A long time coming...

0 degrees fahrenheit. No heat, no lights, solid block of drinking water, exploded beer, frozen ketchup and it's only 8pm. After all that, we still had each other and we still had our determination to realize our vision. Despite the circulating perceptions that this maniacal way of life would inevitably lead to a divorce, we are pleased to say that you were wrong! We are as happy as ever and every frozen bone was well worth it! After 4 years of living together in our 21ft RV, we managed to pay off our debts, Kirsten complete graduate school, Seth become a certified arborist, both work multiple jobs and manage to save up enough money to travel. So here we go. We hope that you can come along for the ride.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cusco to La Paz

After 4 days of Cusco, we´d had enough. Tangled amongst the masses of tourists, constantly targets for the sale of this or that, we ready to leave. Not even the sheets of rain falling early in the morning could keep us off our bikes. After another painfully long (and expensive) visit to the post office, we were headed out of town, our least favorite and most dangerous part of cycling in Peru. Dodging buses, kombis and moto-taxis in dry weather is a feat by itself...add thick fog and a steady rain and we were soon drenched and covered head to toe with slimy mud. We pedaled on though and soon found ourselves cruising smoothly away from town back into our favored rural country. We had one final climb before the much heralded altiplano of eastern Peru, where the mammoth climbs become a thing of the past. Paso La Raya was a long, slow slog, the grade just flat enough to convince our brains we weren´t climbing, but steep enough that our legs knew for sure we were. After what seemed like forever, we finally crested our 10th and final climb over 4000 meters in Peru. The downhill we always anticipate with such long climbs was painfully absent and we were instead faced with an endless ribbon of flatness laid out before us, the 3800+ meter altiplano. Few hills, good wind (sometimes with us, sometimes against us) and steady progress meant we would likely make our goal of Puno before the 2:00 Friday closing of the Bolivian Consulate, our chance to get our visa cheaper and without the hassle typical of South American border crossings. We pushed on clicking off 100+km the first two days, passing small friendly villages and many local cyclists traveling to and from their fields, pick axes and shovels slung over their shoulders. Often they were cute little old ladies in their wide, thick skirts peddling feverishly on their one speed cruisers, offering friendly well wishes as we casually came up alongside them, us wondering why we needed 27 gears when someone older than my grandmother (no offense Grandma!) only needs one.

Day 3 was our toughest push and as we searched for our ideal campsite outside the town-on-steroids pueblo of Juliaca, we came up empty. With 135km behind us and a stiff headwind grinding our already aching thighs to the bone, we opted to push the final 10km into town and find a comfy bed for the night. What chaos we rode into. Juliaca turned into one of the most frenzied and frightening city experiences we´ve yet known. Mototaxis, cyclotaxis and all manners of motorized traffic josteled and jived for their spot on the road, leaving the weary cycle tourist lost somewhere in the middle. With no map and dwindling daylight we fought our way to the center of town and after several attempts, finally found an acceptable room for the night.

We were off at the crack of dawn, determined to beat the traffic and make the final 40km into Puno in time for a fat breakfast. As it turned out, this stretch would prove to be one of the most frightening rides yet in South America. The road was without a shoulder, poorly paved and littered with bus and kombi traffic, all intent on breaking the land speed record for most overloaded vehicle. As they passed us, while passing eachother, we were constantly being pushed off the road, mere inches from the speeding hulks as they exerted their dominance, usually waiting until the split second before they passed us to announce their presence (duh...) with a deafening 10 second blast of their horn.
Puno, on the banks of the famed Lake Titicaca, proved to be a much more laidback town. We immediately sought out the Bolivian Consulate, no easy task in a town with no street signs! We found the non discript doorway though and as we stashed our bikes and prepared the small mountain of paperwork required to receive the visa, we were approached by a friendly American woman leaving the consulate who kindly informed us that they had no stickers available and that our mad dash of a ride from Cusco had been for nothing. Go figure. We settled in for a day and a half off and soon hooked up with Japhy, who we hadn´t seen since Huancayo and his friend Natalie. At our hostel the next day, Japhy introduced us to Ted, another cyclist they had met while wandering through town. What a character! Ted is from the Netherlands and is on his third tour through South America. Ted is also 70 and has logged over 300,000km worldwide since his 45th birthday! We were inspired and entertained by the many crazy tales he had to offer from his bike travels throughout the world, our hotel owner seemingly less than entertained as we all laughed hysterically as Ted acted out his adventures on the floor of the hotel lobby.

We left Puno at the crack of dawn again, facing the same madness of buses and overloaded kombis we enjoyed on the way into town. At least it was flat. As we cycled into the afternoon a car passed with curious license plates...those look familiar, I thought. A few minutes later another...Colorado!! Despite my waves and shouts and obvious enthusiasm, they kept on trucking. Though we missed the chance to chat with our fellow statespeople, we were filled with a momentary twinge of homesickness and an overwhelming longing for a Rio margarita that always comes with thoughts of home these days.

We made the border early the next day. We had opted for the more direct, flatter and decidely sketchier border crossing at Desaquadero. We were quickly stamped out of Peru, but the fun was just beginning. We crossed the bridge into Bolivia and entered immigration, expecting, and finding, the usual fat and shady looking men who held our entrance fate in their chubby little hands. As we began filling out the mountain of paperwork and handing over the equally mountainous stack of $20 US bills (touché, they make Americans jump through the same hoops we make them jump through upon entering the US) I overheard one of the other immigration officials announcing to someone on his phone that 2 Americans on bicycles would be passing through to La Paz. Likely not informing the welcome squad of our arrival, our senses were immediately hightened. After 45 minutes or so of entertaining the fat mans demands, we were finally stamped into Bolivia, no less than 5 times each, and allowed to proceed.

With just the miles to La Paz under our belt, Bolivia looks pretty much the same. The people are slightly more reserved, but we have mostly received an abundance of the smiles and waves we grew accustomed to in Peru. A short climb up Paso Lloco Lloco, our first Bolivian 4000 meter crossing, was our only challenge until we reached the outskirts of La Paz, a 20+km maze of sprawl and suburb. La Paz proper is at the bottom of a massive hill, from the top of which you can grasp exactly how big the city is. It is laid out before you in an almost incomprehensible mass of brick and concrete that seems to stretch on as far as you can see. As we bumped and ground down the poorly paved road amid a sea of cars screaming passed us, all we could think of was having to climb back out. It was nearly enough to stop us in our tracks. We pushed on though and found ourselves in the middle of absolute madness. With heavy bikes on steep cobblestone streets packed curb to curb with buses, we were fighting for survival, mere minnows in a sea of behmouth whales and man eating sharks. After what seemed like hours, we finally found a place to stay and settled down for some much needed rest.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Huancayo to Cusco

As we continued our descent or ascent (depending on the face of the mountains) towards Cusco and ultimately our departure from Peru, each stretch of road seemed intent on defining itself as our biggest challenge yet. The peaks seemed to get grander, the climbs longer and the roads rougher. Our ride to Ayacucho was no exception. As we headed out of the bustling city of Huancayo on a dreary, drizzling morning, we were flagged down by Epiphanio, a middle-aged Peruano. He invited us into his house, which was a humble, mud-brick walled adobe with a dirt floor and inadequate roofing. They (huge family and neighbors) offered larger than hoped bowls of Mondongo soup, which contained various internal organs of some unknown mammal. We were too afraid to find out what it was and casually stuck to the corn kernels and broth that accompanied the mystery organs. We shared stories and laughed off their only half-joking request to take their young 2-yr old daughter back to the states with us before hitting the road.

Quickly after, we met Michel and Lise, a Quebecois couple that have been traversing the continent for more than a year now. Onward and upward the climbing began and continued for 30 kilometers or so before we reached the top of the pass, where a sweet, long rolling downhill began. We could see the ribbons of the road laid out before us, the real life map of the exhilerating descent that awaited us. The road soon joined Rio Cachi, meandering by with its starkly, un-Peru like emerald grace.

A bit later (next day) we had finally cracked pass number three and began what we hoped would be another unforgettable cruise. Just past the top, we came across another pueblito, this the most colorful, decorated and artistic town we have yet encountered. Every house was electrified in oranges, greens, yellows or reds with a diverse array of marvelous murals depicting the life of the indigenous highland Peruanos. As we sat on the edge of town, admiring it as a whole on the mountainside, an entire school house of children screamed a rambunctious hello in unison from below, with outstretched arms in big waves.

On our last climb before the grungy city of Huancavelica, we were hit with an intense storm that shook the sky in vibrant pounds of thunder. At the mercy of the weather and in a painfully vulnerable spot as the lightning was electrifying the sky, we continued on under rain and hail until we reached the crest of the peak. We quickly bundled up in hats, mittens and layered shirts for the picturesque descent into the valley. Cold and wet, we opted for a hotel and hot shower before heading out the next morning for Chonta Pass.
As soon as we left Huancavelica, the road turned to dirt and was rough in parts, but the climb was gradual and we made decent progress. We quickly found ourselves isolated and surrounded by a dizzying landscape of huge craggy peaks in a myriad of colors. Large herds of alpacas and llamas appeared at every turn as we entered the high Andean breeding grounds. It seemed they out-numbered everything else in the landscape, creating a virtual forest of furry nomads as far as we could see. The road continued steadily upward and by mid-day we were riding at 14,000 ft, without feeling the effects. As another storm brewed, we found a magnificent camp among our fuzzy friends and rested peacefully over 15,000 feet.The following morning we began with the switchbacks that led us to 4853 meters, about 16,000 feet. We quickly took pictures, bundled up and spit out the coca leaves we had been munching on throughout the climb. The descent took an entire day, skipping our tires over protruding rocks and avoiding stubborn potholes. Our arrival on pavement was well-appreciated as we continued our final 140 kilometers to the city of Ayacucho. It turned out to be a very pleasant city, which we explored for two days, as we gave our legs a rest and our bellies a filling.

The following stretch was the most highly anticipated and approached with an unnerving curiosity, the road (if you can call it that) from Ayacucho to Abancay. We had heard stories galore about this stretch, its difficulties and tribulations. The road was dirt/rock for the 400 km and passed over 4 large mountian passes. Many cyclists bypass this section, opting for the 18 hour bus ride instead. Seeing as that sounded about as miserable as hell, we decided to hit tire to road and at least give it a go. We rode steady for 2 days, riding about 65, hard kilometers per day over extremely rocky, bone-crushing roads. It was indeed a test of our patience and endurance. It would take us multiple days to put it in the bag, days which we didn´t have the luxury of enjoying. Although we could have continued on, we were on a strict time schedule and flagged a bus for the remaining passes to get us quickly to Cusco.

Arriving in Cusco was like landing in another century or country for that matter. Gringos nearly out-number the native Peruanos and we stand out like a dollar sign was flashing on our foreheads. We quickly made plans to get to Machu Picchu as quickly and painlessly as possible. Opting for the less expensive route (although there are very few inexpensive ways to get there unless you want to forge documents and walk the railroad tracks for dozens of miles) we took a bus for 3.50 soles, just over $1 to the town of Urubamba, switched to a combi (minivan) for 30 cents to the town of Ollaytantambo to catch to the train with the hyper-inflated rates. The train, which is called PeruRail is actually owned by a Chilean company and conveniently for them is the only way to get to MP short of walking. We grudgingly dealt with the sky-high prices in Aguas Calientes, the town below MP, for a day and a half. We found a decently priced hotel and left it about 3:50 am for the hike to the ruins. We hiked up the hundreds of stairs in darkness, lit by our headlamp as birds were slowly awaking to the day and the mist and sweat fogged up our glasses on the 1 hour-15 minute climb. Amazingly, we were the first to arrive, just as the rain was beginning to fall. We found shelter, ate a little breakfast and felt relieved that we didn´t look like the remaining hikers that were arriving soaked to the bone. We were able to experience a little bit of solitude as we were the first to enter the ruins in the mysterious fog, before the hordes of foot traffic arrived in the following hours. We hiked up Wayna Picchu the overlooking mountain and caught a few brief glimpses of the ruins below as the fog would come and go (mostly come). We were hiking down by 10:30 as hundreds were still filing uphill to get their peek. We have arrived back in Cusco and will head south to Puno and cross the Bolivian border within the week. We are on the fast track schedule to arrive in Santiago, Chile by the last week of January.