, Amazonion natives would tie wrong doers or delinquents to the tree and let the ants do the executioner's work...unimaginable.

Young Caimen

Rio Madre de Dios, a tributary to the Amazon and about 800 km until it joins the Amazon
Grown up Caimen

The Rottings having a family sniff of a fruit whose name I forget...Claudia will no doubt correct me

We walked about half a mile next to army of ants carrying their load back to the nest

When I got back to Cusco, off I went to Paddy's Pub, where I met Glen. He told me he had organised his friend Christo, with a taxi driver, to film us both on the way out of Cusco the next day. This was mainly for Glen's ongoing documentary production, but something Batty and I were more than delighted to be involved in.

I had a date in the diary meet up with my second cousin - once removed, Leo, in La Paz, which was a couple of days ride away. The route takes one past Lake Titicaca, the world's highest large lake at 3800 m. Maybe I should have spent a little bit more time there, and visited the famous inhabited floating islands. However what with a slight push on time, and a number of accounts from fellow travellers that it is only a tourist destination rather than a living and working community put me off. That said when I got through the Bolivian border (probably the easiest and most straightforward border that I have come across so far, only taking half an hour) I did go to Copacabana, which is a sort of resort on the bank of the lake and adjacent to the ISLA DEL SOL,  which is the birthplace of the sun in Inca mythology. This rather captured my imagination, so I did spend an extra day and went to visit the island. The boats leave at about 8 o'clock in the morning and one is disembarked two hours later at the north of the island. There is a five-hour walk around it, with various Inca remains en route. It is pretty tough going given the altitude but a struggle worth having. Its name ISLA DEL SOL, had no resemblance of truth during my day there, and in fact it bucketed down most of the day.
By lake Titicaca

Particularly pleased with these boot covers. Made by Glen's fix all fellow in Cusco, they replace the ones that had fallen apart from Australia.

The drive to La Paz was mostly over high flat plains that did not engender great excitement. In fact Batty, with this engine, finds altitudes above 12,000 feet taxing, and her speed seems to max at about 42 miles an hour on the flat, down from 50 miles an hour. It is also pretty cold and every stitch of clothing has to be squeezed on. But a remarkable thing happens when one approaches La Paz. One starts descending very rapidly into the city and the heat climbs as you descend, so by the time I was at the centre I had stripped off more than half my layers.

La Paz
Llamas are everywhere....including the menu, and they are delicious...tasting somewhere between lamb and venison
Apart from seeing Leo, my back tyre that Dr Carlos had given me in Quito was showing canvas and needed to be replaced along with the rear chain. I had read on Horizons Unlimited that the Honda dealership, Nosiglia, in La Paz were very helpful to travellers and so it turned out to be. The only slight problem was that the only tyre that they had which fitted was built for cross-country. As it was the only one, I had to take it and it's wobblier ways have taken a bit of getting used to.

Leo had been working at the Loki hostel, which along with the Wild Rovers hostel chain are synonymous for their parties, and Leo had been having a great time of it. It's almost like anything goes and seemed to attract and trap many travellers in the time of their life for the few weeks or even months. In the process the hostels seem to extract a rather large slice of the said traveller's budget. Probably luckily for this traveller, both the hostels were booked up and I was in a far calmer establishment nearby.
Leo trying Batty for size
After a few happy days in La Paz the south beckoned. Not only was there still many many miles to go, but I also receive confirmation of a return date of 1 May on board the Grande Cameroon departing Montevideo, Uruguay, disembarking in Le Havre about 3 weeks later.

Potosi took two days to get to and it was on final day with about 50 km to go that I ran out of fuel. I knew it was getting quite close, but was confident that my usual six or seven hundred kilometre range was going to comfortable get me there. Alas not. I had a few tricks up my sleeve, like recovering the fifth of a litre that is in the fuel filter, which took me another 10 km, but in the end Batty was dry. The problem had been, I think, is that at this altitude, around 12,000 feet, the engine is a lot less efficient and has used a great deal more fuel than normal. I tried knocking on a few doors in this incredibly remote and isolated area, but was met with rather blank reactions and lack of comprehension of my struggling Spanish. In fact I doubt they spoke Spanish at all as they looked and lived in a very indigenous way. In the end help came 30 minutes later in the shape of George and Juan, two Colombian bikers on a trip south. Of course they could not give me any petrol, but helped wave down a lorry and persuaded the kind gentleman to part with a couple of litres of his diesel. Back on the road we found a station about 20 km on. In Bolivia there is a rather unique fuel system. If you are Bolivian you hardly have to pay a penny for fuel, it is so subsidized that it is almost a non-expense, rather like Iran. However if you are a foreigner not only are you restricted to using a particular brand of fuel station, you are also charged nine times more for the pleasure….Equating it to European prices. This is also confounded by shortages that have trapped people for days. George, Juan and I booked into the same hostel, and enjoyed an evening in a central Potosi bar.

Potosi is said to be the highest city in the world at 4070 m  and was once the richest in South America because of the huge silver deposits in the surrounding mountains, as much as anywhere else in the world put together. Underwriting the Spanish economy for something like two centuries. There was the opportunity to go to see the mines, which are now just individuals and small groups extracting the last few remains of the treasure. However my sensitivities to claustrophobia made it something to miss unfortunately. All this wealth did not come without human cost as millions of imported slaves and indigenous people lost their lives over the centuries.
The Potosi money making machines at the Casa Real de la Moneda...excellent museum

The exhausted mountain

This dipiction of mules powering the silver rolling machines. 12 hour days they did...dead after 3 months..

For the last two days it has been raining non-stop. I am in a town called Uyuni. A rather indifferent town to be in. However it is the place to come to to see the Salar de Uyuni. World's largest salt flat. In fact such is its scale and flatness, with only a metre difference in height over the 12,000 km² area, that satellites use it to calibrate their altitude rather than the ocean.

Locomotive grave yard...all British made, and powered the transport from all the mines to Chile

Obligatory mucking about on the Salar de Uyuni

A sort of 'South Pole' feeling in the Union Jack or Stars & Strips

My Korean friends for about 4 hours
Because of the rain it was advised that one should not use the bike and take one of the many Jeep Tours. I booked a two day one only to be told when I got there that it had been overbooked and I could either do a one day or a three-day tour. Somewhat annoying, but the one-day trip was all I had time for. It was enough to see the scale of the flats, but only hinted at some of the wonders of the place.

It has been interesting meeting Bolivians. Whilst some are friendly in the way you find most people around the world, there have been a lot who just refuse to smile or engage at all, even when selling you something. It is difficult not to feel unwanted and confused by this charmless manner. Juan and George were particularly sensitive to this, coming from friendly Columbia, and they could not wait to leave. I think shyness is a lot to do with it...coupled with some very apparent poverty that cannot help the 'happy stakes'.

Tomorrow I head on to Argentina. I had hoped to go to San Pedro De Atacama in Chile from here, but the roads are apparently too perilous. I think it means missing out some of the Atacama Desert, which will be a sacrifice, but the alternative is several days diversion which will only mean sacrifices elsewhere. I am still in deliberation about this and my next blog will tell you how I concluded.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Peru..landslides, getting lost, Cusco, Machu Picchu

A Very Happy New Year to friends near and far.

I have to confess to awful naivete when it comes to many geographical matters. I'm ashamed to say that I did not know that the Amazon rose in Peru, or even that is where Machu Picchu was there. But I did know that the Andes went down through it and that I was going to have a lot of adventures on   Peru's roads....

 Almost immediately one crosses the border into Peru from Ecuador on the Pan-American Highway, desert is all around you and can monotonously be one's companion for thousands of miles down to Chile if one so wishes.
My initial planned route to Cusco
  I had a vague plan to try and turn off the main road into the mountains as early as possible. There is, according to Mr Google, a route through that I thought would be fabulous to do.  My aim was to reach Cusco for Christmas, where I knew there would be few likely lads to meet up with. Cusco on the map looks relatively straightforward and even going the mountain roads rather than the faster coast route should be more than doable in the 10 days or so that I had.

 So off I set. Preparing oneself for natural beauty is a folly, either it exceeds it or you are disappointed. I suppose the Himalayas had always taken the crown as far as my gauge was concerned but I have to say that what I've seen so far in Peru, the Andes are breathtakingly beautiful as well. Along with the natural beauty, the people you meet high up and along the roads are the same hardy folk that altitudes above 3000 m seem to generate. Generous to a fault and delighted  to share what they and countless  generations before them have had as their home.

  The roads are only partially paved. Batty took hundreds of miles of bashing and bumping  along gravel and mud tracks at speeds between 5 miles an hour and 20 miles an hour. Slow progress but not a moment  of tedium as one was always surrounded by breathtaking views.
 A couple of guys who insisted I joined them for beer after a long day.

  It was just around the corner from this shot, that I came across some road workers who told me that the landslip had blocked the road and there was no way to get around it. It was slightly depressing news as it was going to take me another day to backtrack on to the Pan-American Road. I was fairly philosophical given the beauty of my surroundings, and it was just a way of seeing the same treasures again.
 A local mechanic enjoying sorting out Batty's rear brake lever and the foot peg, both of whom had failed on the rough roads

 Ceviche, lunch doesn't come much better than this.

 I was pretty confident that having spent a day driving on good roads by the coast and then pretty good roads heading inland I was going to make up time. And all was going well until my Spanish seem to confuse the people I was asking clarifications on.  Apparently Huanuco sounds just like a  small village five hours north of it. The GPS was no use on these roads and had no knowledge of them, a Google map I had saved only told me limited information. I eventually ended up in a very humble village and set off at 7 o'clock the next morning to do the first of four days of between 10 and 14 hours to get to Cusco for Christmas.

 The distance weren't all that great, but the roads only allowed a pretty gentle pace, everywhere was fantastically beautiful, and in spite of the rain that had me soaks most days, they were some of the  funnest and most exciting days of the trip.

 I find it rather emotional when I see a mountain being systematically chopped down/mined. Peru is going through the economic expansion, much of which is being fueled by many Chinese companies buying mineral rights. Of course there are many who benefit from the revenues, and I am sure there are many educational and health benefits provided locally. It's just the idea that it will never be seen again and the thousands of years of history that a mountain has, just goes.

 I drove Batty into a flood, thinking that it was not too deep, but this picture doesn't show is the 2 foot gully to the right of her that I drove straight into. I was kindly helped out by a local hero and after two hours the engine eventually started again. Wet boots

Sean Dillon,  riding his C 90 Honda,, from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to possibly Antarctica. He is travelling with his brothers Gavin and various others, such as Ben who I met at the border, Gordon and Taka.  All great fun and have contributed greatly to my enjoyment of Cusco
The day before I arrived in Cusco, I received two emails. One was from Aaron and Serafina saying that they had arrived and where they were staying, also that there was a guy called Glen who was interested in my trip. The second email was from Glen, saying that he had come across the blog and was interested in meeting up. This turned out to be very fortuitous as Glen is grt company and he has a phenomenal knowledge of Cusco and South America in general, having been a regular for the last 20 years.

We met up and he introduced to me or showed me all that I needed. This included the best places to drink and eat in the city and it has really made my 9 days here all the more enjoyable. The other bonus whilst I've been here has been staying at the Wild Rover hostel, which is extremely high octane and a great melting pot for travelers. They had a great Christmas lunch and a wicked New Year's Eve party that will live on in my memory for a long time.
 Richard was recommended to me by Jeff who has a famous bar called Norton Rat. All bikers who are doing long-distance journeys in Cusco meet up there. Batty needed some new front disc pads and adjustments to the gearbox, and a new battery. All of which Richard swiftly dealt with.

 This is Glen taking one of his extraordinary panoramic photographs at a site called Sacsayhuaman which is one of many sites we saw around Cusco on a tour. Although Glen had been to many of these sites before, his appetite for all things Inca has no bounds, so I was the beneficiary of all his extra knowledge that our guide did not cover.


We took a bus and a train to the Aqua Calientes, the small town that services all the tourists (1000 a day plus) that go to Machu Picchu. There was an option to ride but I'm afraid my ass had not yet recovered from the drive to Cusco. There was also the slight disincentive that poor Taka had been knocked off his bike crossing a dangerously flooded ford on his way back from Machu Picchu the day before. Although he was fine, his bike has taken a lot of hassle to put right.

Aqua Calientes

Glen and H

  I guess that the day at Machu Picchu will be one of my most treasured on the trip.  It is an extraordinary place in an extraordinary setting. The idea that 700 people lived on this mountain edge for the dual purpose of providing the King of the Incas a summer palace, and providing a perfect spot to get excited about when the sun is in solstice twice a year.
The walking up option is 1 1/2 hours up these steps...starting at 6am...or you can take the shuttle buses. I really enjoyed walking down them at the end of the day....
Cusco on New Years eve....the central square was still buzzing at 7am the next day
 I am now off on a few days journey to the Amazon. I will leave Batty here and take public transport, before a boat becomes essential. The trip has been organised by John, another South American old-timer and friend of Glen's. Great company the two of them, and Paddy's bar a fine hostelry in the middle of South America, to host us. Today Glen made a short video/interview of me. He is making a documentary of his own journey through South America on a motorcycle and interviewing those he comes across as are doing interesting things (in his opinion). His Blog of all his travels, interviews and book reviews is: