Posted on March 13, 2014
We visited the world’s largest salt flat – Salar de Uyuni a few days ago before making a big push toward the Argentinian border.
Posted on March 9, 2014
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.
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.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:
Posted on March 2, 2014
The day after Machu Picchu we leisurely packed our bags and had breakfast before asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel to please open the garage so we could be on our way. She said something to me that I didn’t quite understand, but I was so focused on hitting the road that I didn’t bother to clarify it.
As we rolled out of the garage onto a nearly empty street and on to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas it quickly became apparent that something was going on. There were no cars in the plaza and a few groups of police in riot gear stood in the shade at various locations.
I found this interesting as I slowly puttered behind Nathaniel, however things only got stranger as we moved our way through town. Avendia del Sol, like Plaza de Armas had no vehicles moving on it aside from a few other random motorcyclists and there were a lot of people walking freely in the street. As Nathaniel drove past a large group of men walking in the same direction we were heading one of them threw a rock at him, although I am certain by how casually it was thrown it was not meant to hurt him.
At the end of Avenida Del Sol we pulled into a gas station next to a huge roundabout where people were gathering en mass. The gas station attendants told us that we would have to wait till the protestors in the street moved on before they would serve us – it was at that moment a large white truck driving way too fast whipped around the circle and was met with a volley of rocks from the protestors. It was then we realized how serious things could be getting and I asked the gas station attendants what was going on.
They informed me that it was the first day of a two day protest that stretched throughout the region, though mainly focused in Cusco. People were protesting a variety of things including inflated government salaries, gas prices and false promises made by President Ollanta Humala.
It was because of these various grievances that people had called for a strike of all motorized transport – to prevent the use of gasoline.
After a few minutes the gas station attendants motioned for Nathaniel and I to go to the pump furthest from the street so we could fill up. They told us that they didn’t think we would be able to leave the city and they seemed frightened by what was going on.
Wanting a second opinion we exited the station and approached a group of police officers to ask them what they thought. It was at this point that the photojournalist in me started having an all out fight with the Autopista End part of me – Photojournalist Alex loves photographing protests. I knew we really had to be getting out of Cusco, on the other hand the idea of skipping this protest was getting more and more painful by the moment.
The police officers, probably not wanting to alarm us tourists, told us we would have no problem getting out of the city, although it would be easier if we waited till the afternoon to do so. The idea of sitting around in our gear for hours and hours was really unappealing to us so we continued on our way down the main road out of town till we saw a wall of people blocking the way. We parked about 6 blocks away and watched as several other motorcyclists and cars approached the people and quickly turned around and gave up.
Nathaniel and I discussed our options and decided the best thing for us to do would be to go back to the hotel, stow away the bikes and hit the streets to document was going on. Latin American governments don’t have a great track record when it comes to human rights violations and protests so if anything illegal happened I would feel guilty not being present to document it.
In the time it took us to leave our hotel and then turn around to head back to it the protest had picked up steam. There was no confusion as to what was going on now that Avenida Del Sol was similarly blocked with a wall of people waiting to stop any motorists from heading into the city center.
We stopped a safe distance from the protestors puzzled about what to do. They certainly hadn’t blocked EVERY street that could lead us back to the hotel, however riding blindly on the steep cobblestone streets of Cusco was another unappealing option (remember what happened to Nathaniel’s ankle).
We hadn’t been stopped for a full minute before two men on a small motorcycle pulled up next to us. The guy on the back was filming with an old fashioned camcorder so I asked them if they were with the television news.
The driver of the motorcycle cheerfully answered that they were and I told him I was a photojournalist from the United States. He got an absolute kick out of that and asked where we were going. I told him we were trying to get back to our hotel and described to him where it was.
He thought a moment and said they were also trying to get back to Plaza De Armas and told us he would lead us back to our hotel. “Follow me!” – and he was off.
We wound around through some small neighborhoods around the city center full of kids enjoying the traffic free streets with spontaneous soccer and volleyball games and in about 10 minutes we were back to our hotel without having encountered another blockade.
I thanked the moto-journalists profusely and with a grin and wave they were off to continue their work. I was absolutely brimming with happiness being part of the journalism community at that moment- we have a strong sense of camaraderie that transcends borders.
The hotel staff smiled when I came back in the front door and I joked with them about what was going on outside. We were given the same hotel room we had spent nearly a week in and were soon walking towards Plaza De Armas (the focus of the protest) me carrying a 5D Mark II and Nathaniel with his Go-Pro and Canon G12.
I was right in my assumption that the protestors would ignore our presence as long as we were not violating the motor vehicle ban. Nathaniel and I both agreed that at no time did we feel like we were in danger. This video our motorcycles friends produced shows us riding through Cusco during the protest, check 38 seconds into the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbwUKMoiTik
Photographing the protest was really fun for me because I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot an event like that in a long time and it is one of my favorite things to photograph. I love covering protests because the energy is high, you have to be alert at all times and people are usually so involved in what they are doing photographers can be truly invisible as they do their work.
Even the most laid back of subjects tend to be a little self aware in front of a camera, but that is hardly ever an issue during events like this.
I spent the next several hours photographing the protest and seeing if they AP was in need of any photos of the protest. Spoiler: They didn’t need the photos, however the Photo Director for the region told me he liked my work and to feel free to contact them again if I came upon anything else I felt was newsworthy.
With that bit of encouragement Nathaniel and I set off to get something to eat and re-prepare to leave Cusco the next morning. We ended up spending twice as much time as we wanted to in Cusco and even though we knew the blockades would still be up the following day we decided to roll the dice and make it happen.
I feel the need to paraphrase the day we actually left Cusco because this blog is getting really long and I don’t want to bore everyone to death who is still reading.
As we prepared to pass the first blockade out of the city some older gentleman told us to tell the protestors we were tourists and they would let us through. As Americans we are particularly nervous about volunteering that information (with all our gear on it’s hard to tell we are foreign), although the advice turned out to be invaluable for the next 8 hours.
The first blockade began hurling rocks and other things at me as I approached so I turned on my turn signal well in advance, stopped about 15 feet from them and motioned for someone to come up and talk to me. A man in a brightly colored sweater raised his arms in an effort to calm people as he walked up to me. He asked me one question – Are you tourists? When I said yes he started yelling at the crowd to let us through and that we were tourists. People kept shouting at us from all directions, but they stopped throwing things and let us through.
After some advice from the police just past the barricade we attempted to take the smaller streets to get out of the city. We spent nearly three hours backtracking, winding through neighborhoods and crossing pedestrian walkways in the most absurd places trying to get past all the barricades. I personally did not want to deal with having things thrown at me a dozen or so times and explaining over and over that we were extranjeros and in no way apart of the problem.
Then it began to rain… a blessing and a curse. My gloves and riding pants are not fully water proof so as I started to get colder and wetter people began to thin out and we ventured back to the main road out of town.
When we finally escaped Cusco the highway (beautifully paved by the way) was full of rocks, broken glass, piles of cacti, barbed wire, trees, burning tires, bits of cars and everything else people could get their hands on to slow or stop the flow of traffic.
There were at least 5 places the highway was totally blocked and I had to ask the people manning the blockades for permission to pass through. Although one group of people asked for money as we passed (we said no) everyone was perfectly willing to let us through when we identified as being non-Peruvians.
At one blockade they were having a meeting and I fell over as I tried to ride my motorcycle over the pile of trees they had laid across the road. As soon as I hit the ground 4 or 5 men from the group were helping me pick the bike up and lifted it over the barricade they had built.
After that – they helped Nathaniel to roll his bike safely over the trees and one of them gave me a good old fashioned “you be careful out there young lady” talking before we continued onward. By 4:30 we had only gone 80 miles and I was shaking with the cold. We stopped at a hotel for the night, giving up on the day, however with some really great stories about that one time we escaped Cusco in the middle of a protest…
Posted on February 28, 2014
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.
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.
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.
Posted on February 25, 2014
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.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!