Big Pictures Salar de Uyuni

We visited the world’s largest salt flat – Salar de Uyuni a few days ago before making a big push toward the Argentinian border.

A Brazilian girl dances for her boyfriend's camera on the Salar de Uyuni. Tourists usually bring props to play with the strange perspective the salt flat creates but this was positively ethereal. Photo: Alex Washburn

A Brazilian girl dances for her boyfriend’s camera on the Salar de Uyuni. Tourists usually bring props to play with the strange perspective the salt flat creates so I found this especially ethereal. Photo: Alex Washburn

Driving through the Salar de Uyuni is a strange experience. White hard packed salt stretches for miles in every direction and the local guides navigate across the expanse of nothingness using the surrounding mountains as navigational markers. Once we got out onto the salt flat we were glad we hadn't driven out there alone. Photo: Alex Washburn

Driving through the Salar de Uyuni is a strange experience. White hard packed salt stretches for miles in every direction and the local guides navigate across the expanse of nothingness using the surrounding mountains as navigational markers. Once we got out onto the salt flat we were glad we hadn’t driven out there alone. Photo: Alex Washburn

 Nathaniel decided before we had made it out onto the Salar de Uyuni that he wanted a photo for instagram of himself standing out in the middle of the salt flat 'sin ropa'. The other people in our SUV thought this was hysterical. Nathaniel was the only person in our car of 8 who did not speak Spanish so this was his bonding moment with the others. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel decided before we had made it out onto the Salar de Uyuni that he wanted a photo for instagram of himself standing out in the middle of the salt flat ‘sin ropa’. The other people in our SUV thought this was hysterical. Nathaniel was the only person in our car of 8 who did not speak Spanish so this was his bonding moment with the others. Photo: Alex Washburn

There are two 'islands' on the Salar de Uyuni. We paid our 30 Bolivianos to walk around the Isla Incahuasi and it made a strange contrast to the smooth expanse of white surrounding it. Photo: Alex Washburn

There are two ‘islands’ on the Salar de Uyuni. We paid our 30 Bolivianos to walk around the Isla Incahuasi and the desert flora made a strange contrast to the smooth expanse of white surrounding it. Photo: Alex Washburn

If you visit the Salar de Uyuni I would suggest bringing a flag to add to the collection near the buildings where most of the tours stop for lunch. The fluttering colors are gorgeous against the the duo-chromatic surroundings.  Photo: Alex Washburn

If you visit the Salar de Uyuni I would suggest bringing a flag to add to the collection near the buildings where most of the tours stop for lunch. The fluttering colors are gorgeous against the the duo-chromatic surroundings. Photo: Alex Washburn

After touring the Salar de Uyuni we were ready to pack up and head south once again. The ride directly between Uyuni and Tupiza Bolivia is 125 miles of intense sand, gravel and not much else. Around mile 60 I (Alex) fell over in the sand and realized while inspecting the bike that a sub frame bolt had rattled loose. We had to stay an extra night in Tupiza to go over the bikes and prepare them to cross to Argentina. Photo: Alex Washburn

After touring the Salar de Uyuni we were ready to pack up and head south once again. Here is a photo from the road between Uyuni and Tupiza which will be covered in depth in the next blog. Photo: Alex Washburn

The Bolivian Death Road

The view from the top of the Bolivian Death Road. Photo: Alex Washburn

The view from the top of the Bolivian Death Road. Photo: Alex Washburn

The Bolivian Death Road lives large in the minds of ADV riders. It was crowned the world’s deadliest road in 1995 and the nearly two decades since hasn’t tamed the curvy unpaved beast.

When we first left the United States, riding the Bolivian Death Road aka Camino de la Muerte aka North Yungas Road wasn’t on our itinerary, but somewhere along the way Nathaniel decided he wanted to do it. Somewhere along the way he got sucked into the macho idea of riding the death road and the fact that all the other boys are doing it.

I agreed to go, with some reservations, although I wouldn’t say I was afraid. However, I probably wouldn’t have gone out of my way to do it if I was on my own.

Our couple photo on the Bolivian Death road. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our couple photo on the Bolivian Death road. Photo: Alex Washburn

We woke up early in La Paz and pulled on our riding suits before heading out into the crisp morning. The start of the death road is approximately an hour ride outside of the Bolivian capital and a giant yellow sign greets you on an uneven gravel turn out just off highway three.

We parked our bikes and then walked over to a bench-sign combo that gives a brief history of Bolivia’s most infamous 60km stretch of gravel. I learned standing there that the road was constructed by prisoner’s of war, it is often foggy along the route, and that ever since it earned the title of the world’s deadliest road it has been a huge tourist attraction (especially for mountain bikers).

The sign also spells out the rules of driving the death road. Because of its form you must keep to the left hand side of the road and vehicles moving up the hill have the right of way. Accidents usually happen when two cars meet at a narrow point and the uphill vehicle must back up- tires can easily slip over the edge of the cliff.

(According to wikipedia several hundred people die on the road every year, but I think those numbers are grossly inflated.)

We couldn’t see very far down the path because of the fog drifting around and after taking the obligatory photos of the sign and the entry point we hopped back on the bikes and headed off into the mist.

A cross marks where people have died on the Bolivian Death Road near a series of small waterfalls. Photo: Alex Washburn

A cross marks where people have died on the Bolivian Death Road near a series of small waterfalls. Photo: Alex Washburn

Since we were heading downhill we were required to ride on the outer edge of the road. There are some guardrails (which we didn’t expect) that for some reason are never in the truly scary parts.

Most of the death road was not technically difficult riding, but the idea that around any blind turn could be a truck keeps you on your toes. Thankfully, we only met one vehicle going the opposite direction and it was on a portion of road where I could safely stop and let him pass.

For us, the most memorable part of the road was the portion where you ride on very uneven wet rocks beneath several small waterfalls (getting wet) and pass a solemn grey cross marking where people have died. The section is roughly 300m long and it is a narrow piece of work with a sheer mossy rock wall on one side and a lush green cliff dropping off the other into only god knows where.

The camino de la muerte was not nearly as tough as I thought it would be and if I had to make a list of the top 5 rides of the trip so far it would be on it.

Check it out:

Machu Picchu

The morning came early the day we left for Machu Picchu, the first alarm rang at 4:00am, with one following at 4:15. Alex wanted to straighten her hair (a rarity on this trip, and I applaud her for even trying, you all see how my hair is done every day, short) and I was off to the motorcycles to get the straightener, my mono-pod for the GoPro, and the audio recorder in case there was any good sound along the way.

It is mentioned in the video, but because it is the rainy season in Peru (I swear it is the rainy season in each country we go to no matter what) they don’t run the train from Cusco to Machu Picchu for fear of the tracks getting blocked. With that said, you have to take a bus from Cusco to Pachar and then catch the train from there.

Our day went taxi-bus-train-bus-bus-train-bus-taxi, though it isn’t that hard compared to hiking the Inca Trail. For note, the Inca Trail is closed during the month of February so that it can be cleaned of trash and maintained. Anyone who read our other blog on Northern Peru, knows about the trash problem in this country. Research will return all sorts of results saying that Machu Picchu is closed during February, but this is not true, as clearly we made it there and back just fine.

Seeing as I had sprained my ankle a couple of days before, it is probably a good thing that we couldn’t do the Inca Trail. By the time we got to Machu Picchu it was about 10:30 in the morning, which gave us the better part of the day to explore the site.

The famous view. Photo: Alex Washburn

The famous view. Photo: Alex Washburn

It is currently low season for tourism in Peru (again because it is the rainy season) so we were both pleased at the amount of people in the park. Though in 2011 they restricted the amount of people that are allowed in the site to 2,500 people per day. Also for note, if you want to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu (the famous mountain to the north west) there is a limit to 400 people per day, and we were told by one of the docents in the park that there is usually a two week waiting list. Due to the massive nature of the complex, even with the amount of tourists allowed in, you never really get a sense of it being overcrowded, which helps add to the experience.

One of the best parts of visiting Machu Pichu was getting to pet this baby llama. Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the best parts of visiting Machu Pichu was getting to pet this baby llama. Photo: Alex Washburn

We hiked around the park, took pictures, and did the whole tourist thing for the better part of the day. Machu Picchu is at 7,972 ft, which is well below Cusco at 11,200 ft. With that said, if you have spent some time getting acclimatized to the altitude in Cusco, then you shouldn’t have any issues with hiking at the lower elevation of Machu Picchu. Though it is quite a hike from the bottom to the ‘Guardhouse’, where you can take the quintessential postcard photo so you might be out of breath.

Personally I would have liked to have had two days at Machu Picchu. Alex and I get caught up in documenting the experience that for me it sometimes gets in the way of just being in the moment. It would have been nice to go the first day and do the whole picture taking thing and then know you had another day to just soak it all in. Even with only having one day, there was a moment where it began to rain and we were forced to just sit and wait under one of the huts. It let me stop, recenter, and enjoy just being in this magnificent place.

I think I have written enough, and will let you pictures and video do the rest of the talking. It was worth the expense, and as far as expectations go, it doesn’t disappoint.

Cusco Cuzco Qosqo

Cusco as viewed from Christo Blanco. Photo: Alex Washburn

Cusco as viewed from Christo Blanco. Photo: Alex Washburn

I actually finished this blog, looked at it and realized the only people who would want to read it would be our parents. So, I deleted 1,500 words and am going to try again.

Cusco handed it to us the first day we were here – it was one of those days where the travel beats you into the ground and you have to decide wether to fight back or just give up and cry.

The first thing I noticed as we caught our initial glimpse of Cusco (not unlike the image above) was that it was much smaller than Lima. Lima traffic has a mind of it’s own and it wants to kill you. Looking down on the terra cotta colored roofs sprinkled with plazas and green spaces I breathed a sigh of relief that it wouldn’t be a similar situation as I had a beast of a headache.

Altitude sickness, in all its various fun forms, usually takes a few hours to kick in. The time gap between arriving to a certain altitude and feeling like shit can vary, but we’d been riding at high elevations all day and symptoms of altitude sickness usually don’t occur until after four hours after rising above 2,500 meters. Cusco city sits at 3,400 meters (11,200 feet).

By the time I sat down to ask the staff of our first choice hostel about parking availability I was in so much pain I could barely speak Spanish. I was to find out after several minutes of discussion that the hostel was too expensive AND wouldn’t let us park in their entryway (this was the first time of the trip we’ve been denied this).

I consider the hostel being un-cooperative our first incident in Cusco. Nathaniel couldn’t find street parking (the streets are narrow, cobblestone that still try to accommodate buses) as I talked to the hostel and had to loop around the block again. The second incident happened as Nathaniel went to back into a parking spot and a Taxi quickly half pulled in behind him and tried to make him give up the spot.

I walked up to the guys window and told him he was parking. The taxi driver told me Nathaniel should park down the street and I told him No, he was not going to loop around in that traffic. We went back and forth and our voices got loud, as I was hysterically running all the grammar errors I was making through my head. My Spanish starts to break down when I am tired, emotional or otherwise distracted and this was a perfect example of that.

He got out of the cab and tried to plead with Nathaniel directly and I gleefully informed him Nathaniel did NOT speak Spanish and he was going to finish parking. As the guy got back into his car I stepped into the street so that he couldn’t pull the cab forward. I was on the verge of loosing my temper, I could barely see straight and I decided if he wanted the parking spot he’d have to hit me.

It was an intense few minutes and the taxi was livid as Nathaniel finished parking and we went inside another hotel to ask about parking (he still had enough room to parallel park and did as we were inside).

The guy at the front desk was really nice although they didn’t have anywhere we could put the bikes. He gave us a city map and he pointed out a few places that might be able to help us, and off we went again into the cobblestone streets at a snails pace through the slow (though non-murderous) traffic.

We spent another 30 minutes winding around the city looking for hotels with parking and we were coming up totally empty handed (we are never above leaving the bikes on the street, but even that wasn’t an option in these narrow lanes). I was also getting more and more nervous because riding a motorcycle on cobblestone is the WORST. I take turns at a crawl because I’m afraid of hitting a big rock in the middle of a turn and falling over.

We started down yet another one way narrow cobblestoned street that feeds directly into Cusco’s Plaza De Armas. As I straightened up after the turn I noticed a strange drainage space in the road and I kept to the left of it. It would not be fun to get out of on a motorcycle I thought to myself as I slowly turned right into Plaza De Armas.

I heard an engine rev somewhere, however I didn’t think it was Nathaniel or incident number 3. As I rolled through the Plaza he didn’t appear behind me so I pulled over and stopped… waiting…

We went back to examine the scene of the accident a few days later. Photo: Alex Washburn

We went back to examine the scene of the accident a few days later. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel: I didn’t notice that there was a large storm drain in the middle of the road, and all of the sudden panic gripped me as I was smack dab in the center of the drain, riding down the street. With cars behind me, I looked to see the drain end, not in a ramp up, but in a gutter, that I couldn’t make out how much of a gap there was between street and grate.

Thinking my only option was the pop up out of the drain, I rev’d my engine and got my first tire up over the lip, but as soon as my back tire hit the cobblestone it started to slip, and I lost control.

Over I went, with my leg getting trapped under the side of my pannier. I tried to move my leg and it was pinned, and I had no leverage with the bike on top on me. But as our adventure has shown me, people will come in a time of need and before I knew it the bike was being lifted enough so I could swing my leg out.

I helped the strangers get the bike back on two wheels, and gingerly put weight on my swelling ankle. The car behind me started honking, and one of the women that had come to my aid yelled at them in Spanish, what I can assume were curse words at them being impatient with the current situation.

Alex and I have revisited the street, and hind sight being 20/20, my motorcycle novice showed in my split second judgement to hop the curb. At the end of the street I could have slowed and eased the wheel over the grating with no issue.

All being said, I walked away with a sprained ankle that healed in a couple of days. Chalk this one up to the learning curve of riding, where experience simply adds to your knowledge.

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Once Nathaniel appeared and I got a brief recap, we got directions from a cop, and took our first right out of the Plaza and parked a few blocks away when we saw a collection of hotels and hostels. Nathaniel slowly eased off his bike and tested his left leg. It would hold his weight and he could walk on it, but it was obvious our plan of hiking Machu Pichu the next day was not going to happen.

Coca tea besides being tasty can help with altitude sickness. Almost every corner store will sell it and almost every hotel will give it out free. Photo: Alex Washburn

Coca tea besides being tasty can help with altitude sickness. Almost every corner store will sell it and almost every hotel will give it out free. Photo: Alex Washburn

After checking with the hotels on that block (none of them had the right combination of price and parking) we went to a internet cafe to try and look up a suitable place and it had the slowest connection speed I’ve seen in at least 10 years. It was awful and we gave up.

My head was killing me by now, and with Nathaniel’s foot, we really needed to find a hotel. I left Nathaniel on the street with his bike and scouted a few more hotels alone before finding Hotel Cahuide. It looked a little old fashioned, but it had parking, wifi and hot water. I told the woman at the desk I would be right back and I went to get Nathaniel.

After we arrived Nathaniel had to limp up several sets of stairs before collapsing onto his bed so we could take stock of his leg situation. It was swollen, with lots of good bruises to come in the next couple of days, but nothing was broken. Now that we had secured a place to sleep, I could deal with my headache.

I messaged Ariel Zambelich to ask her if she had the same problem in Cusco, she recently came to Peru for a Wired assignment and I figured she could give me some advice.

Ariel told we about the magic of coca tea and candy! I immediately crawled out of bed, put on my shoes and stumbled across the street to find them. Altitude sickness feels like the worst hangover you’ve ever had and not everyone gets it. The mild symptoms can include: lethargy, lack of coordination, insomnia, appetite loss, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and HEADACHES.

More things to help you with the altitude: Coca tea bags and candy. Photo: Alex Washburn

More things to help you with the altitude: Coca tea bags and candy. Photo: Alex Washburn

I spent the next hour eating an entire bag of candy and washing it down with 3-4 cups of tea. Lying in bed my brain felt like it was expanding every-time I inhaled and pain would shoot across my forehead. At least with a hangover you have yourself to blame but here I felt like a victim. It was dark outside and cold, the last thing I wanted to do was stumble off into a new city at night almost incapacitated with pain looking for a pharmacy or health clinic.

I laid their feeling myself breathe praying for sleep or death to take me and I finally gave up. I laced up my shoes and slowly pulled on my motorcycle jacket as I tearfully told Nathaniel I had to go get medicine and I left.

If you have a medical problem of some kind in Cusco I recommend going to Clinica Peruano Suiza (a 5 soles cab ride from el centro). The front desk staff of my hotel called ahead so that someone was waiting for me at the door when I showed up to the typically sterile building. I felt like I was moving underwater as I explained to the front desk why I was there. They soon had me in front of a doctor who told me my blood oxygen levels were fine but she prescribed me some amazing pain killers.

Within an hour of taking the pain meds I was picking up a pizza and hailing a cab back to our hotel.

The next day I explored Cusco on my own as Nathaniel camped out at the hotel. By the second full day in Cusco his leg was feeling well enough to walk around a little and do a bus sightseeing tour of Cusco (20 soles). When his leg was feeling A LOT better our third full day in Cusco we booked our tickets to Machu Pichu which we ended up doing yesterday.

I needed to catch you all up on where we are at but expect a Machu Michu blog soon – with video!

Happy 10,000 miles AutopistaEnd

The Peruvian coastal desert is a formidable beast. After almost a week it had beat us into a lethargic submission. This photo was taken just outside of Nasca. Photo: Alex Washburn

The Peruvian coastal desert is a formidable beast. After almost a week it had beat us into a lethargic submission. This photo was taken just outside of Nasca. Photo: Alex Washburn

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.

Here is an aerial view of the observation tower we stopped at on the way into Nasca. The tree (left) and hands (right) are clearly visible - check out the semi truck on the highway for scale! Photo: Alex Washburn

Here is an aerial view of the observation tower we stopped at on the way into Nasca. The tree (left) and hands (right) are clearly visible – check out the semi truck on the highway for scale! Photo: Alex Washburn

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 saw wild flamingos in this lake on the way to Cusco so we stopped to check it out. Sadly, they floated away from us when I started walking towards the water but it was beautiful nonetheless. Photo: Alex Washburn

I saw wild flamingos in this lake on the way to Cusco so we stopped to check it out. Sadly, they floated away from us when I started walking towards the water but it was beautiful nonetheless. Photo: Alex Washburn

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)