Posted on February 21, 2014
It is true, right outside of Nazca (there are signs that say Nasca when you enter town so I am confused on how to spell this city) we hit the 10,000 mile mark! From Alex’s house in California to Nazca has been a crazy ride, and we have cherished every mile, though many haven’t been easy.
12 countries, 68 cities, 3 pairs of underwear (for Nathaniel anyway). We are currently in Cusco, which is very close to being on the same latitude with Cuiabá, Brazil, considered the geographic center of South America. What this means is we are about halfway through with our travels in South America and we have a little over a month before we should be rolling into Ushuaia.
Moving on from the nostalgia of the 10,000 mile mark, the ride from Pisco to Nazca was more of the same desert and sand we had been riding in since getting to Peru. On the outskirts of Nazca is a giant steel tower where you can view two of the Nazca Lines (‘the tree’ and ‘the hands’), though you don’t really get the kind of view you do from an airplane. We stopped on our way into town and paid the equivalent of $0.71 to climb to the top of the observation tower.
After reading several reviews of how to book tours by air of the Nazca Lines, we got up early the next morning and went to the airport to commandeer an airplane. There are several vendors at the airport, and as we arrived the security guard told us to make sure we shopped around, although they all seemed to offer about the same rates.
Online they listed the price at being around $90, though the range seems to vary from $80-$100. We were quoted $75, and decided to go with Aeroparacas for a 35-minute flight. As noted though, they are all really the same, and I would try to play them against each other if you can’t get a better price. Frommer’s suggests the best time to hike the Inca Trail (Machu Picchu) is June to September, so during these months it might be harder to negotiate a good deal.
The other suggestion, which was reiterated by our pilots: the morning is the best time to fly as the winds are at their lowest. Neither Alex nor I got airsick, though we both took motion sickness pills before we went up (rather be safe than sorry). The tour is quick, but you get excellent views of the lines (note there was going to be a GoPro video, but the camera couldn’t distinguish between the lines and the sand, very disappointing).
If you are near Nazca it is definitely worth a trip to see the lines, they are quit amazing. Alex and I both commented that we thought they were going to be bigger, as many aren’t as big as the most famous, ‘the hummingbird’. Overall it was great experiencing, something that I learned about in middle school and never thought I would see in real life.
Unfortunately for most travelers, if it wasn’t for the lines themselves no one would bother to go to Nazca (no offense to the people that live there, I myself am from a tourist town) as it is in the middle of desert that is transitioning into mountain terrain. The town has created other tourist attractions (sand boarding and tours of Inca sites), but the real draw for this tiny town are the lines.
(Always make sure to click the settings wheel on the lower-hand side of the video, to get the best quality 1080p viewing)
After our morning flight and some late breakfast, Alex and I were exhausted. I don’t know if it was being in the sun the last couple of days, or simply the wear of travel, but we both crashed for most of the rest of the day. It must have been what our bodies needed, because we have been on a roll ever since.
From Nazca it was a race to get to Cusco, up into the Andes Mountains. Peru finally showed us some of the famed countryside, Swiss style mountains and rolling hills that look like they could house something like Machu Picchu. It was great to finally get out of the desert, and into some lush terrain.
We thought we could get to Cusco in two days, but riding through mountains make for slow going. Between Nazca (1,710 ft) and Puquio (10,545 ft) we climbed close to 9,000 ft in elevation. After inquiring with a gas attendant in Puquio as to how far the next town was, we decided to stay the night and enjoy the ride the next day instead of pushing it to the next town.
I suggest to any riders doing this section of Peru to do the same if they have time in their schedules because the ride from Puquio to Abancay is some of the best scenery and one of the top five rides of the trip! From the moment you leave Puquio you climb into the mountains and are treated to lakes with wild flamingos, herds of roaming llamas, and endless scenic valleys.
Alex and I took most of the day to ride this stretch of road, stopping often to gawk at llamas or stare at the scenery. I commented to Alex that if people ask me what was the best part of the trip when I get back, that days of riding like this were by far the most enjoyable. You don’t know when you wake up that day what your in-store for and it makes the experience all the more sweet.
(In the next day we will upload another blog to detail some of the missteps that have occurred since we got to Cusco, but thought we would end on the high note of great riding)
Posted on February 16, 2014
Lima is more than double the square mileage of Los Angeles and you feel it as you wage war navigating it. Most of the countries thus far have had more aggressive driving than in the US, but they still respect motorcyclists as part of the traffic flow. Not the case in Peru, and there are noticeably less motorcycles in this country than the majority of the rest of Latin America, which may be partially to blame for drivers lack of concern over motorcycles. This goes for most of Peru, but is exceptionally bad in Lime (talking with a Brazilian biker today confirmed he also thinks Peru treats bikers poorly).For our first full day in Lima we did a walking tour of the historic downtown, which has several impressive cathedrals, shopping districts, and tons of tourists. The main centro has the President’s house (which has a changing of the guard akin to Buckingham Place), the Arc Bishops Seat, as well as, the resting place of Francisco Pizarro.
Further down the road is the Monasterio de San Francisco, known for its humongous catacombs, which has some 70,000 human remains that weren’t discovered until 1943. Many of the bones were placed in circle pits, that were built to absorb earthquake shock, in geometric patterns with skulls creating circular patterns. What Alex and I found just as fascinating was the Peruvian Last Supper by Marco Zapata, which is painted on one of the walls in the cathedral. Google it, and you will notice that a lot of the food depicted are traditional Peruvian dishes, as well as, there being more people than just the 12 disciples.
Other than a couple trips around the city, Alex and I had business to take care of getting the bikes some much needed service, new oil filters, spark plugs, chains cleaned, new brake pads. On top of this I was dealing with some stomachissues that delayed us leaving Lima for a day. For anyone thinking of touring on a motorcycle, if you don’t have to go through Lima I would suggest skipping it. I know that many people will probably disagree with me, but for Alex and I, there wasn’t much to keep us there and the dealing with the traffic just isn’t worth the hassle.
On a note of point, I did learn in Lima that Peru has penguins! They are the warm weather kind, and are in a large bird sanctuary that was on our was to Nazca.
Stomach feeling better, we jumped on our nicely cleaned bikes and roared off south, after spending an hour in traffic getting out of Lima. A short ride to Pisco, where we go ready to to see the sites the next day.
The tour of the marine and bird sanctuary was decent, but Alex and I really only cared about seeing the penguins, and we ended up getting to see two, which made it worth it. Also on the tour you get a great sea view of Paracas Candelabra, a geoglyph carved into the northern face of the Paracas Peninsula. It was carved using the same techniques as the Nazca lines, and is quit impressive when you see it.
More desert, dunes, and riding as Peru is nothing if not consistent in the parts we have rode through thus far. It was another short ride down to Nazca, and here we find ourselves as we get ready for a plane ride over the famous lines.
More to come.
(Alex says she hates all of her Lima photos which is why we are not using any in this post.)
Posted on February 9, 2014
After our restful time in Cuenca, it was time to pack the bags and hit the road. We thought we could make it out of Ecuador in one day, but seeing as half of the country has the Andes mountain range running through it, you can’t make it anywhere very quickly.
In Mexico we weren’t happy with anything less than a 200 mile day, but when hairpins and s-curves, climbing then descending then climbing again, and dodging trucks (and stray dogs) is the norm you’re happy with a 100 miles. However, the day before our last day in Ecuador we saw some of the best scenery in the whole country, rolling green mountains, and just enough curves to have fun on without slowing you down.
Research is a must before every border crossing! Even if it is just to see pictures of where the buildings are (many crossing in Central America have the buildings in illogical places where they must be hunted out) and to know how much you might have to pay for insurance. In looking at the Ecuador-Peru border there seemed to be unity on the inter-webs as to its ease.
Leaving early and never knowing what to expect we headed to the border and in less than an hour and a half we were processed out of Ecuador and into Peru. This was the best border crossing of the whole trip, bar none. The Peruvian Aduana (customs) employees were friendly and helpful, two qualities you don’t find in many border officials, and a first of the trip, they even made copies for us of the paperwork they required!
Many of the countries that we have visited have shocked me in how different they are then I had imagined them. For instance, I always thought that Colombia was just one giant jungle. And don’t get me wrong, there is jungle there, but no country is one ecosystem, and the landscape of Colombia is one of the most diverse we have seen. With that said, northern Peru was exactly how I imagined it.
Ecuador is green, lush, and for a third world country, particularly trash free (Alex informed me later that there were anti-littering signs posted everywhere along the road). Northern Peru could not be any different, and was the most dramatic shift in environment we have experienced. The landscape is dry, arid desert spotted with a few towns. As you continue, the desert only intensifies into dunes that remind one of Tunisia.
We filled up with gas after the border, using the last of our cash, and continued on, hoping to hit an ATM at the first real town. Tambo Grande was the first larger town (i.e. not a cluster of huts along the road) that we stumbled upon and we went in search of an ATM. After driving through the whole town we stopped and Alex asked a passerby where we might find a cash machine. His response was that there wasn’t one in the entire town.
Onward it was. Continuing through large swaths of dry desert and the occasional grouping of houses, that are more what people at home would think of as huts, on the sides of the freeway. We got to Piura (the first major town on the map) and here we struck pay dirt at a mall that had a line of ATMs from every major international bank. We decided to call it quits for the day and thankfully we did, because early the next morning we found out how long it was to the next town.
What started as brown dry desert reminiscent of Baja, California, gradually turned into dunes as we got further from Piura. The luck of that day was that we filled up before we left Piura, because once we were in the desert it was 120 miles to the next town. As we entered the Zonas de Dunas, the winds picked up and it was hours of riding with the bikes tilted at an angle, reflected in the small brush on the side of the road that had grown blown in one direction.
What some people might not realize about this trip, or any trip on motorcycles, is that there are days where all you do is get up, and ride. It’s not a complaint, we have seen some of the best sights while on two wheels, but it is a reality I don’t think many people grasp. Riding into a town at dusk, looking for a hostel with parking (something you never worry about while backpacking), and only thinking about how much your ass hurts and that the overpowering, sometimes rancid, smell of your riding suit permeates every breath.
Get up the next morning, pack the bags, grab a bite and jump back on the bike for another full day. The dunes continue, going through small towns on a two lane road, dodging trucks and tuk-tuks. The sun is high in the sky, then low, then setting. The haze of evaporated water blends sky and earth and sand and road. A water color painting of a landscape that has no outstanding features. And we ride.
Get up, pack, no breakfast, on the bikes. We make it to the ocean, dunes that lead right to the break. The towns become further apart. Stop when you can for food, for gas, for a break from the bike. Then more riding. The mirages stretche ahead, endless pools of nonexistent water, reminding you of the heat and the sand and the sun beating down. Sweat pools in your underwear, you can feel it every time you shift weight on the bike.
Its near the end of the third day that we hit a true stretch of freeway, not a two lane road, but an actual freeway and we twist the throttle and really open the bikes up. Ripping through the dunes, and the mountains of trash. What makes northern Peru look like a post-apocalyptic nightmare are the mounds of trash, which are usually on fire, that accompany the exit of every city.
Trash as far as the eye can see, with huts scattered throughout where people live and sift through the garbage. And then back into the desert of Mad Max the road warrior. The wind picks up, you tilt the bike, feel the sand sting that one spot your gloves and jacket have left unprotected. And the sun sets.
The final days ride brought us to Lima, our goal for the first leg of Peru.
Peruvians favorite part of the car is the horn, which they use instead of brakes or signals to inform others of the haphazard driving maneuvers they will perform that would churn the stomach of even the most talented of stunt drivers. Traffic be damned, Alex maneuvered us through the honks and sirens and shouts to our hostel, for a couple of days rest and some sight seeing before we get back on the bikes.
Posted on December 13, 2013
We climb into the back of an absurdly large giant four wheel drive truck with other travelers from the UK, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Holland and the United States; we all fidget with nervous energy grinning and waiting for our adventure to start.
The truck fires up and lurches off throwing us into one another as it rounds corner after corner, bumping along on small cobblestone roads in a way that would make veterans of the Knight Bus nervous (Harry Potter reference).
There are no seat belts and we grab onto the railings, seats, and each other for stability during the 45 minute ride to Cerro Negro.
About a decade ago an Australian with presumably too much time on his hands visited Leon Nicaragua and decided to turn the active volcano Cerro Negro into an extreme sport destination. He first tried boarding the hill with a snowboard and destroyed his equipment in the process — volcanic rock is not kind to fancy gear. Next he tried a refrigerator door (fail), before moving on to a picnic table (also a fail), a mattress (biggest fail) and a variety of other items he thought might make it down the 42 degree slope of black volcanic rock.Today in Leon there are several companies that offer volcano boarding tours down Cerro Negro and although the protective gear varies slightly from company to company the boards they use are all the same. A one foot by four foot piece of plywood with several wooden slats across it and a rope handle you hold like a baseball bat can be found on the top, on the bottom a plank of thin metal and a patch of formica held on with adhesive provide your sliding surface. The thrill of sliding down an active volcano wearing prison jump suits while sitting atop construction scraps is what brings our collection of world travelers to the back of this obscene vehicle.
The cobblestones quickly gives way to cracked pavement and then dirt. The driver rushes over the small roads kicking up a mountain of dust that engulfs bicyclists, cows, pedestrians and entire busses as he rushes past and the road just keeps going.
Local guides claim that because of the wind patterns in the area Cerro Negro is the only volcano in the world suitable for Volcano Boarding. This may or may not be true but a google search for ‘volcano boarding’ will only give you hits related to Leon Nicaragua.
We pull up to the entrance of the nature park and slide to a stop. We all have to pay a $7 entry fee to enter the park and sign our names in the visitor ledger before we ride the last few kilometers to the base of Cerro Negro.
Cerro Negro isnt impressive looking because of its size, although it feels massive to hike up carrying a piece of metal sheathed plywood and your obligatory jump suit. No- Cerro Negro impresses with its dramatic slopes of black rock. Nothing grows on it and at the top you are greeted only by the smell of of sulfur and the giant bugs that are drawn to it.
Our guide Jose gives us a quick rundown of what to expect on the hike, how to best carry our board and tells us that we will stop three times along the way for information and to rest — we begin.
The hike starts easy enough on roughly shaped steps made out of larger rocks the size of your head, but as the slope gets steeper, the rocks get smaller, and the wind picks up hitting your board like a kite, it can get scary. We creep along the side of the volcano stopping and posing for photos when Jose tells us to and gripping the boards for dear life as we march up the path.
The real tragedy would be falling off the path, losing your board, and doing the hike for nothing. It takes an hour to climb the Volcano and less than a minute to slide down it, less than 30 seconds if you’re going for a record or are interested in seriously hurting yourself.
At the top we take time to appreciate the view and Jose scuffs a mark into the dirt and has us feel the earth just a few inches below the surface, surprisingly it is almost too hot to touch and you can see a few people’s faces questioning the sanity of sliding through it wearing a cotton jumpsuit and flimsy plastic goggles.
I am already wearing my goggles because it’s so windy at the top of the volcano little bits of rock and dust keep flying into my face. I don’t care if I look silly – I’d rather not blind myself before the ride.
Jose gives the command to ‘SUIT UP!’ and the moonscape at the top of the volcano gets even more bizarre as a dozen tourists start pulling on orange jump suits and goggles, a prison gang run wild. I ignore the command (sorry Jose) and buzz about taking photos of people getting ready as Jose starts his safety speech.
The single rider speed record on Cerro Negro is over 50 mph. When you consider you aren’t going to be wearing gloves or a helmet as you slide down a hill comprised solely of volcanic rocks, then listening to Jose when he gives you safety instructions is key. However – I’ve done this before and I have no desire to break a speed record.Last year a couple decided to race down the hill and the boyfriend lost control of his board and hit his girlfriend, breaking her back. A few weeks ago another tourist on vacation with her family lost control at a high speed and broke her leg and foot in several places, stories Jose doesn’t share till we are all at the bottom. It’s scary – but the same things could also happen while snowboarding.
It’s at this point I wrap my 5D Mark II in plastic with my iPhone and stick it in my backpack before pulling the jump suit over it. We take our places in two lines as Jose issues his final instruction before disappearing over the lip of the volcano to take pictures of us as we board down.
Several people take their turns and then suddenly it’s my turn. I carefully position myself on the board as I try and center myself in the starting chute while Nathaniel looks down at me with his GoPro.
The signal is given and I start scooting myself to the edge. I have problems getting out of the chute (the guy before me did it too fast and fell off his board), but once I hit the slope I start to slide easily down the volcano.
Gripping my rope I think I am going too fast so I dig my feet in, but I can’t seem to slow myself down. Once I reach Jose I know I am not allowed to brake anymore because the slope becomes too steep to safely slow yourself down. One of Jose’s biggest warnings at the top:
Once you pass me do NOT try and brake. 45 degrees is too steep to brake on, you will lose control and it will hurt.
The adrenaline starts to pump through me and I am reminded to keep my mouth closed as I taste the grit flying into my teeth. I clamp my mouth shut as I slide past Jose and then I lift my feet. I can use them to steer still – letting my motorcycle boots carefully skim the surface of the volcano, but I resist the urge to bury my feet in the rock.
I can feel the friction heat up the board underneath me and I wonder to myself if something could catch fire with that much heat. My speed starts to increase as pure gravity and the formica slicked board do their work. I start to hop slightly over a few bumps and for a second I think I am going sideways – rushing past our secondary guide who holds a speed gun I safely come to a stop.
I stand up, careful to pick up my board by the rope (the board is now hot enough to burn you) and I give my guide my name ‘Alex’ so he can record my speed. I join the others at the truck and start to strip off my jump suit watching the next few people make their way down Cerro Negro.
Once everyone has made it to the bottom we watch in awe as Jose runs down. He passes out our beers and takes a celebratory photo of all of us before we climb back on the truck for an even crazier ride back to our Hostel. At the hostel all volcano boarders are given a free mojito, most people caked in black dust gulp it down and make for the showers.
These are the days that make travel worth it.
Posted on November 7, 2013
One of the tidbits of knowledge that Ceasar (Alex’s cousin) passed onto us, well mostly for me, was that the country between Tuxtepec and Villahermosa could be considered the Land of Pineapple’s. Through Alex’s translation for me, he said something akin to “pineapples as far as the eyes can see” with a motion of the arms encompassing a wide circle.
Once we had chosen the northern road out of Oaxaca, it was predetermined for us that we would pass through the land of piñas (where you could get a bottle of fresh squeezed juice for a $1.00). Getting a later start than normal to the morning, we headed out of Tuxtepec, at fifteen miles an hour.Tuxtepec is not the center of the universe in Mexico, and once you get on the back country roads and highways of Mexico, they run right through towns, literally. The way that they ensure the safety of the people in those towns is to construct topes (speed bumps) of varying sizes and inclines. Alex hit one of these going out of Oaxaca hard enough to make her think that she might throw-up. Anyway, going along to Villahermosa was filled with tope after tope, which makes for tiring driving as you never really get up to cruising speed for long (plus if you don’t see the tope, it can make for a jarring experience).
After stopping for some breakfast/lunch, Alex had me lead for a while and gave me instructions to stop at a pineapple stand that looked good. We got about fifty miles down the road, and I started sweating thinking I had missed the last one, when all of the sudden, like an oasis in the desert, a stand appeared in the distance with more pineapples than you can fathom.
Women stood in the road selling bottles of sweet, golden nectar while an older husband and wife stood in a shack on the side of the road crushing pineapples. I knew this was the place, the land of the piñas, and we pulled over, took our jackets off and picked up a bottle of fresh pineapple juice for a mere $15 pesos.
Imagine being able to stick a straw into a pineapple and drink the juice straight out of it. That is what it tasted like. Alex commented:
“You may never have pineapple juice this fresh ever again.”
It made the moment even more poignant. Sitting in the shade, the sun high in the sky and burning, the juice was as sweet and tangy as I had hoped, and it fueled us better then any Gatoraid could have (I am sure it had more sugar then two cokes together, but it was delicious).
With our thirst quenched, we continued on toward our goal of Villahermosa. About fours hours into the riding of the day, the tope spotted landscape gave way to toll roads of US quality freeway status and we started to gain some distance.
We stopped for gas about an hour out of Villahermosa, and as we started to exit the Pemex (which I think are the only real gas stations in Mexico) I saw the sheen of water on the freeway. Not thinking too much of it, we both continued over it, and that is when I grasped our mistake. Alex made it across but as soon as my front tire hit the liquid, I began to skid and to my horror realized that the substance was oil.
As in all life situations where you brush against true adrenaline producing moments, time slowed down and I remember thinking clearly that I wasn’t going to be able to keep the bike up, that I was going down. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, and then I was up again, my muscles moved faster then I could think, and I was trying to lift my bike up, slipping in oil that covered a wide expanse of pavement.
It was a river.
Luckily for me a guy came running up and offered a hand to get the bike up (Alex was able to stay upright, but couldn’t park her bike in the mess) and helped me get it over to the side of the road ahead of Alex. I thanked him as he ran off, maybe he was a guardian angel because he was gone even as quickly as he had shown up, and I assessed the damage. Other then some new scrapes to the panniers and my handle bar protecters, the bike was no worse for the wear.
Even a couple days removed, my heart still starts pumping when I think about this, but thankfully we were both going slow, and there hasn’t been any lasting damage to the bike (it fired right up once we got the situation under control). Furthermore, there was no bodily damage, I was completely protected by my equipment, I wasn’t trapped under the bike (thanks to the panniers), and the riding gear has paid off in my opinion. I now know what riding in oil is like, and I avoid substances on the road, even if they look like water just to be safe.We barely made it to Villahermosa in the last lingerings of the day, and with heavy traffic leading into the city, pulled off at the first decent looking roadside motel for the night. If it wasn’t for the piña juice I might not have made it.
The next day was more riding, heading north, I distinctly remember getting the smell of salt in my nostrils and knowing that the ocean was near. I grew up in Santa Cruz, and while I may not have appreciated it then, the sea has a claiming effect on me that makes everything feel right with the world.
“How can things be bad if your by the ocean?”
We rode the whole day, along coasts lined with palm trees and fisherman. The final rays of the sun were fading over the water as we rode into Campache. It is the capital of the state and you can feel the forced jubilance it emulates for tourists in its historic district. For us it was just a hotel room, a warm shower, and a place to hang our helmets for the night. I am sure it is an amazing town, but we wont know on this trip.
Our days in Mexico are numbered, tonight we are sleeping in Merida and we plan Chichen-itza and a cenote (sinkhole) in the coming days, more adventures to come.