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South America » Peru
November 24th 2009
Published: November 24th 2009
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You can find pictures of most of the things and places mentioned here at my Flickr site

I crossed the border into Peru on November 2. The border crossing was both chaotic and smooth. Peru and Ecuador have wisely left the border formalities back from the actual border itself to allow the people who live on the border free access to both sides. The town of Huaquillas spans both sides of the border (known as Aguas Verdes on the Puruvian side). The border itself is a dry river, perhaps 100 metres wide, spanned by a 2-lane bridge. The approach road to the bridge is all but impossible to drive as it is covered by vendors of all manner of goods, with tents set up right on the road. What is not obliterated by the tents is covered by thousands of pedestrians out shopping. The area is poor, like most of rural South America, and few cars can be seen. The vast majority of cross-border traffic is by foot or pedal cab. It was quite an experience for a lonely Canadian on a motorcycle, riding the clutch while trying to balance the bike at a slow walking pace, trying to fit in with the pedestrian traffic.

I had business to attend to. My motorcycle had to be properly exported from Ecuador, having been given a temporary import permit at the border with Colombia. I had left it until the last day. At the north end of the bridge was a tourist police office on one side, and an unlikely looking aduana office on the other. Fortunately, I was approached by a friendly tourist police officer who took me under his wing, and showed me what was necessary to leave the country. He was most interested in my journey, and more so in Motosan. We stood around and talked for quite a while. He was interested in telling me about his motorcycle, a 125cc from China. He was quick to point out that his was a made-in-Taiwan moto, not mainland China. According to him, in the pecking order of motos, mainland Chinese bikes are the bottom of the lot, and Taiwanese a notch up, followed by the Japanese bikes at the top of the pile. Anyway, he escorted me to the aduana office to get my export completed, then took me to a good money-changer, warning me that there were money changers about who dealt out counterfeit money. He then made sure I was properly loaded down with tourist brochures before bidding me farewell. I continued my slow navigation through the pedestrian traffic for another 6 blocks or so until it thinned out to the point where I could get into higher gears. About 3 kms down the road, I stopped at the Peruvian customs and immigration to do the formalities to enter Peru.

My goal that day was the town of Mancora on the coast. My friends and hosts in Cuenca had recommended Mancora as a good place to stay. I found that on the way out of town to the south, there was a wide assortment of resorts on the beach. I stopped at the first good one I saw, and enquired about rooms. The Hotel Grandmare (S04.11141 W081.06995) was quite a bit different than I was used to on this trip. My room was right over the ocean, with a hammock on the balcony. Luxury! I wound up spending two nights there just to soak up the view and change of scenery. On my way out from the resort, I dumped poor Motosan in the deep sand that had drifted across the road. My first drop on this trip.

The first thing I noticed when crossing into Peru was a change of climate. Suddenly, I was into desert, and, as it was to turn out. The coastal desert continued for thousands of kilometers, from the border with Ecuador almost all the way to Santiago Chile is desert with the occasional oasis where a river has made its way to the ocean. My next goal in Peru was the Cordillera Blanca, a mountain range second only to the Himalayas in height. That was a three day drive, I stayed in Chepen and Chimbote before arriving in Huaraz, the main city close to the Cordillera.

Back in Quito Ecuador, I met another Canadian motorcycle traveller in the hostel where I was staying. Eric Stiegletz also lives in Edmonton, probably only about 5 kilometres from me. I had a couple of nice suppers in Quito with Eric, and we parted ways when I left to the coast to visit my friend John Brock. My first full day in Huaraz I was out exploring the valley and when returning later in the day, I noticed a motorcycle traveller in my rear-view mirror. I pulled over and let him pass me and come to a stop; it was Eric. I wound up spending a couple more days in Huaraz with Eric. Eric is an adventuresome type, and we took our unloaded motos up to a viewpoint west of Huaraz one morning, then wound up on a hike on the other side of the valley in the afternoon. We started on a fairly good road that became a terrible road, steep and rocky. We eventually parked the bikes and hiked up further for a few hours. On my way down, I dumped Motosan for the second time on the trip while trying to avoid big rocks.

Eric and I then rode to Lima together and explored Lima for a few days. We stayed in the Miraflores area of Lima which is popular with tourists, and only a short cab ride from central Lima. We visited the Spanish Inquisition Museum and saw the torture machines that were used to gain confessions of religious indiscretions in the Catholic church. Another church museum in Lima has catacombs containing the bones of thousands of people. Lacking space to bury everyone, the basement of a church in Lima contained what was really a factory for the efficient disposal of bodies.

Earlier in his trip, Eric met and rode with another moto traveller from Oklahoma named Ricky Brooks. Ricky had turned up in Lima when we were there and Eric introduced us. While Eric stayed in Lima to get some moto maintenance done, Ricky and I left for Cusco riding together. Ricky is a very interesting guy who once made his living as a professional musician, playing bass guitar with a group that had some commerical success in the 90´s. Wikipedia calls “The Nixons” a “US-American post-grunge rock band”. He now is a motorcycle traveller trying to figure out what the rest of his life will look like.

Ricky and I left Lima together and left Eric in Lima tending to some motorcycle maintenance. We took two days to ride up to Cusco. Our first night after Lima was in Nazca, where we stopped to see the famous lines on the way through. Drawn out in the desert about two thousand years ago, conspiracy theorists say that they were signs to ancient alien visitors who arrived by spacecraft. Nazca is not much above sea level, and from there, we climbed up to nearly 15,000 feet on our way to Cusco. I have flirted with high altitudes on this trip before, but it was always just over a pass before descending again. This time. I was over 14,000 feet for several hours on an altoplano before descending. I was up there long enough to start feeling the effects of hypoxia.

The natives of Peru chewed on the leaves of the coca plant to help with the effects of altitude, and to this day, it remains a popular remedy. Most restaurants serve “mate de coca”, which is a tea prepared with coca leaves. My first experience with it was in the hotel lobby where I stayed in Cusco. A bowl of leaves was on a table beside a carafe of hot water for guests to help themselves. I did! I started to have mate de coca frequently with meals. I don´t know how much it helped me, as with previous experiences with high altitude, I have found that I get acclimatized after a day or two. But, I just liked the taste, coca leaves make a nice-tasting herbal tea. I did some research on the internet and found, of course, that coca leaves are quite illegal in Canada and the U.S. because they are the source of cocaine. There is so much refinement involved though, that I think the whole thing is silly. It would be like arresting me for illegal possession of liquor for carrying grapes because they could be made into wine.

Cusco is the kicking off point for visits to Machu Pichu. Machu Pichu is an ancient Inca ruins site, and the major tourism engine for Peru. This was evident by the number of gringo tourists in Cusco, and the high prices charged by the hotels. Ricky organized a day tour to the ruins site, while I decided to wait until my daughter Megan (and possibly Melinda) and their partners joins me in Peru in the spring. After Cusco, Ricky and I pushed on to Puno on the coast of Lake Titicaca.

They call Lake Titicaca the highest navigable lake in the world. Sitting at about 12,500 feet, it also marks the border with Bolivia. After a gong-show performance of trying to find a place to stay, getting separated, finding each other again, we settled into an inexpensive hostel in the downtown area. The next day we visited an ancient burial ground and ruins site north of Puno. Sillustani was used by three different civilizations going back thousands of years. The last were the Inca who buried their nobility there in stone towers. As with other examples of Inca construction I have seen (e.g Ingapirca in Ecuador), the stone shape and fittings were amazingly accurate. On our way to Sillustani, we met a Canadian couple from Surry B.C., Dan and Claire, who were riding matching Yamaha 250´s. Dan was having problems with his valves after adjusting them. Ricky then showed his mechanic side, admitting that he was a long-time bike tinkerer. He provided some suggestions to Dan on what to look for. Dan and Claire turned around and headed back to Puno for repairs, and we went up to the ruins site.

Later that evening while looking for somewhere to have supper, we ran into Dan and Claire again, and Dan thanked Ricky for his advice that worked out well for him. Apparently he had adjusted his valves to the “top dead center” of the exhaust stroke rather than the compression stroke, so his valves were loose. We reconnected with Dan and Claire later that evening and had a pleasant chat in a pasty cafe. Of course I had some chocolate cake!

The next day, Ricky and I said our farewells, I was headed to Arequipa. Ricky was having some welding done on his bike luggage rack before heading off to Bolivia. I would later learn that Ricky and Eric found each other at the Bolivian border, and, at last word were touring La Paz together. Eric always seems to turn up at the right time.

Coming down from the Altiplano into Arequipa, I felt like a desert explorer coming into an oasis. The wind had whipped up the powder-like desert dust, which hung over, and in, the green-trimmed city contrasted by the deep blue sky above. Arequipa sits in the shadow of a number of large volcanoes, and suffers from constant tremors as a reminder that all is still not well deep beneath the surface. Over the centuries a number of earthquakes have caused major damage there. Arequipa has a population of about ¾ million, and I believe is the second-largest city in Peru. The colonial architecture is impressive. Ever since my first real experience with it in Cuenca Ecuador two years ago, I have enjoyed exploring other colonial cities. This trip has been fascinating in this respect. The buildings in Arequipa have been constructed in a white volcanic rock that gives the city´s core a majestic feel.

I took a guided tour of one of the oldest monasteries in Peru, dating back to the 16th century. From what I learned on the tour, wealthy Spanish families contributed daughters and money to support the monastery. The more money contributed, the better a room the nun would have. Many nuns had servants to tend to them. The monastery covered a large city block, and was sealed within tall walls. It was like a city within a city, with streets and housing, town squares, fountains, and chapels. The nuns were completely cloistered, with no contact with the outside world except through a screened visitor room where they sat under veils and behind two layers of lattice while talking with visitors. The monastery suffered major damage in an earthquake in the early 20th century and was eventually repaired and opened as a tourist attraction to help with funding. To this day there are still about 20 nuns living there in an area sectioned off from the tourist areas. Today, the nuns are integrated with society, and come and go at will. This only changed about 30 years ago, after centuries of seclusion! Today, they live a communal lifestyle, without the perquisites provided by wealthy families.

I celebrated my 55th birthday while in Arequipa. Hard to believe I have been retired since I was 51 - where has the time gone? I spent part of the day on the monastery tour, then found a nice restaurant to have a birthday meal (sea bass with shrimp sauce), followed by a trip to a pasteleria for some chocolate cake. I have found the chocolate cakes here to be very good. They are always scratch-made, rich with cocoa and chocolate icing. A big piece might cost the equivalent of $1.50!

The next morning, I set off for Chile. Like the rest of coastal Peru since entering from Ecuador, it was a ride through more desert. The border crossing into Chile was pleasant. A remote location in the desert, and not particularly busy. I had a nice chat with the lonely aduana agent who did the import paperwork for Motosan. A few kilometres down the road, I over-nighted in Arica to begin my long haul crossing of the Atacama desert.


25th November 2009

Somebody likes Peru :)
I had forgotten that you were doing Machu Picchu with Megan - good call to wait and have those memories with her and hopefully Melinda! Tomorrow I meet with the travel agent and I should have a good idea if we will make it there in January. Sure hope so... I left Lake Titicaca off the itinerary and from your pictures I am OK with my decision. It helps when you go somewhere I think I do or don't want to go - your pictures are telling me the story first :) - see you and continue to take care!
26th November 2009

Happy Birthday!
Hey, John! Happy 55th Birthday! I am just a couple of months behind you! And no, I am not a dinosaur! Shelley
26th November 2009

Hey John, Happy Birthday. Your writing is great. It is so interesting to read and keep track of you. That is amazing that you met Eric and he's from Edmonton. I can't wait to see what you have to say next. Ride safe, dude!
1st December 2009

Enjoying your trip.
Hi John, Thank you for the extensive and descriptive blogs. It is good to have this contact with you and we are delighted that your trip is going so well. Ride Safely!

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