Oh, Antarctica

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY, LOW WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG HOURS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS.  SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL.  HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN EVENT OF SUCCESS.” Supposed Shackleton Advert, c1913

Sign us up!

We had not planned, nor budgeted for a trip to Antarctica, but since it has always been in on my top 3 places to visit so I was over the moon that we were able to fit it in.

As Jordan wrote in our last post, the first 2 hours on the island of Tierra del Fuego involved some seriously scary riding. We chose the worst of 2 possible routes available, and the Patagonian winds made an overwhelming appearance.  Just to keep it spicy.

During that ride, I promised myself that if I got there without a fall – which would have been a hard off, due to the speeds we maintained to keep the bikes atop the deep gravel – we would go to Antarctica.  And, since neither of us dropped our bikes on the way down, I announced my new plan to Jordan.

The shores of Ushuaia

Okay, maybe I always knew we’d go… I had been shopping for discount prices online for over 2 weeks but the offer we found when we were there was pretty great so we bought our tickets.  We arrived in Ushuaia and bought our tickets just 2 days before the boat set sail proving that sometimes late can simply be better.

The hostel stored our bikes and riding equipment at no charge and on the afternoon of March 25th we boarded The Ushuaia- a retired U.S oceanographic research vessel – for a 10-day trip-of-a-lifetime.

the Ushuaia

After a brief lesson on safety we raised our complimentary glasses of champagne with the other 80 passengers to toast a successful expedition.  We then set sail for the real End of the World – Antarctica!

Safety first!

Our crossing of the notorious Drake Passage turned out to be a fast & easy one, rendering the preemptive dramamine dosing by much of the ship’s passengers unnecessary. During the 2-day crossing, we were treated to multiple documentaries and lectures on Scott, Amundsen and of course, Shackleton and the amazing story of the Endurance.  I can assure you there are no better stories to hear when you, yourself are on your way down to the frozen continent!

Inspiring library onboard the Ushuaia

With the extra time available from the quick Drake crossing we were able to disembark to visit some Penguin colonies on the South Shetland Islands before making our first continental landing on the Antarctic Peninsula.  Each day after that, we got off the ship twice to explore islands, icebergs, historical sites and mainland Antarctica.

Gentoo penguin pair in the South Shetland Islands

Onboard, in addition to the Captain and the crew responsible for keeping the ship afloat, we were entertained, guided and educated by the resident geologist, ornithologist, and Antarctic experts.  Presentations about ice or penguins or local geology were provided each day on the ship to compliment what we would see during our daily excursions.

Penguins on Antarctica

Excursions were made twice each day.  We would hop in to the zodiacs and make our way to shore to explore Penguin colonies & rookeries of various breeds or quietly make our way through mazes of the biggest ice bergs we’ve ever seen.  We found old whaling stations and ship wrecks, and were fascinated by all kinds of marine life – from minke wales & leopard seals to the dramatic and very cool looking albatrosses.

Paradise Bay, Antarctica

A seal swimming though giant icebergs

The scenery on shore and the views from the boat were some of the most dramatic we’ve ever seen, simply awesome in the true sense of the word.  Whether we were navigating the small zodiacs through a maze of giant icebergs that practically choked an entire channel, or climbing a snow covered ridge to get a better view of a massive glacier, we were never less than gobsmacked.  We can see how people become obsessed with Antartica.

Icebergs everywhere

slushy ice & a sunset

We crossed the southern polar circle and made it as far south as 65 degrees latitude

“Ukrainian Antarctic Expedition”

where we visited the Ukrainian research station, Vernadsky.  The men were getting ready to hunker down for four months of darkness and we were their last visitors of the season.  We poked around their quarters, checked out the laboratories and scientific instruments, and our ship’s crew gave them a few more bottles of wine to add to their bar collection.  This is also where we received Antarctic stamps in our passports – undoubtedly the coolest stamps we have received!

I was able to channel my Grade-6-Ukrainian-class self and thanked them with a “дякую” before departing with “до побачення” – which they seemed to like.  A lot.

near Vernadsky Station

At one point we were sailing between a very narrow channel between two islands.  The passage was about 80 meters wide between islands of steep mountains rising directly out of the sea.  With only a few meters to spare on either side of the ship we were very close to the mountain sides – the sun was starting to set and a lot of people were outside enjoying the spectacle and taking photos.  Jordan was one of them.  He was out on deck taking in the views when he was interrupted by a very loud noise off the port side of the ship, followed by a large cloud of ice and snow.

The avalanche slid down the mountains and swept over the ship, covering everything and everyone in a cold, white blanket.  Luckily Jordan just happened to be holding the camera and was able to capture much of it on film.  Unfortunately, I missed the entire episode as I was relaxing in our room reading.  Though I was the only one who heard the Crew Director request that “all passengers please get inside the boat, immediately“.  Outside, the cheering passengers who just witnessed an avalanche up close, drown him out.

Avalanche!

We loved the Ushuaia because of the excellent crew & staff, but also because it was one of the smallest vessels available.  With a maximum of just 84 passengers, we got to meet everyone on board and got to know some really well – including fellow moto-traveller, Ed who is travelling the world on his BMW R1200 GSA and video blogging about it at Riding in the Tracks of Giants

And, because ours was the last ship of the year, there were no other tour ships in the area competing for the restricted number of people allowed to set foot on Antarctic land.

On our way back towards the Drake, we encountered what can only be described as extremely rough waters.  Sick bags decorated all the hand rails on the ship, the dining halls were empty and those that weren’t confined to their beds or lavatories could be found on the bridge photographing and filming the entire episode.

hold on to your cookies!

A map of Deception Island

That day we were to disembark and explore Deception Island – which is actually an active volcano, whose caldera was formed after a massive eruption and is now flooded by the sea, creating a bay.  Since the volcano is still active, it is possible to have a warm bath on the beach by digging into the sand.

The entrance into the bay (the caldera) is done by sailing through an entrance only 230m wide.  And, since it is one of the safest harbour in Antarctica – due to the protective edges of the caldera surrounding the bay, we did enter and drop anchor for a while in order to wait out some of the rough weather.  Sadly the sea was still too rough to allow any landings, so the zodiacs, along with the passengers remained on board.

The Drake crossing back to Tierra del Fuego was, again, smooth sailing and as we sailed further north we noticed the water losing its bright blue colour.  Snow and ice disappeared and penguin sightings became fewer and fewer as Antarctica was slipping away from us.

There is not much more that can put into words to describe the remote, serene and jaw-dropping Antarctic scenery we miss terribly.

Each day we would come back with over 200 photos and video from three cameras.  Here is a video with the our best of our photos and video clips. 

The End of the World as WE Know It

The plan was simple enough, or so we thought.  We’d spent a couple of days recovering, eating, drinking and getting clean after our 8 day hike of the Torres del Paine ‘O’ Circuit and now it was time to get moving again.  We set our course for Punta Arenas where we’d catch yet another ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego, about 250km further south.

Clean & fed

It was a warm and sunny day and we anticipated a perfect day for riding.  We’d heard that southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego in particular could be a bit windy, but we’re from the Canadian prairies so we thought were familiar with wind.  A -40 C Winnipeg winter wind at the corner of Portage and Main can teach you everything you need to know about wind, at least that is what we’d been lead to believe.  We were so naive.

Everything seemed completely normal as we left town, however that all changed as we rounded the 1st bend and were slammed by an invisible force so strong that it nearly pulled us out of our saddles.  We were both blown over the yellow line and clear across the road, luckily there was no on coming traffic.  And that is how things went for the rest of the day – we fought the wind constantly, leaning our bike as far over as we could to keep them going in a straight line.  Half way to Punta Arenas there is a large “Monument to the Wind” sculpture, but we did not stop to pay our respects.

Monumento Al Viento (monument to the wind) – Patagonia (by Huw Harlech)

At least we had some company along the way.  There was hardly any traffic but the fields were filled with wild Guanacos (the llama’s bigger, more graceful and undomesticated brother), sheep and rheas.  Rheas are large flightless birds, they look just like emus and ostriches, (like a massive feather dusters).  At least the guanacos had the decency to keep their distance, the rheas, on the other hand were running all over the place, including across the road in front us.  Actually we couldn’t tell if they were running across the road or being blown across – either way they can move pretty fast!

Guanacos

Rhea (by Huw Harlech)

We arrived in Punta Arenas to find yet another surprise.  Since we had spent the last 8 days in the Chilean backcountry around Torres del Paine without access to any news, we did not know that Punta Arenas had suffered a massive river flooding only days before.

We were exhausted from the ride so we did notice much at first, then as we neared the town centre we could see the entire area was covered in a sea of mud.  Thankfully the clean up was already well underway, however may streets were un-passable, some shops and houses were completely engorged with more than a meter of solid mud on the main level.  The streets that were open were still slick with a heavy layer of incredibly slippery river mud, so we tip-toed our our way through emergency vehicles and clean up crews and eventually made it our hostel.

Mud in the streets of Punta Arenas

mud in the shops of Punta Arenas

One of the attractions of Punta Arenas is a fairly large Penguin colony located a short boat-ride away.  We looked into the possibility of a tour, but backed off once we heard the price.  Besides, there is a small colony of about 50 rogue King Penguins located on Tierra del Fuego … we thought we could just visit them there.  For free.  So, we resorted to simply exploring the small city with an amazing cemetery.

Graves of the wealthy in Punta Arenas

Average graves are highly decorated & line the walls of the cemetery

Precision gardening

We didn’t sleep much that night.  Not because we shared a dorm room with 4 other travellers (& one who needed to investigate the contents of her crinkly plastic bags a surprising number of times during the night), but because the intense winds outside rattled the windows, the house and howled all night long.  When we woke the winds were still going strong.

Despite the winds, we packed up and headed out.  We drove to the end of the block, and still, the wind seemed to be under control.  Then, we turned the corner and we felt its full wrath – as we pulled away from a street light the wind blasted us, knocking Sandra and her motorcycle to the ground.  I barely made it across the intersection.

I pulled over and ran back to help her pick up the bike and as I made my way back to my bike, I could see tire tracks I had left in the mud-coated street.  Because of the extreme wind, I had actually left diagonal tracks in the mud with both my front and rear wheels.  I didn’t even know that was possible.  We rode directly back to hostel, unpacked and stayed another night.  Total distance traveled:  1 km.

We checked the wind report when we got back to the hostel.  91 km/hr explains a lot! (49 knots/hour 57mph)

screen shot of the “Windfinder” website. 91 kmph.

Things were slightly better the next morning, and we made the decision to leave.

Old docks in Punta Arenas covered with birds

Patagonia is famous for its wind and it certainly was living up to its reputation, however we still needed to get off the mainland and reach the island of Tierra del Fuego. There are two ferries that will take you to Tierra del Fuego; from Punta Arenas it is a 2 hour ride aboard the main ferry across the Straits of Magellan, or one can drive 160 km north east the and take a smaller (and free) ferry which crosses at a much more narrow spot, therefore running every 20 minutes.  We chose the later since the big ferry wouldn’t be leaving until 5pm.

The road took us along the north shore of the Strait of Magellan until we reached the ferry station, and our timing was perfect as the last cars and trucks were just boarding the landing craft-style ship and we were directed to just ride up the ramp.  Easier said than done, the ferry more or less runs aground and drops a ramp to load and unload cars, and in the wind the waves were moving the the ship around like crazy and making it a moving target.

You can’t see it here – but the boat ramp was all over the place as I negotiated both bikes on deck.

Once aboard, the short crossing was extremely rough so we rode the crossing beside the bikes holding on to them tightly in an attempt to prevent them from falling over while the ferry rolled and pitched excessively.  It was a long 20 minutes…

Hanging on to bikes on the ferry

Once we were successfully across we found a spot for lunch and then considered our options.  It was getting on in the day and we still had a couple of hundred kilometres to cover and a border crossing into Argentina.  There were 2 gravel roads heading out of the small town of Cerro Sombrero, both of which would take us where we wanted to go.  We talked to some fellow diners in the restaurant about which would be a better choice for us and our motorbikes, one man said the western route was better, one said the eastern route was better and one reported that both roads were equally terrible.  We decided to take the route our GPS device recommended – a decision we would soon regret.

Our route down – in black

The first 3 or 4 kilometres were manageable, but it was all down hill from there.  We soon learned that the GPS had put us on the main trucking route.  There was not a lot of traffic, but what little there was took the form of huge semi trucks hogging the entire road and showering us with stones.  The road was full of huge ruts created by the trucks that would grab our tires and throw the bikes around, however what made it even more treacherous was the long stretches of  deep gravel that would arrive without notice, causing the bikes to change direction unexpectedly, shaking the handlebars violently from side to side.  This type of riding would have been unpleasant but manageable under normal conditions, however by now the wind had become ferocious, further complicating matters.

So, in addition to fighting the road and avoiding trucks, we also had to fight the wind by leaning our bikes in to the wind with all of our strength at, quite frankly, ridiculous angles in an attempt to keep the bikes going in a more or less straight direction.  This caused the bikes to slide around even more in the deep gravel.  The wind pushed us straight across the road to the edge of the opposite ditch on numerous occasions.

How trees grow under the influence of strong Patagonian westerlies

Under these conditions there are two options: stop and pull over or go faster, slowing down in deep gravel almost guarantees an accident.  Since we were in the middle of nowhere stopping was not really an option, and besides, we would have surely been run over my a semi truck minutes later.  Reluctantly we chose option number 2 and opened the throttle as much as we dared.  I can’t count the number of near misses, last-minute saves and almost-crashes we survived, but it was without a doubt the most difficult and scariest ride of our entire trip. Two hours later, we arrived at the Argentinian border, exhausted, sore and extremely proud!

Sign at the Chile / Argentina border: having finished the terrible road, we could smile – pavement to follow.

There were still a few hours of daylight left, so we decided push on to the town of Rio Grande, another decision we’d soon regret, but for different reasons.

The Argentinians seem to be obsessed with the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas as they call them, and since this was the 30th anniversary of the war against the British, Malvinas banners and commemorative  celebrations were everywhere, including in Rio Grande, headed up by the populist President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

A sign in the port of Ushuaia: Mooring of English Pirate Vessels is Prohibited

It was late in the day, we were frozen, exhausted and emotionally drained.  However, because of the celebrations there were no available hotel rooms in the city, and it was just too cold and windy to camp.  We rode around to 10 or 12 hotels and hostels, all of them were full.  We asked hotels to call other hotels, to no avail.  This was the first time during our trip that we had a problem finding a place to stay, we rarely make reservations and usually just show up, someone has always found room for us.

Finally, after 2 hours of looking, one innkeeper eventually found a hotel for us, sadly it was in a large luxury hotel at approximately ten times the cost of what we usually pay for a night’s lodging.  Reluctantly we pulled out our credit card and called it a night.  After such an eventful day it was actually pretty nice to have a night of luxury, so maybe it was not all bad.

The next day we got up, topped the bikes up and rode the final 300km to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, literally the end of the road.  The further we went, the more scenic the landscape became.  From flat pampas, to rolling hills to dramatic mountains, the scenery on Tierra del Fuego kept getting better and better.  As we crossed the final mountain pass we could feel the excitement rising, after nine months on the road we’d be reaching the actual end of the road, you can’t go any further.

Stopping for a warm up and some pastries

Irresistible Argentinian pastries

Reaching Ushuaia is a special moment for all overland travellers travelling south through the Americas, and it was no different for us, it was very exciting.  Of course we were immediately stopped by the police who welcomed us to their city.

After a quick hello, we followed the road that goes through town and out again to the end of the road.  With frozen finger tips we happily posed in front of the sign thousands of overland cyclists, motorists, motorcyclists, and personal friends have posed in front of before us.

Made it!

The Paine and the Glory

“Intense protests rock Patagonian Chile.”

That was one of the many headlines we saw as we began to approach Patagonia in Chile’s XI region (there are XII regions from north to south).  The far south of Chile is extremely remote, as you would expect, and those in the area often feel that the country’s government is overly centralized and sympathetic to the capital, Santiago and to profits from the international exploitation of the country’s resources.  All at the expense of the social requirements in the south.

For example, eight hydro dams are planned for the region and if they go through, they will flood over 15,000 acres of forestland at a cost of $5B to the country. Broad support against the dams culminated in large-scale protests in 2011 and, while we were nearing this area, the region was protesting high energy prices, lack of access to hospitals & education, and seeking input into government policies and projects that affect their region.

Education is only the beginning. Organizing the people to take back what is ours.

From SantiagoTimes.net: “Road east to Aisen has been blocked for 2 days. No supplies coming in. People have been allowed through the barricades on foot, but that may have changed today.  Fires/barricades moving closer to town”  

Our route was to include the Carretera Austral – reputedly one of the most beautiful roads in the world.  The road runs through the Aisén region, otherwise known as the Region XI – the same one embroiled in protests.  After speaking with friends who had a similar plan we found out they were either forced to turn back or experienced serious delays due to blockades and lack of petrol.

(faint) Yellow Line – Carretera Austral. Black Line – NaviMag route

When we neared Puerto Montt, the start of the Carretera Austral, we looked into our options; we could either head east across the mountains into Argentina or, board the NAVIMAG ferry which would take us and our bikes south through the fjords and archipelagos of Chilean Patagonia.  We chose door #2.

On March 2 we rode onto the NAVIMAG dock just three hours before our ship was set to sail.  We had been told to arrive five hours in advance because we had to board vehicles, but we are never on time and arrived two hours late.  Of course we were dealing with South American time, which means they were also two hours late, so in the end we STILL had to wait FIVE hours to board.

Sadly, my bike’s battery went from full power to completely flat during those five hours. Actually, I had started it up just 20 minutes before boarding to ride onto the vehicle scale just to see how much my bike weighed with all my luggage.  I guess the battery was just done – so much so, that I was not even able to bump start it in the parking area.  So, for the second time on this trip, my bike was pushed onto a ship (memories of Panama).

I started and rode off this scale moments before the battery died

On all the other ferrys that we’ve taken on this trip we were the ones responsible for securing the bikes to the deck with good, hardy tie-down straps provided by the ferry company.  With NAVIMAG, the crew was responsible for the tying down the bikes –  which they did with rope and twigs.  Okay – not exactly twigs, but we were apprehensive with their improvised supplies and methods – having always been told to compress our front suspension during transport, we became concerned when they didn’t seem to find this to be a necessary step.

my bike is relying on that rope & stick

Jordan expresses his concern with the tie-down procedure

We got settled into our small, 4-berth cabin, grabbed our boxed lunches supplied by NAVIMAG and headed up on deck to watch as the ship pulled away.

Leaving Puerto Montt

The scenery through the fjords was nothing less than stunning.  The bushy, green hills that popped straight out of the water created narrow channels through which we sailed for 4 days.

Fjords of Patagonia

Angostura White was the narrowest of channels at just 80 meters wide. Except for one or two small settlements we only saw only quiet wilderness along the entire route.

Narrow channels

Normally, the sailings include one landing however, due to the barricades, many supplies from the north were not getting through to the south so NAVIMAG arranged a rendezvous with another one its ships in the affected area for the purpose of transporting supplies and picking up a few people and stranded crew.

Approaching the rendezvous ship

The event took a few hours during stormy weather in an open channel and we were invited to watch from the Bridge or the bow if we didn’t mind getting wet.

Drawing a crowd

Rendezvous in action

Some fairly critical supplies… toilet paper!

We really enjoyed the sailing for the scenery and the experience but also for the people we met on board.  Our bunk mates, Dawn and Chuck are avid hikers & attendees of the Banff Mountain Film Fest (like us on both counts) so we got along well – plus, they are very nice people.  They even (generously) invited us to stay with them in Seattle on our way home.

Oh, and Glaciers, too!

Then there were our trail buddies. On our trip, there were a number of places and things we felt we had to see or do, and one of them was to hike in Torres del Paine National Park – listed as one of the world’s best hikes and the poster child for Patagonian outdoor adventures.  And, since the final port of call for the Navimag is Puerto Natales, home base for the Torres hike, a number of passengers on the ship were on their way to hike Torres, too.  We met a lot of new friends on the boat whom we would get to know very well as we hiked Torres del Paine together.

We didn’t disembark with the rest of our friends as we had a flat battery to attend to (oh, by the way, the bikes did not flop around in the hull of the ship – the sticks and rope worked!).  The other good news?  The ramp to ride off the ship was so steep, it allowed us to bump-start my bike.  This was enough to get us to the hostel… we would deal with the battery later.

There is such a strong feeling of hope and excitement in Puerto Natales you can almost touch it with your finger tips!  Everyone, it seems, is there for the same reason – to test their mettle in Torres del Paine.  We would see the same people at the grocery store, at the supplies-rental shops, in the hostels, and roaming the streets looking for a place to eat.  If you said ‘hi’ to anyone, the very next question would be ‘are you doing the “O” (120 km) or the “W” (75km).

The beginning of the ‘O’

We chose the longer “O” circuit which means we carried enough food with us for 8 days.  To lighten our enormous packs we each settled on just one set of clothes for hiking, one set for sleeping and a few extras – wool socks, thermal underwear, toque, mittens  – which, come to think of it we also used for sleeping!

Food consisted of nothing more than 1kilo of dehydrated potatoes, soup stock cubes, quick oats, 8 bagels and cheese, peanuts, the occasional chocolate bar and powdered milk (for the oats).  Which reminds me, why don’t hiking shops in Canada carry good powdered milk or dehydrated potatoes?  I’m looking at you, MEC – this is back packer-gold!

Despite our dedication to carrying very little, our packs were extremely heavy – mostly due to the sleeping bags we rented.  The 0-degree bags in our panniers were not going to keep us warm in the Patagonian mountains in their version of October.

Jordan & his pack – he was always easy to find

You may have heard stories about the winds in Patagonian.  And, we had been told that winds in the area could easily get up to 100 kph (60 mph) – which we can confirm after our first day of hiking. The winds were so strong that even though the day was only 12 km long on flat terrain through pampas, we found it more difficult to hike than the following day – which was 20 km long and involved hiking up and down some pretty big elevations. At one point we watched as a bird attempted to take flight from a bush – the poor thing flapped its wings, but stayed stationary.

The pampas in Torres del Paine

Camp Dixon – Day 2

the beach at Camp Dixon

We and our friends would pass each other on the trail, sometimes stopping to lunch with each other and always meeting up in camp at the end of the day.  We shared chocolate, cheese, Ibuprofen (Thanks, Tine!!), wine, back-country pizza recipes (thanks, Team America!) and stories of pain and glory.  It all sounds very dramatic now, but it really was a great time spent with interesting people from all over the world.

We were: Team Canada, Team Sweden, Team North-Central Europe, Team Germany, and Team America.

Looking down on Camp Dixon

One of the most memorable days of the hike was the day we hiked over John Garner Pass.  As usual, Jordan & I were the last to leave camp in the morning – it is a sad fact that we are not morning people and I just don’t know how we will cope when we have jobs again. The trail climbed uphill, immediately… on wet, muddy, forested trail with plenty of roots, twigs and puddles to negotiate.  Did I mention we were hiking in shoes, not boots, and that my foot was still broken?  We kept our shoes tight and wore protective gators – something we actually packed from home that had now come in handy for the second time.

Boulder fields up to John Garner Pass

We climbed for 3 hours until finally reaching the Garner Pass at 1,229 meters (those crazy DirtProof folks did it 1.5 hours!).  It really wasn’t that difficult and included some of our favourite terrain – giant boulder fields.  We were rewarded at the top with outstanding views of the Grey Glacier – part of the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field.  We lingered for a bit snapping some photos before starting the excruciating climb down.

Jordan beats Sandra to the top

Grey Glacier

Grey Glacier in Patagonian autumn

The “W” circuit is much more popular than the “O” because it can be done in just a couple of days and, as a result, the trails seem to be better kept.  Erosion and poor trail maintenance meant that the first 5km down the other side of the pass on the O Circuit were bone-crushing.  Despite having poles, my knees were very angry with me.

Face of Grey Glacier on the way down towards Los Perros Camp

Imagine their horror when, after many more kilometers, we had to down climb these vertical ladders with giant packs on!

Steep ladders

We finally walked into Los Guardos camp at 7pm, worn out but with smiles on our faces.  Mine was most certainly for show at that point – I had left it all on the trail that day and didn’t feel too much like socializing.  We set up camp, ate in the tent and fell asleep.  We loved it and looked forward to more the following day!!

Home after a long day

A few more days on the trail and we were treated to some pretty impressive river crossings which are never boring, more icebergs and unfortunately, the area of the park that was severely burnt just two months earlier, when a hiker chose to burn his toilet paper instead of packing it to his next camp.  Idiot.

Fire damage – Torres del Paine

And finally, the Torres, themselves –   The three granite towers that draw the 100,000s tourists each year.  I was especially lucky to have climbed up to the Torres on my birthday.  I’m not sure yet how I’ll top that next year.

Los Torres

Samantha at the end of the road

We bussed it back to Natales where we showered for the first time in 8 days, put on some clean clothes and met everyone for some celebratory pisco sours and pizza.

Trail buddies: Teams Canada, North-Central Europe, & America

Post-trail pisco sours

The others went their way – with most going to hike other trails or glaciers in Argentina, just across the border in El Calafate.  We stayed in Natales long enough to buy a new battery for my bike, do laundry and plan the next part of our trip – to Tierra del Fuego and the end of the world.

Ode to the Sea

We met Panny & his gal, Simon (Krad-Vagabunden) at the hostel in Santiago de Chile and we spent each evening enjoying beer, pisco, and whatever else might have passed by our glasses loving their stories of world travel.  They had already been on the road with their matching Trans Alps for almost 2 years.  They knew many people we had met on the road as is always the case, it seems, with this moto-travelling crowd and it is always a bit more interesting when the stories you share involve people you know.

The closest (and possibly craziest) story they told us involved our friends Miles & Tracey (smilesandmiles.com).  Panny was stung by a bee and, because he is highly allergic to bee stings, had a bad reaction and Miles basically saved his life.  (Miles might say I’m exaggerating, but I don’t think Panny would)

Panny’s & Simon’s South American adventure was winding down and they were off to New Zealand, shipping out from the Chilean port town of Valparaiso.  It was a town on our must-see list and when Panny told us about the overland hostel, Villa Kunterbunt, we made plans to see them again there.

07-Villa Kunterbunt, Valparaiso, Chile

One of the tag lines for Villa Kunterbunt is that it is ‘a backpacker-free hostel’ since they specialise in helping out DIY overland-travellers who tend to have a few unique requirements like vehicle storage and possible maintenance.  More specifically, they are the go-to team if you need to ship or receive your vehicle from / to Chile.

The ride to Valparaiso takes you through dozens of vineyards and wineries of the major Chilean brands.  We watched as fields of grape vines behind grand gates passed us by…we could’t afford the hefty price tags for the luxury of a taste & tour, but we sure could afford the wine, itself!  Happily, great Chilean reds were available everywhere and usually for less than $5 CAD!

Conversion: $1.49 / bottle!

With no warning, the road takes you down a winding hill and pops you out into the city’s main centre and the bustling port area – Valparaiso “Val Po” is one of Chile’s most important ports… international cruise ships make it their temporary home for many months of the year and some of Chile’s most important exports (wine, copper, fruit) leave via Valparaiso.

Valparaiso is culturally significant as well.  It was declared a UNESCO site due to its ‘improvised urban design’.  The city is built on numerous hills that overlook the Pacific and with so many neighbourhoods so high up on steep hills, the city resorted to funiculars (escalatores, in Spanish), which are highly inclined cable cars to transport people to & from the main centre since 1889.  Many of the funiculars are still in use today and are an integral part of the public transportation in the city, if not a tourist attraction in their own right.

A funicular track
Inside the old funicular cars

We settled into Villa Kunterbunt very quickly and immediately felt at home in the old Victorian mansion on the hill.  Quirky collections of trolls, painted wall murals and post cards affixed to any stable surface made Kunterbunt feel like a combination between your weird Aunty’s house and a museum.  We loved it!

Inside Villa Kunterbunt

At one point, we were in our room on the 2nd floor just after having breakfast, getting sorted for the day.  Everyone else was up doing the same.  The house shuddered once, then again – like when someone slams the front door really hard.  I had muttered something like, ‘what the hell is going on down there?’.  When we casually made our way downstairs a short while later Martina, our host, asked if we had felt the earthquake. I’ve always said I would like to feel a small earthquake – you know – just feel it… a small one where no one would be hurt but I didn’t expect it to feel like a door slamming.  Cool nonetheless.

While Panny & Simon scrubbed their bikes and camping gear with toothbrushes in order to comply with New Zealand’s bio-security, we took to the streets of Valparaiso, riding various funiculars and walking through authentic bohemian neighbourhoods – debating the definition of ‘authentic’ and whether the new B&B’s, hipster shops, and funky restaurants could be still considered authentically bohemian.  Regardless of the answer, the culturally significant parts of town are a joy to tour with lots to see.

Simon & Panny cleaning their bikes in the Kunterbunt garage
Colourful streets of Valparaiso, CH
Victorian home on a hill
Conception Hill, Valparaiso

Once we said our good-byes to the Kunterbunt clan we found a beautiful and small country road that led us into another sea side town, Isla Negra. Isla Negra is really just a small beach town filled with cabańa (cottage) rentals for vacationing Santiaguans – but the draw for us was Pablo Neruda’s 3rd (and his most loved) home – Casa Isla Negra.

The beach of Isla Negra – much more populated than in Neruda’s day

This is the home where he and Matilde spent most of their time and it is where they were buried, facing the sea which he loved so much.  Like all of his houses, he had Casa Isla Negra built to resemble a ship in some way.  This one with creaking floor boards, narrow hallways and low ceilings.  His collections of full-size, antique ship figureheads dominates the living room which also looks out on to the sea as if it were the bow of a ship.  He was an intense collector and in each room shelves are dedicated to ships in bottles, glass jars, pipes, hats, art sea shells, butterflies, etc.  Another fascinating tour – one which we happily waited on a stand-by waiting list to attend.

He invited visitors to his house every day.  EVERY day.  For lunch, dinner or drinks, Neruda loved to be around people and share his happiness with them.  He would love to know that visitors still come to his house every day and continue to be inspired by his life and his collections.

The bar (Neruda had multiple bars in each home)

Neruda’s bottle collection

And as a side note: In 1939, working for Spanish Emigration in France, Neruda helped to ship 2,000 Spanish refugees from French squalid camps to Chile on a boat called the SS Winnipeg (for those reading from Winnipeg, Canada).

Other than Neruda’s inspiring home and a nice beach, Isla Negra did not have much more to keep us there – so as quickly as we came, we were off.

We had been enjoying warm and dry weather for so many weeks, that when it clouded over on our way to Villarrica (Vee-ya-RREE-ca) in the Chilean lake district we put off reaching for our rain gear… until, that is, it actually started to rain.

We pulled of into a roadside rest area which, in Chile, is complete with showers and a lady who makes hot drinks and sandwiches for you!  After putting on the water-proofs we hopped on our bikes and mine felt exceptionally low.  I asked Jordan to wait while I took a look and, yes, my tire was flat.  After 35,000 kms in 9 months, we had our first puncture.  I think it’s appropriate that it was my bike, don’t you?

Then the Gong Show began.  Jordan proceeded to remove my tire and I got the spare tube I’d been carrying just as a crew of Brazilian riders showed up to put on their rain gear.  They offered to help and we thought it rude to say ‘no’.  Of course, all of these men rode bikes with tubeless tires.

Five sets of tires and not a tube among them

To cut a long story short, one of the more eager Brazilian men punctured the replacement tube – a perfect ‘snake bite’.  When they saw it, they shrugged their shoulders and left. So we pulled out our stove, made soup and bought a delicious sandwich from the lady with the cooler.  Serenity, now.

I patched both tubes, Jordan fixed my tire and it wasn’t too long before we were back on the road.

Jordan, breaking the bead

So… Villarrica.  A cute little town surrounded by lakes, volcanoes, and hotsprings.  We were anxious about climbing Villarrica Volcano, so we signed up to do so the following day.  You are able to climb up to and peak into the crater on clear days when there is low activity (Villarrica is one of the most active volcanoes in Chile).  But, as I mentioned, the weather was rather cloudy and it was rained most nights.

Climbs are not permitted when it has rained due to the muddy (read: slippery) slopes and possible snow in the higher altitudes.  So we waited… we toured the lakeside town extensively, rode up to some fairly remote (and natural) hot pools, and did a bit of blog catch-up.

In Latin America, roadside tips are made by more than just washing windows. Squeegee Kids, take note.  This guy did some impressive dancing on stilts

After 3 days of waiting for approved weather conditions, we realized we would not climb this volcano.  Access denied yet again.

What we could have seen if we made it. Villarrica volcano (from Wikipedia)

Next:  How to deal with growing protests and the gas shortages, road barricades, and bridge closures that come with it

Another Post Script: Ode to the Sea by: Pablo Neruda

HERE
Surrounding the island
There’s sea.
But what sea?
It’s always overflowing.
Says yes,
Then no,
Then no again,
And no,
Says yes
In blue
In sea spray
Raging,
Says no
And no again.
It can’t be still.
It stammers
My name is sea.

It slaps the rocks
And when they aren’t convinced,
Strokes them
And soaks them
And smothers them with kisses.
With seven green tongues
Of seven green dogs
Or seven green tigers
Or seven green seas,
Beating its chest,
Stammering its name,

Oh Sea,
This is your name.
Oh comrade ocean,
Don’t waste time
Or water
Getting so upset
Help us instead.
We are meager fishermen,
Men from the shore
Who are hungry and cold
And you’re our foe.
Don’t beat so hard,
Don’t shout so loud,
Open your green coffers,
Place gifts of silver in our hands.
Give us this day
our daily fish.

Ode to Salt

Even though we had rode more than 1,500 km south from Chile’s northern northern border, and the beginning of the Atacama Desert, technically we were still in the Atacama and the weather continued to be hot and dry.  In response we made our way to the coast for some more excellent (and free) beach camping and to take in the Pan de Azucár National Park.  I assume it is named after freshly baked sugar loaf as the rocky sandstone hills around the park resemble exactly this.  The park is a must-see with numerous beaches, great food stands, impressive night skies and even penguins, should you be smitten.

Guanaco crossing in Pan de Azucár National Park

Beach at Pan de Azucár

It sank in the sand. Ouch ; (

Barrel Cactus

My bike was wearing its new knobby tires and I was enjoying the unpaved roads more than ever. So, why not try sand?  The next day, after motoring through the park, we searched for a secluded beach near the town of Copiapó that a local had told us about.  The road to the beach was a combination of gravel and sand but we soon veered off the gravel as it was horrifically corrugated and chose the sandy tracks along side the road instead.  What a gorgeous and soft ride!  Until, that is, I came off in some of the deeper stuff.  Of course my foot got trapped under my pannier and it hurt like a bugger – thankfully Jordan was there to shift the bike so I could remove my (very sore) foot.

Gorgeous riding!

A quick chat later and we turned the bikes around to head back from where we came.  I don’t have many regrets with this trip, but the beach was about 300 meters in front of us.  I should have got back on and tried again.  As it was, we road the nice sandy bits back to the beach-side roads and found our most excellent camping spot of the trip so far.

Despite the sun and the heat, the water along the Chilean coast is quite cold due to the Humboldt Current so, while Jordan worked with some locals catching crabs, I took the opportunity to soak my foot, which was probably broken (but just the small bones on the top – there’s not much a doctor can do for that anyway.  Right?)

Having fun!

Stunning camping spot!

We continued to travel south near the coast taking advantage of free camping whenever we could.  And, we could have kept on going – camping for free, using the five-peso gas station showers that are strategically positioned along the main roads for truck drivers.  But, we are not that hard-core and were lured by the soft bed and private showers that a town like La Serena could offer.

Our hostel was cute and likely the least expensive option in this very expensive Chilean resort town evidenced by the fact that it was so oversold we each had our own single, private room.  We’ve had plenty of rooms where we’ve slept in separate beds… and even bunk beds, but this was the first time we had separate rooms.  We couldn’t afford to stay long, so as quickly as we found it, we were off to the Elqui Valley – Chile’s Pisco wine region.  mmmmmmm, pisco sours….

One of hundreds of roadside shrines – bottles filled with water

Delicious artisan sweets sold in La Serena

There is a dirt road through the scrubby ranch-land south of the Elqui Valley that winds its way up while making its way south toward Santiago.  Steep switchbacks took us out of the valley before the road levelled out and hugged the rocky hills past numerous estancias (farms) and at least 3 international astronomical observatories – low light pollution and up to 300 clear nights per year contribute to the location of the observatories and a healthy astronomical tourism industry.  Our goal: to camp out under these desert skies.

Road through the Elqui Valley, Chile

Gorgeous cactus

…with bloody huge protection!

The perfect time arose when the road degraded from standard dirt / gravel to piles of loose and large rocks upon which I dropped my bike.  The day was winding down anyway so it seemed a perfect time as any.  After some good scouting on his bike, Jordan found an ideal spot which was probably on somebody’s farm land since there was evidence of a campfire among some rocks.  The site included a tree to hide our tent and a large boulder to hide to the bikes.  After setting up our stealth camp and having a bite to eat, we took to my camera and the night skies.

Stealth camping

A cooking station was ready for us

Sadly, the remote shutter release for my camera had died – last being used in NYC, but we sat and admired the southern sky for hours.  While we couldn’t see the Big Dipper (not visible in the south), we liked what we could see that we had never seen before in the north: dark holes (dark nebulae) in the Milky Way,  an upside down Orion constellation, the ‘backwards’ moon, 2 other galaxies, and of course the Southern Cross constellation. If you are into star gazing, the southern hemisphere seems to have a lot more on offer, more often (it faces the galactic centre of the Milky Way providing more visible access to billions of stars and events).

We packed up early the following morning and eventfully found ourselves on the main highway into Santiago de Chile – the country’s capital.  The highway was in great shape, but with lots of traffic and boring scenery.  Until, The Tunnel.

There are two exits off the main highway into Santiago a toll version and a free version – the first exit sign included the word cuesta.  My expert Spanish knew that this meant “cost” so I announced to Jordan to keep on going to the next point of entry which would obviously be the no-charge exit.  All of a sudden we were in a very long and very impressive tunnel (riding in tunnels never gets boring).  This one was over 2 km in length and steadily dropped in elevation.  By the end of it, we were sweating and I was positive it was because we were getting closer to the core of the earth.

San Cristobal Tunnel (from hochtief.com)

Not only was I wrong about the core-of-the-earth thing, I was also wrong about cuesta.  Well, I wasn’t wrong – it just has other meanings, like: ‘a ridge with a gentle slope on one side and a steep slope on the other‘ which describes where the free route we had just passed goes – on the hill.  When we left the tunnel we were forced to pay $7 each for the luxury of going through the hill instead of around it.  Our most expensive toll yet.  But, it was pretty cool – so worth it.

Riding into Santiago was a lot less stressful than entering Lima, but it was just as great of a city.  Our hostel was simple and located in the University district (there are at least 20 Universities & Colleges in Santiago).  Conveniently, it was also located right next to a police station.  Each morning, on our way out we would see the round up of stolen vehicles from the night before, some of which were riddled with impressive bullet holes.

But, our bikes were safe and sound in the parking space of the hostel, which we had converted to our garage.  Both bikes needed oil changes, Jordan’s Dakar needed rear brakes and mine needed front brakes.  While we were there, a couple of veteran travellers from Germany arrived – Simon and Frank.  When we were in need of a 24mm socket for Jordan’s oil sump bolt (the bolt was stripped – this is very common with BMW’s 650-series), Frank came through.  Thanks, Frank!  We hope you and Simon are enjoying New Zealand!

Ad hoc garage set up – complete w/ shade cover

Sandra doing her own oil change

We spent our days like we do in all major cities – walking the streets and soaking up the vibe.  The DirtProof crew (Ryan & Silke) who we met in the Atacama desert were also in town, so one afternoon was spent with them at the Pablo Neruda home-turned-museum, La Chascona – named for his second wife.

When we got married, we used a Neruda poem in the ceremony, though you don’t have to be familiar with his work to appreciate his eccentricities or his love of art, all of which are on display including an amazing portrait of Neruda’s wife, Matilde done by Diego Rivera.

Appropriately found on Neruda’s street

Diego Rivera’s 2-faced Matilde (friend & lover to Neruda). See Neruda’s profile in the hair of the face on the right?

It was here, in Santiago where Neruda died in September, 1973.  Only 12 days after Pinochet’s military coup that overtook the Chilean government.  They broke into and pillaged La Chascona, taking and destroying valuable papers, objects and books.  Neruda had three homes in Chile and all are now open to the public as museums).

One of the crazier places we visited was Mall Sports.  An entire shopping mall dedicated to all things outdoors and no wonder, considering the location of Santiago!  Camping, cycling, climbing, boating.  If it didn’t support any of these activities, it wasn’t in this mall.  Inside the mall was a massive climbing wall 2-3 stories tall, boats were on display in the man-made lagoon outside, and surfers could test their skills on the huge artificial surf wave pool next to the boats.  Of course, there is also a skate park, an ice rink, and a race car simulator.  It was the coolest mall we’ve ever seen.

We were in Santiago for a few days and we enjoyed every moment of it!  The city is located between mountains and sea, it is filled with lovely tree-lined neighbourhoods and is a centre for art, culture and politics.  We would have liked to stay longer, however we knew that if we did we be tempted by the hip cafes and amazing restaurants making it even more difficult to leave, not to mention decimating our meagre budget.

We thought about crossing the mountains and heading into Argentina in the general direction of Mendoza, however after much discussion we headed back to the coast for more fun in the sun.  We were loving Chile!

We love Chile!

Post Script:

Ode to Salt by Pablo Neruda:

This salt
in the salt cellar
I once saw in the salt mines.
I know
you won’t
believe me
but
it sings
salt sings, the skin
of the salt mines
sings
with a mouth smothered
by the earth.
I shivered in those
solitudes
when I heard
the voice
of
the salt
in the desert.
Near Antofagasta
the nitrous
pampa
resounds:
a
broken
voice,
a mournful
song.

In its caves
the salt moans, mountain
of buried light,
translucent cathedral,
crystal of the sea, oblivion
of the waves.
And then on every table
in the world,
salt,
we see your piquant
powder
sprinkling
vital light
upon
our food.
Preserver
of the ancient
holds of ships,
discoverer
on
the high seas,
earliest
sailor
of the unknown, shifting
byways of the foam.
Dust of the sea, in you
the tongue receives a kiss
from ocean night:
taste imparts to every seasoned
dish your ocean essence;
the smallest,
miniature
wave from the saltcellar
reveals to us
more than domestic whiteness;
in it, we taste finitude.

Getting a Hand in the Desert

With the difficult decision of by-passing Bolivia made, we routed our bikes through more gorgeous, high-altitude vistas, aiming for the colonial town of Arequipa, and closer to the Peru-Chile border where, hopefully, our parts will be waiting for us.

Arequipa may only be the second largest city in Peru, but it is definitely the most charming (sorry, Cusco…)  The old town still maintains most of its colonial-era architecture, built with silla – a pearly-white volcanic rock mined in the area around Arequipa.  Most notably, the city is overlooked by the (now dormant) snow-capped volcano, El Misti and is surrounded by 80 others!

As you might imagine, with volcanoes come earthquakes and, Arequipa has had its fair share.  The most recent being a huge quake in 2001 that rattled the area for over a minute, killing scores and toppling one of the cathedral’s steeples – which has been nicely repaired, as you can see.

Centre Square Cathedral

It’s huge!

We visited a few historical sites while in the city – the Santa Calina Monastery, one of the most important religious historical sites in all of Peru. Because the Monastery for nuns is so extensive (20,000 sq. meters) we spent over 2 hours poking in and out of the simple or extravagant living quarters, apartments and dormitories of nuns of the Domincan Second Order.  Approximately 20 nuns still live in the monastery founded in 1580.

It was inspiring to be there.

Some of the streets inside the convent

simple and lovely

We also visited the Museo Santuarios Andinos which is dedicated to ancient Andean culture, but it’s most impressive display is Juanita – the 600-year old ice-preserved, mummified girl 11-14 years old.  She was selected to be a sacrifice as a child and, as such, lived a life of royalty.  In her final weeks, she walked (in leather sandals) over 300kms from an area near Cusco to the top of Ampato Volcano at 6,300m (21,000 feet) where she was ritually sacrificed to the volcano Gods.

Juanita (taken from the internet)

She was discovered in 1995 and now resides in the Santuarios Andinos museum, stored in a display freezer at -20C (no photos allowed).  There are up to 14 other such finds, but Juanita was the first and best preserved.  Truly amazing!

Volcanoes...

El Misti Volcano

Snowy Andes overlooking Arequipa

After a few days enjoying really great food and sight seeing in Arequipa, we made our way towards Arica, excited to see if our sprockets would be waiting for us.

The ride was uneventful and provided little excitement except for when Jordan’s loose chain came off the rear sprocket and mangled a link, creating a 90 degree angle in the middle of the chain. Of course, this happened on a lonely road in the middle of the desert, probably at high noon.  We didn’t have the tool to break the chain in order to remove it and replace it with the new chain which was sitting in his panniers.

We worked roadside for over an hour in order to get the bike back on the road but the mild concern we had with our situation soon changed to vindication – going directly to Chile was probably a good idea.  We rode easy for the rest of the day as we made our way towards Chile.

The border was modern, all the buildings had proper plumbing, but the process was still a bit whack, gently reminding us we were still in South America.

Desert border crossing – Chile

Fresh fruit and vegetables (and plants, seeds, animal products…etc!) are not allowed to cross the Chilean border, you must open all luggage to show border officials that you don’t have any on board.  This included an x-ray of our duffle bags which are strapped on to the back of our bikes.

What a hassle, especially for Jordan who had to unstrap the tires he was carrying for me in order to get at his bag.  The x-ray procedure was completely unsupervised and though we complied, we later listened to stories of those who ‘tricked’ the system and didn’t scan their bags full of (literally) forbidden fruit.

A short ride from the border brought us to the seaside town of Arica where we were met by our Kiwi-Chileno hosts and, yes…. our parts.  Again – a big thank you to TJ & MJ in PA, USA!

We still needed a garage to help us with the removal of the old chains and linking of the new ones.  This was the garage:

The parking lot -slash- workspace

…and his workshop storage area

Even our mechanic seemed to have a hard time breaking the links… but after a few hours, our bikes were road ready again, and we left the little town looking forward to more sea and more desert.  Our target was San Pedro de Atacama – 2 days away.

Chileans love to camp.  We knew this going in and we were very much looking forward to a lot of free camping.  While near the coast, we would take small roads to beach side areas where many other families were set up.  It was usually very primitive, and sometimes quite busy with locals but we liked the security of having others around and it gave us more opportunities to practice our Spanish.

beach camping

Jordan enjoying a sand road

Back inland we road more desert roads to San Pedro de Atacama – that is, San Pedro of the Atacama Desert – the driest desert in the world‘ according to folks like NASA and National Geographic.  So, why did it rain every day at 4pm in San Pedro?  Well, the Chileans, in typical Chilie-vs-Bolivia fashion, blamed Bolivia.  Specifically, the Invierno Boliviano (Bolivian winter).

Trying (without success) to keep dry in San Pedro with DirtProof & Florian and Beata

And, I suppose it was better than raining shit – which is what it did the first night as we had placed our tent under the tree the doves used as their toilet – we promptly moved our tent the next morning and washed the crap out of it (again, literally).  It must also have been better than the brutal floods that sacked the area a few weeks later, too!

Each day (before 4pm) we would explore the town or the area.  Touristy?  Yes.  But there’s a reason for that.

Valley of the Moon (Valle de Luna), Chile

Riding on moonscape – Valle de la Luna

mud streets and clay buildings – San Pedro de Atacama

Since we were in San Pedro for a few days, Jodan put my TKC80s on my bike (remember?  These were bought in Colombia!  The Metzler tires would just not wear out!).  We attended to email and hung out with some fun people – Silke & Ryan known as Dirt Proof – they travel for the purpose of trail running around the world!  Crazy, I know.  They have a great blog – check it out: dirtproof.blogspot.com

Man at work

Here’s a fact: the Atacama Desert runs for 1,000kms north to south.  And, we rode the entire length while heading inland and back to the coast several times.  Though it might sound boring – and it certainly felt boring at times, there is something about being inside your helmet for hours on end in unchanging, scorched scenery that really gives you time to think.  Though we’ve yet to think of a way to make this trip last longer than budgeted.

Stretch break

Then, about 75 km south of the town of Antofagasta, the monotony is dramatically interrupted by an 11 meter (36 ft) hand rising up out of the desert floor.  Mano del Desierto (hand of the desert) was sculpted by Mario Irarrázabal in the early 90s.  Some say the sculpture is intended to express emotions of injustice, loneliness and torture – others say Irarrázabal put it there to encourage drivers to get out of their cars to appreciate the desert.

Mano del Desierto y motos de Hasselmann

Getting High in Peru on our Motorbikes

We’ve been riding back and forth between the coast and the mountains since entering Peru.  After some exciting scenery and serious fun in the giant sand dunes near Huacachino, we decided it was time to get back up high.  Really high.  The Nazca Lines were disappointing, but the road that took us away and inland from them was anything but!  Immediately and without delay, we climbed 3,000 meters in 62 km (9,000 ft in 32 miles) on a perfect, gorgeous road.  The great riding just doesn’t stop in this country!

Peru at 3,500m

On a related note, Peru had the worst drivers we’ve experienced on out trip so far – even worse than Guatemala and their notorious chicken buses.  In Peru, the big trucks and buses expect all motorbikes, regardless of size or speed, to get out of their way (onto the shoulder, if necessary) – even if they happen to be in your lane passing another vehicle in their lane.  We have been run onto the shoulder more than a few times… they just flash their lights at you to indicate they are not moving and so you should – its bloody dangerous.  So, we were relieved that the traffic through the numerous blind hairpins into the mountains was sparse, and that the trucks we did see travelled in convoys with ‘flag cars’ in front and behind.  They also seemed to to have better driving standards in the mountains that on the (brutal) Pan Americana.

For two days we rode at elevations over 3,500 meters (11,000+ ft), making it as high as 4,900 meters (16,000 ft).  We hadn’t ridden through snow since getting caught in a snow storm in Crowsnest Pass in Canada a few years ago but, unlike that time, we had heated jackets and proper winter riding gloves to protect us from the cold, allowing us to really enjoy the stunning views.  Again, Peru provided some of the best riding experiences we’ve seen on our trip so far.  From this perspective, we loved Peru!

..and Peru at 4,900m

They're cute, but they'll be dinner or slippers sometime soon (backyard of our 'hotel')

The reason we were climbing so high was to get to that mecca of Peruvian tourist attractions - Machu Picchu.  We originally thought we would do the traditional hike up to the ruins but the combination of being there in the rainy season and the abhorrant cost associated with the hike changed our minds…. we would ride the well-known motorbike / cyclist back route.  Or, so we thought…

We arrived in Cusco in the rain and headed straight for the hostel well-known to cyclists, motor bikers, the Hostel Estralita.  We have referred to it as “sparse”, but the multiple thick peruvian blankets on the beds, hot breakfasts, and super friendly owners mean we also highly recommend the hostel.  Especially, if you also require motorbike or bicycle parking and are not afraid of riding over a dodgy, homemade ramp.

Rainy days in Cusco

Like Peru itself, Cusco is a love-hate relationship for us.  Hate:  overpriced everything!  You cannot visit anything – (not even cathedrals) without doling out a substantial amount of money.  Love: gorgeous location, we met a number of nice locals and interesting overland travellers who tend to congregate here, and just by walking around the town, you can admire some pretty impressive Incan architecture.

Incan masonry - dry fit, cut stones

red clay roofs in Cusco

Girl in Cusco - watching a birthday party

Colonial on top of Incan

Half this wall is Incan work. The other is not. Which is which?

Most overland motorbike travellers are aware of Norton’s Rats pub in Cusco.  The owner is a motorbike traveller and has, himself completed a ride from Alaska to Ushuaia a number of years ago.  With promises of “the best hamburgers in Peru” of course we had to stop by!  We spent the evening exchanging stories from the road and a couple of pints with 5 fellow bike travellers including Jay & Mercedes, who keep happily appearing wherever we seem to be.  We enjoyed the company a lot, loved looking through the log book at many bikers, famous or otherwise, who have stopped by on their way through for their own pint, but we can’t agree with the claims for great food.  Plus, it is a smoking bar – is this 1989?  If you are on a motorbike, stop by for a drink and great company.  If you are not, go across the street to Paddy’s Irish Pub – now that is great food!

mmmmmm, cottage pie at Paddy's

The BMW F650GS Dakar has a design flaw – even though it is 2 inches taller than the regular F650GS, the side stand was not made longer to compensate for the extra height – which means Jordan’s bike leans over.  A lot.  It’s fallen over on its own a number of times as a result, the extreme lean angle also puts a lot of extra stress on the lower subframe bolts that support the bash plate and the side stand.  After being subjected to the extra weight of overloaded paniers for the last 7 months, this ‘flaw’ finally caused some real consequences.  Namely, the two frame bolts that support the side stand snapped under the extra weight and pressure.

We could not find any replacement bolts, so we made our own.  The only problem was that we couldn’t get the sheered bolt ends out of the frame…  a problem solved by some ingenious guys at a local machine shop.  With that out of the way, Jordan got down to replacing the bolts in their “garage space”, you might refer to it as the middle of the street between the 2 lanes of traffic.  Not sure if Canada’s Workers’ Compensation board would sanction that as a ‘safe work environment’ but, we’re in Peru – so it really doesn’t matter.

Open air garage, complete with 2-way traffic

Since northern Peru, we had also been monitoring the conditions of our chains and sprockets.  They were getting quite worn out – we only had a few centimetres of adjustment left in our chains and the teeth on the sprocket were essentially worn round.  We’d been shopping for new parts, and were able to pick up some fairly good chains in Lima, but had yet to find reasonably priced sprockets.  So, since it is unadvisable to put a new chain on an old, worn sprocket, we made the difficult decision to save the bikes and take a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu instead of riding there via the awesome back roads we’ve read about.  That said, the train turned out to be really enjoyable, despite the horrific cost.

At least it's pretty

Trains coming into Aguas Calientes

Unfortunately for all tourists on their way to Machu Picchu, they must stop in Aguas Calientes, first even if you find a way to get there on your own.  This is the town before the ruins – it can’t be bypassed, and there is no road traffic allowed (aside from tourist buses).  It was one of the worst tourist-traps we’ve ever visited.  Walking through the little town ensures that you will be accosted by numerous restaurant sales agents offering similar menus at similar prices along with promotions of ‘four pisco sours for the price of one!’.  Really?  One pisco sour costs that much?  We found some food, ate quickly and holed up in our pricey accommodations to avoid further molestations.

Despite being there in the rainy season, our day at Machu Picchu was gorgeous, with full sun and perfect blue skies.  We took an early morning bus to the ruins as a means of avoiding the large crowds of people whom we feared would be there, like us, mulling about.  We were warned of the difficulty of climbing up and down over 100 flights of stairs at 2,300m (7,500 ft), but I guess because we’ve been at altitude a lot in the last few months, neither of us were bothered by the conditions.

Vicunas at MP

Machu Picchu - the iconic shot

...and from an different perspective

The old neighbourhood

Amazing masonry

There is a lot that can be found on the web about Machu Picchu, we will add just 3 pieces of advice; i) get there early, it makes a huge difference; ii) make sure you visit “the drawbridge”.  It is not near the iconic image of M.P, but it is a great walk on a narrow path etched into the mountain side, and the area has a spectacular lookout over the Urubamba Valley; iii) hire a guide – even if it is with a group.  We didn’t hire one, choosing instead to randomly eavesdrop, and we wished that we had.  The place is truly amazing, and one of us thinks it is still worth a vist at the inflated prices.  The other thinks that Peru charges way too much for tourism and it isn’t obvious the wealth is shared with the poorer regions (we’ll allow you to guess who’s who).

Jordan near the 'drawbridge'

Unfortunately, by late morning we no longer had the place to ourselves and by 1:30 in the afternoon, it was difficult to walk anywhere without bumping into people or ending up in someone’s photo.  It was time to leave.  We made our way back up to Cusco for one more night and some more great pub food at Paddy’s.

Our final difficult decision was made the following morning before we left.  We could not find sprockets for the bikes and we had been warned about having anything shipped to Peru or Bolivia due to potential corruption within the postal service.  The thought of lengthy delays, heated discussions with customs officials and additional duty costs did not sound very appealing.

To make matters worse, Bolivia was in the middle of a terrible rainy period, and of the 46,000 kilometers of roads in that country, more than 90% are dirt which means mud roads in the rainy season.  A German friend of ours had a bad fall in which his pillion-girlfriend broke her leg (badly) – they had to go home.  And our Dutch friends, avid off road riders, also said they were having one of the most difficult times of their entire trip.  Riding the mud filled roads would push our riding skills to the limit and our stretched chains and worn sprockets were just not up to it.

So, in desperate need of parts and not wanting to break down in a remote, hard-to-get-to location, we decided we had to bypass Bolivia and go directly to Chile instead.  Our good friends, TJ and MJ from Pennsylvania bought the sprockets for us (THANK YOU!) in the USA (at 1/3 price in Peru or Chile) and shipped them to a hostel in Arica for us.  We would meet up with them a week or so later.

And so it is with long-term travel… plans change depending on what is happening in the world and with your equipment.  It was a disappointment because Bolivia is said to have some of the most stunning motorbike rides in the continent and we were excited about seeing the Bolivian altiplano, the notorious ‘death roade’ and of course the Salar de Uyuni - the world’s largest salt flat.  We won’t look at it as a complete ‘miss’.. not yet.  Hopefully it means we will be back…