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Published: November 4th 2009
Lady with Llama and Eagle on her head...
From Puno we set off across the altiplano again towards Chivay. This is the highest day so far at 4885m and the highest paved road in Peru. It also has some of the best and worst roads we have seen. The best are lovely smooth tarmac; the worst are tarmac that is so broken up there are foot deep potholes randomly scattered about. It would be better as dirt. The altiplano remains desolate but beautiful in a moon scape sort of way. Occasionally you come across herds of alpaca or vicuña being kept by old ladies, who seem to be a day's walk from anywhere. We drop into Chivay down a deep long descent. Sat Nav says we are 4 miles from town as the crow flies but we still do 16 miles to get there. The town is small and touristy as it is the leave point to Colca Canyon, which is another deeper than the Grand Canyon, canyon and is famous for the Condors that ride the thermals. We stop in at the worst Irish Bar in the World. Festooned with Guinness paraphernalia, I ask for one to be told “We won't have any Guinness until next September” It's
Still being farmed today..
October! We play pool on a table that slopes south and east and has pockets too small for the balls. They also have special sawn off cues as it is so close to one wall you can't use a normal one. Ahhh.... but they have a nice black and white cat that jumps straight up on Karen's lap, and then promptly chews her coat and dribbles on her!
We leave the luggage at the hotel the next morning to ride 25 miles dirt up into Colca Canyon. It is one of the most striking and beautiful rides so far. As we climb the sides of the mountains are lined with 500 year old Inca terracing still being farmed today. Through tunnels and stream crossings and upwards round tourist mini buses throwing up clouds of dust and smoke. We arrive a little later than the group having stopped to help Simon who had a puncture and after 30 minutes are rewarded with four different condors climbing on the thermals. In 20 minutes they must have flapped their wings five times. These huge birds have wingspans of over two metres and we get some great photos.
The ride back to
Chivay from Colca Canyon is punctuated by meeting a lady in traditional dress with a llama, and a six year old eagle on her head. Really - see photo for proof.
To get to Arequipa where we are for a couple of days, we need to retrace our route for 60 miles across the dreadful and fantastic roads. We arrive after a bit of a struggle getting into town. Having trip advisor'ed the town I have a list of restaurants and we go for a wander. It is known as the white city, partly for the local stone and partly for the very strong Spanish immigration bleaching the indigenous blood line and skin. The main square and cathedral (rebuilt after an earthquake destroyed one of the towers) are beautiful. We end up eating with Kevin, Julia, Max and Christine in Zig Zag, the No. 1 Trip Advisor recommendation in town, and deservedly so. The next day is free to explore the Santa Catalina Convent, which is mostly now open to the public. This is fascinating as it was built by a Spanish widow in the late 1500's. To enter the convent as a novice was 1000 silver coins. If
Moment of Calm
On the day of carnage on the sandy dirt road to Argentina, I had to stop at 4500m for this glacial lake
you passed then it was 1200 silver coins to stay, but you had to supply your own servants! They also brought with them lots of nice personal items like tea services etc. They didn't ever leave and could only speak to relatives through a mesh grille, but with servants and a beautiful convent to live in it seems like a pretty good option of wealthy daughters of the age. Roll on the Catholic Reformation that brought all that luxury to an end!
The ride out of Arequipa is complex and you need to be pretty aggressive to get through the morning traffic. It is particularly fraught for Kevin and Julia as this is the morning in 2005 that one rider broke his leg and ended his trip. We all exit safely, however our dramas are still to come in Argentina...
Today we enter Chile and the last but one country on the trip. The border is almost European in style and standards and is fast efficient and calm. Gone are the money changers, markets stall and chickens of Central American borders. On through the desert just a few miles to the coastal town of Arica and with two hours
Actually Argnentinian altiplano
lost in time change at the border an early night.
Arica to Antofagasto is 490 miles through the Atacama Desert. Deserts are often disappointing (especially if rubbish strewn like Peru) but the valleys of the Atacama this morning are full of clouds. We cross the plains above them surrounded by miles of rock scattered sand and then descend through the clouds into rift valleys suddenly emerge under the clouds into the valley, then cross the valley and repeat in reverse. We visit Humberstone a deserted mining town on the way to Iqueque and the coast in an effort to break up a long day. As we drop into town there are a hundred para gliders above beside and below us riding the winds from the Pacific. From Iqueque we follow the coast road all the way to Antofagasto. The road is a two lane wedged in between the huge sand dune on our left and the pacific on our right. It is stunning for the first 30 miles. Then it's the same for the next 30 miles. Then there are 200 more. Oh how quickly you can become jaded!
On the way the bike is handling very strangely
Max and Christine in the red rock valleys of northern Argentina
and arriving in Antofagasto we find the rear tyre is shot. It has worn past the warning bars (we knew it was low) but the heat of the ride has started the rubber peeling off. First job of the evening is to swap it for a part worn spare from the van to get us to the next official tyre change. Once again we have eaten our tyres faster than anyone else. The hotel (Radisson) provides the ladies on the trip with a very pleasant evening's entertainment called Pilot Watching. Chile is clearly hosting some exercise as there are military pilots from Chile, Argentina, USA, Canada, etc etc all over the hotel. Lots and lots of lovely uniformed, jump suited pilots.
The next day is 320 miles across the desert with a visit to the hand. Sculpted in the 1970's it provides a great picture opportunity. However we feel another hand and two sets of toes all spaced in the desert as if a giant was buried would be funnier?
El Salvador is a small mining town and the best hotel in town is made from portacabins. Nice portacabins though. The evenings entertainment comes from the head waiter
when someone orders Crepe Suzette. He is the spitting image of Jack Duckworth, Vera's husband on Coronation street (Sorry, US readers this reference will pass you by) who turns the lights off in the restaurant and stands on a chair to pour the burning booze from 6 feet onto the Crepe Suzette All very 1970's flash made more amusing as he is doing it all on a portable gas bottle powered two ring hob that looks like it may just burst into flames all by itself anyway.
El Salvador to Tinagasto via Fiambala Hospital. It's a 300 mile day across into Argentina with 120 miles of dirt on a road used only by us, big yellow US Bulldog Mack trucks (one for the US readers that the Brits won't get) and the Dakar Rally earlier this year and again in 2010. This is all at over 4500m altitude. The road is initially well compacted and grippy despite us all being on well worn tyres, and progress to the border post is swift and uneventful. However, the Chilean border post is 70 miles inside Chile as there is no point being any closer as there is nothing but the road
between them and Argentina. Then the road (which Kevin rode in January following the Dakar and was fine) deteriorates. It becomes soft and sandy and then becomes deep and treacherous We arrive at a steep incline to see Nick standing next to his bike, which is facing the wrong way lying on its side. I ride too cautiously up the slope and on the wrong side and stall the bike in deep sand. Karen has to push and we paddle and spin the wheel and get her up the slope. We stop with Nick as “First on Scene” and sort the bike out. Initially he seems fine although he has hurt his wrist and banged his ribs. However, after a while he is clearly a bit shocked so we keep him hydrated, seated and talking. A few people come and go (too many cooks spoil the... etc etc). Max and Christine stay to assist and then Kevin and Julia arrive. We are guiding the other bikes to the best track on the right and all wobble their way up the hill in one piece.
Then Nick starts to go into shock properly. Shivering, shaking and struggling to breathe the
Jumping the Red Light
But its OK as the Caribineros have their red lights on as well
bang on the ribs and the altitude is not a good combination. Jeff arrives with the van and in 5 minutes flat, his bike and Nick are in it. Karen volunteers to go with Nick in the van as Jeff needs to drive and someone needs to look after Nick. As all this is happening Simon rides back to say that Paul has had a big off! He has crested a hill at 35mph and hit deep sand going down (as opposed to Nick going up) and come off. The bike has cartwheeled three times, shed the panniers, top box, lights etc etc and Paul has been briefly unconscious, but is up and about and coherent.
Jeff drives like a demon with Nick sprawled across Karen and Karen leaning on Jeff. When they get to Paul's accident they realise that oddly that while Paul's bike is a definite non runner, Nick's in the van is. Paul claims to be OK to ride and so in 3 minutes flat Jeff unloads Nicks bike and loads Paul's and speeds off, overtaking all the other riders on the dirt in a two wheel drive transit van!
At the border the Argentinian
Dropping into the clouded valleys of the Atacama
customs guys could not be more helpful. The post is so remote they are there for 30 day shifts and so lay Nick out in the sleeping quarters and get him blankets and pillows. However they have only descended 300m and his condition is getting worse. After a brief discussion of helicopter evacuation it is agreed the fastest way to the nearest hospital, one and a half hours away is in the van. Out comes everything from the back and it is dumped on the road, tools, Paul's bike, spares etc etc. The guards put a mattress and pillows in the van and Nick with Karen are shut in the back of the Transit with a torch for a hour and a half 90mph+ run down the mountains to Fianmbala. A customs guy rides up front with Jeff to show him where to go.
Meanwhile back on the road, I am playing follower to Paul as he gently winds his way to the border. He is very battered and bruised but is pottering along trying to avoid the worst bumps. Minor fallers without serious injury include Jim (4 falls and bike lands on his leg so he is limping
badly), Phil (2 falls), Al (1 with sprained ankle as bike falls on him), Andy (1 while parked bike falls over!), plus Jim and Tony are both really suffering from altitude sickness. We all need to get off this plain and down.
When we reach the border the guards continue to be incredibly helpful. Karen nursing Nick had crossed into Argentina with no documents as I have her passport etc. However, no problem they just now stamp her in even though she is not there. The plan is for Kevin and Paul to wait for the returning van and then follow it slowly to the hotel and Julia and I to ride to the hospital to check on Nick and Karen. Ten miles down the road and a previous puncture repair on Julia's bike is leaking and we need to stop and pump her tyre up! Hard work at this altitude. At 8.00pm we arrive at Fiambala to find Karen and Nick sitting on a bench in the square. Nick has had an X ray and pain killers and with the drop in altitude and the passing of his shock he is looking looking human. The good news is
the shock and the altitude seem to be the worst symptoms and both have now passed. We get them a taxi to the next town and follow them in arriving at the hotel about 9.00 pm, an hour ahead of Kevin, Paul and Jeff. Nick goes to bed with pain killers and the rest of us out for a late much deserved cold beer.
We leave at 9.30 the next morning for a nice simple tarmac 200 mile day. We get lost leaving town (as does Jeff!) and ride 20 miles down the wrong road, 20 miles back to town and then leave again at 10.30! We need an easy day and we get one to Villa Union and a lovely hotel with a fantastic restaurant, that served the best steak of the trip. Welcome to Argentina properly! The next day is another big mileage day to Uspallata, a small mountain tourist town. Some dirt sections but they are fine and are treated with unsurprising caution by all and so pass without incident. And then the group ride into Santiago where we will be for four days to get the bikes serviced and to rest up, get Paul and Nick to hospital to get checked out and generally re-group.
BMW Chile have supplied the Carabineros with a fleet of R1200RT's and through the local dealer they have arranged for us to enter Santiago with a Police escort, stopping traffic, blocking roads and red lights flashing. Their uniforms are dark green with highly polished black horse riding boots and elbow length white gloves to stop the traffic. Great fun as they race past our nice staggered formation directly at on-coming traffic that swerves to avoid them. They are scraping the engine bars around corners as they swoop in and out of the traffic, and we arrive at the hotel like royalty on tour. This is all filmed by the main Chilean news channel and shown that evening on the main 9pm news! Our minor celebrity status is now confirmed. We drop the bags at the hotel and they then escort us across town to the BMW dealer to drop the bikes in another red strobe lit dash. Lots of fun!
So here we are in the cosmopolitan city of Santiago, with no smoky trucks and few car horns, with BMW's and Mercedes on the roads and high rise building sitting on the 17th floor of the Holiday Inn having a lazy day. About four weeks to go to Ushuaia but this includes 1500 dirt miles on Ruta 40 and Carretera Austral. In some ways little time is left, but still 5000 challenging miles and 5 weeks...
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