During a pow-wow last night, Lars gave us the option of riding the 200 km (130 miles) to Arequipa either off-road or via the paved Panamerican Highway. The former would take about 10 hours on very rough, high desert, dirt roads and the latter would be a nice morning ride on paved, twisty, mountain roads. Three riders chose the pavement and would be accompanied by Eduardo in the support vehicle, and four of us (plus Lars, our hard-riding guide) were going to have a challenging workout on our last riding day.

The dirt road followed the mountain contours from one valley to the next. Since the high desert landscape was devoid of vegetation, you could see the winding road criss-crossing along the mountain slopes, while making very slow progress “as the crow flies.” We lost count of the number of hairpin curves, as we had to pay very close attention to the loose dirt in the curves. There was lots of slipping and sliding, a couple of falls and even some “out of control” situations (in my case), and it was a miracle that nobody went over the edge. But what a ride – incredible!

Just before noon we stopped in the small town of Omate, famous for its fresh-water “shrimp” (more like crayfish, someone mentioned). It took the cook awhile to cook our lunch, but it was worth the wait. My chowder (see picture) was out of this world, and the price embarrassingly low.

We got to the pavement of our city of origin at 6 pm. When we arrived at the La Gruta Hotel, owned by our guide, Larse and his wife, we were met by one of the fellows who had come via the paved road. It turned out that one of the three fellows, Rodney from Minnesota, had apparently suffered cardiac preinfarction angina symptoms while having lunch upon their arrival in Arequipa. He was taken to a good private Clinic by ambulance and was in stable condition in the Intensive Care unit. Rod’s brother-in-law, Dennis, and Gary Glass, along with driver Eduardo, had things well in hand by the time we got to the hotel. If these fellows had taken the dirt road with the rest of us, things may have turned out very differently. In fact, the timing was really providential, as this could have been a disaster if it had occurred at any other time during the 11-day motorcycle tour.

We wish Rod well as he recovers and prepares to travel back to the US in a few days.

Well, that was a bit more adventure than anyone envisioned, but since Rod was stable and in good hands, we kept our plans for a nice farewell dinner, at which we all toasted to Rod’s health.

Tomorrow we fly north to Lima, where we will stay the night and fly back to the US the next day. It has been an unforgettable journey, with many incredible experiences jammed into 11 days of riding. Stand by for a summary evaluation and a few final pictures.

Buenas noches,
Rob (Cruisen)

We left Arica, on the Chile/Peru border, at 8:30 am, knowing that it was 7:30 on the Peruvian side, which should be early enough to cross the border and have an easy ride of about 200 km (130 miles) to Moquegua in Peru. Before riding out of town, our guide, Lars, was kind enough to take us by the colorful church of San Marcos of Arica, structurally built of steel by Gustav Eiffel of Eiffel-tower fame. He also built the customs house in Arica and another steel building in Tacna across the border in Peru, but we did not have time to see the latter two.

Having been at this border crossing several times in the past, I was amazed by the new, modern customs and immigration buildings on both sides of the border. Leaving Chile was easy and orderly, but entering Peru had its expected challenges. Peru has a custom of temporarily exporting and reimporting vehicles as they leave and re-enter the country. The specially hired customs agent, who was supposed to be at the Peruvian border waiting for us, was nowhere to be found. Miscommunication; lack of confirmation, etc.

Due to a lack of certain papers, we soon found ourselves, with motorcycles and support vehicle/trailer in a quarantine area, ominously surrounded by a high steel fence. After a couple of hours we were ordered to follow a pickup truck to the nearby city of Tacna, where the aforementioned vehicles were to be weighed and subsequently held at a customs warehouse. We were told that if we were lucky we would be out by 4 pm, and otherwise it would be the next day. The only thing that cheered the dejected bunch of riders a little, was the fact that we would have time to go into town for lunch. And we made the best of that. Everybody had a nice meal (causing us to remember the excellent culinary tradition in Peru) and for a couple of hours we forgot our precarious re-importation situation.

Finally, at 4 pm, someone had a bright idea, the right papers were produced, and we got a thumbs-up to be continue on to our destination for the night, Moquegua, which was a couple of hours driving (and it gets dark a little before 6 pm). Just north of Tacna there was another customs checkpoint and, you guessed it, we were missing some papers that were in the support vehicle, which was lagging behind. But after a half-hour that was also solved and we were finally on our way, not looking forward to driving at night, with oncoming vehicles that either use their bright lights all the time or who do not use their lights at all, to conserve battery power.

Just before getting to our destination, the mountainous road was blocked by a tanker semi-truck that had seemed to have slammed into the side of the mounted and overturned. We don’t know about the driver, but we do know that the transparent liquid was gushing out of the tank and that the fumes burnt our eyes and sinuses. Phosphoric acid, we were told. This liquid is used in the separation process in the nearby copper mines of Toquepala.

We looked for a way to get around the flowing liquid, at which we were only partially successful. The next day, some of us found holes in our motorcycle pants and boots from acid damage. Very nasty stuff!

We stayed the night at a pleasant hotel and slept with the windows open, as it was nice and warm at low altitude. We had some tasty pizza in an upstairs room at a local restaurant, which was quaintly decorated in 60s/70s hippy style, according to the informed among us.

Get a good night’s rest – last riding day tomorrow!

Rob (Cruisen)

We woke up to a cloudy and somewhat chilly Pacific coast. Breakfast at 8 am, and we we off before 9. On the way we picked up the repaired Honda 650, which had been giving a very good welding job during the night. After a few final adjustments and gassing up the bikes, we were off to a 300 km (180 miles) ride through the desert, with all 8 motorcycles in good riding order, after several had spent part of the trip, crippled, on the trailer.

We first saw the remnants of the overturned salt flats, as if huge plows had exposed the substrate to extract the saltpeter, after which we just saw desert sand and formations as far as the eye could see. At mid-morning we stopped at the only roadside stand in many miles for some pineapple pieces with “lucuma” (a jungle fruit) ice cream and a glass of “maracuya” (passion fruit) juice. We were getting back to the tropics.

Lunch was at the incredibly windy place of Cuya. We had been driving in a canyon, which was seemingly energized by very strong wind gusts from the Pacific Ocean. We were literally tossed to and fro on the Panamerican highway, staying out of the way of large trucks, etc.

The views of the Atacama desert from the coastal mountain range was spectacular, even though it was somewhat hazy and quite hot.

At mid afternoon we arrived at our destination for today, Arica, just a few miles from the border with Peru. Thus, tomorrow morning we may have another adventure as we try to cross our last border and head back to the place from where started, Arequipa. We have two more riding days to go – stand by for more adventures.

Rob (Cruisen)

We had a good night in our austere lodging facility and we awoke to very chilly conditions. The water bottles strapped on the bikes were frozen and several of the motorcycles had to be pushed or pulled to get them started. But after some breakfast of Nescafe and bread with pate, we were off by 8:30 am. The first stretch to the Chilean coast was 60 km (40 miles) of the most difficult terrain we had encountered up to that point. We followed the Chilean/Bolivian border north and the terrain was a “moon-scape” of volcanic rocks interspersed with treacherous layers of dust. There was almost no vegetation and you could see forever. Magnificent desolation. We saw no other traffic on that stretch.

The intermittent dust pits took their toll. At one point I just could not stay in the rut and I fell, softly, to the side, with my leg pinned under the motorcycle and when I tried to pull it out, I twisted my knee ligaments. Thom Day was right behind me, and rather than running over my head, he was nice enough to lay his bike down as well. That must have been tough for him, as he is a very good dirt rider. I believe there is only on person in our group who has not fallen yet, but fortunately, no-one has been seriously hurt and we have all gained a world of experience.

After the 60 km were behind us, we arrived at a large borax mine and a nearby copper mine. From that point on to the coast the Chilean government has had the foresight to pave the road, so that trucks with minerals and mining supplies can reach their destination without costly breakdowns. The road and the scenery were simply gorgeous. We dropped about 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) in a span of 100 miles (160 km) and made our acquaintance with the beautiful colors and shapes of the driest place on earth, the Atacama desert. Moreover, it very rapidly warmed up to at least 90 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees C). We hadn’t felt that kind of heat for quite some time. What a day filled with contrasts: from freezing to suffocating heat, from the high Andes to the Pacific coast, from rocky, sandy, roads filled with deep ruts, to beautifully paved roads.

We arrived at the north-south Panamerican highway and an Esso gas station when we were all riding on the last fumes of gasoline. We also took advantage of getting Chilean money out of an ATM machine, buy a hot dog and drink a nice refreshing drink in air conditioned comfort. We were now in Chile – a comparatively sophisticated country. Plus the fact that our family lived for several years in Chile during the late seventies-early eighties, the distinct Chilean accent was like music to my ears.

After filling the gas tanks we had 40 km (25 miles) to go to the Pacific coast and the city of Iquique. We had to cross over a desert coastal ranges and approached the city from the heights. What a sight! I had forgotten how large and sprawly this city is. This is also a tax-free zone and a hub of business for Chile.

We dropped off another of the Honda 650s at a motorcycle repair shop for some more frame welding and we were welcomed to our cozy hotel for the night. Supper was at an ornately decorated Moorish-style restaurant, complete with many large paintings of the life and antics of Don Quixote and his faithful servant, Sancho Panza. This building was the home of the Spanish Cultural Association during the saltpeter (sodium nitrate) mining boom at the beginning of the twentieth century. The British, Americans, Spanish, and others, mined the Atacama salt flats until the Germans invented synthetic saltpeter during the First World War.

Tomorrow we will be going north, to Arica, via the Panamerican Highway and have a good, long look at the Atacama Desert.

Rob (Cruisen)

After a breakfast of bread, scrambled eggs and coffee, we jumped on the bikes and headed for the salt flat. After riding over some rocky hills, we suddenly saw a great white expanse in front of us. Our guide, Lars, told us we could ride wherever we wanted in the direction of a certain mountain in the distance. We would first visit the Isla del Pescado (Fish Island) (also called Incahuasi – the house of the Inca). It didn´t look that far away across the white flat, but it was actually 40 km to the island (25 miles). The sensation was surreal, as there was no horizon, the salt flat blended with the sky, and there was no depth perception. We rode (seemingly) far apart, in fan form, but if you were riding on the right side of the group and made a slight left turn, you were suddenly driving on the left side of the group. What an incredible experience. We rode for a long time, just weaving from left to right and having fun. At one point I sneaked up behind Rob Todorovich, our Canadian friend, and I grabbed the back rack of his bike and applied my brakes. He looked at his motor, his front wheel and wondered what had happened to his bike, until he finally saw me hanging off the back of his bike. We had a laugh.

The Island was incredible. Some buildings, lots of high rocks, a walkway to the top, and tall asparagus-like cacti everywhere, reaching heights of 40 feet (12 meters). We also saw some vizcachas jumping on the rocks. These are protected animals that look like rabbits, have long tails and jump great distances from rock to rock.

After our visit to the island we drove the rest of the afternoon over salt flats of different types – some hard, flat and white (and salty, I suppose, but I didn´t taste it), others dirty with sand-topped surface, others soft and mushy, or watery. All very interesting and I was happy that our guide had a GPS and basically knew what direction to go in. What an incredible experience.

Late in the afternoon we got to the Bolivia/Chile border, which is basically a train stop for the old and now defunct “Tren a las Nubes” (Train to the clouds) of hippie and campesino travel fame, from Antofagasta, Chile to La Paz, Bolivia. Well, checking out of Bolivia with the bikes was easy, but getting into Chile was something else. It was Sunday, and the border officials were seemingly not very happy to be working. They were looking very hard to find fault with our paperwork, but after the usual amount of arguing, pleading and schmoozing, we finally crossed the border and got to the nearby town of Ollagüe, Chile.

Our guide, Lars, and I went looking for a welding machine, since one of the Honda 650s had developed 4 breaks in the tubular frame. Miraculously, we found the one welder (machine and operator) in town and an hour later the bike was fixed. The we joined the rest of the group at the one and only “hotel” in town. No hot water, no phone, no TV, no nothing, but fortunately lots of blankets and a pretty good supper.

We slept like logs after an incredible day.

More adventure tomorrow,

Rob (Cruisen)

Today was a long day in the saddle, starting out at 8 am for about 120 km (75 miles) on paved road in southerly direction. I was asked to lead the group through the toll stations – and there is nothing automatic about that. The policeman asked where we were going. I said, “To Uyuni.” He said, “that will be 7.50 Bolivianos per motorcycle.” Then he disappeared and came back a bit later and said, “It will be 10 Bolivianos per bike and that will be for ´ida y vuelta´ (round trip). Whereupon I said, “We only need one way.” “Okay,” was the answer, that is the same price.” :-) And the adventure continues!

We stopped for a mid-morning snack, just before heading west onto what will be three days of off road riding. The lunch consisted of sandwiches and Té con T, which turned out to be tea with Tsingani (a local anise-type liquor) and lemon and sugar. Pretty good potion for the cold and the altitude. The ride up to this point was all on the Altiplano, a flat area at 12,500 feet (3750 meters), with a north-south row of volcanoes to the west and a row of snow-capped mountains in the same direction to the east of us. Here things were quite poor, as the occasional houses or farm grouping were made of adobe (mud) bricks and the roofs made of the clumps of grass that grow on this high plateau. The people here are either of Quechua (Inca) or Aymara ancestry.

The rest of the day, 80 km (50 miles) was spent on very challenging dirt roads, some of which was pure sand or volcanic dust, other areas consisted of boulders, volcanic rock, river crossings, etc. I took one particular river crossing quite fast and took a complete bath, even filling my riding boots with water. Two of us fell down in the dirt, Gary had a flat, and Dennis had battery problems.

We finished riding at about 6 pm, with the bright, low sun in our eyes, our visors dusty and dirty, and we were happy to find our hotel in Tagua, a small village with one decent hotel, which looked very promising on the Internet, but in reality was a bit more austere. Nevertheless, we had a warm shower, a good meal of llama meat and crepes with chocolate for dessert. Fortunately, there were plenty of blankets, because the temperature got close to freezing during the night.

Well, tomorrow is the big, long-expected day of riding on the incredible salt flats, which start just a stone´s throw to the south of us.

Rob (Cruisen)

Since today´s ride was going to be short and uneventful, we took the morning to catch up on touristing, washing clothes, Internet, shopping, etc. The Bolivian people are quite friendly, although one person bumped into me on a sidewalk and proceeded to call me every Bolivian name I did not know. Guess he was having a bad moment. The people at the hotel were very helpful, especially in dragging my stuff up to the fourth floor without an elevator at 12,000 feet altitude.

We departed at 1:30 pm. Again we had the pleasure (for some) to ride the busy streets of this city, but we soon were on a straight, flat road in the Altiplano, making good time, in good weather. Unfortunately, one of the bikes developed a power problem, which turned out to be a voltage regulator. I helped the rider, Thom, by pushing him until my arm nearly fell off, and then he just held the back rack of the bike and I pulled him until we got, miraculously, to a motorcycle shop with a Harley Davidson parked outside. The result: “sorry we don´t have the part,” but they performed an approximation, bought some extra batteries and we will have the proper part shipped to Chile for the last three days of the trip. Meanwhile, we just limp a little at lower speeds. And the adventure continues!

In fact, when we arrived at the city of our destination, Oruro, (200,000 inhabitants) which also was quite busy at the time we arrived, a couple of riders got detached from the rest of the group. They had no Spanish, no hotel name, no phone, nothing. But they did the right thing, they stayed at the point where they got detached and we eventually found them and brought them to the hotel. Wonder what exciting things will be happening tomorrow as we head for the great salt flats of Uyuni.

We´ll keep you posted.

Rob (Cruisen)

We woke up to rain and impenetrable clouds. But the locals said that if it stopped raining by 11 am, it would be a nice day. And so it was, it was dry by 11 and we prepared to get on the ominously-described “Camino de la Muerte” or “Most Dangerous Road in the World.” We took off shortly after noon, after having given the road a chance to dry out a little. A couple of the riders took their wives’ advice and took the paved road back up, but the rest of us headed for the old road, which is now almost exclusively used for mountain bikers (down hill of course).

It was spectacular, lots of blind curves, narrow “road” surfaces, steep and deep ravines, creek crossings with feet in the air, and frequent stops for taking pictures. The mountain bikers coming down, of which there were some 40, or so, were supposed to stay on the ravine side of the road and motorized vehicles were supposed to hug the mountain side. This was not always that case, as I almost had a nice looking mountain biker lady for lunch. No incidents, no accidents, no equipment failures…just an incredible ride, better than any roller coaster (which I hate).

My assessment of the Death Road is that it is no worse than many roads I have seen in Peru, in Chile or in in southern Mexico, but the designation must be derived from the many fatal accidents caused by rickety buses and trucks with faulty brakes. Of course, rainy, slippery conditions and crazy or drunk people could add to the danger. As for us, we loved it, and were ready to do the road again, but we had to get back to La Paz for the night.

And getting back to La Paz was quite and adventure. As we got back to the high pass, it started to rain and soon I could not see anything though the helmet visor, so I wiped it with my gloved hand, looked at it, and it was SNOW! This continued until we got to the other side of the pass. The road was wet, but not slippery, but the hands soon got very cold, and I had to ride with my visor up to be able to see anything, with the snow beating on my face, which soon got so numb that I didn’t feel it anymore. To add to the misery, I lost a screw that holds the visor and the chin guard of my helm together. Now it was just a floppy affair and that would not work. So, everybody looked for the screw or something to make a provisional repair. Round popsicle stick was too thin – and then Dennis, our trusty accountant, came up with a tapered stick, which I twisted and and turned into the screw hole, and voila, helmet repaired and we could go on.

Soon we got back into the exciting La Paz traffic with 7 bikes (Ken’s had a mechanical failure). We got to our hotel in the middle of the famous witch’s market, where they sell all kinds of hocus-pocus stuff for people’s rituals. We had a nice communal meal at an “Argentine” steak house, where ten of us ate like kings for less than $100.

Tomorrow we head for Oruro, where nothing much will be happening, and then we go on to the Uyuni salt flats, which is primitive territory, so I have no idea when I will see the Internet again.

Greetings from La Paz,

Rob (Cruisen)

We left Copacabana at about 8 am and quickly climbed out of town, leaving Lake Titicaca behind us for now, in order to cross over a hilly (already at more than 12,500 feet) area to another part of the lake, where we would take a ferry to the north-east side of the lake. The road over these hills was pure motorcyclist paradise, more curves than Deal´s Gap and interrupted by stretches where the pavement had simply become tired and given up. One of the riders was so excited that he said: “This kind of riding should be prohibited,” (I believe that was Thom). Several of us are riding with a big grin on our faces. This is just too good to be true: no cops, no rules, challenging roads, not much traffic, etc.

the 'ferry'

We soon got back down to lakeside and the “ferry boats” were ready to take us to the other sides, which was perhaps about one kilometer (less than a mile). We had to board the bikes backwards onto the platform of the boat, which had cracks between the boards the precise width of the bike tires. With a bit of help we made it aboard and we set off for the other side, meeting other vehicles along the way, seemingly floating just above the surface. This didn’t look very secure…but they have been doing this for many years.

After the crossing we had some more nice curves, followed by flat Altiplano territory with typical villages comprised of adobe huts with metal roofs, scurrying people chasing long-haired pigs and other hairy animals on a flat area at a minimum of 12,000 feet (3,500 meters). It was chilly up there, but not real cold during sunlight hours.

After going up a bit more, we suddenly saw the large city of La Paz below us in a bowl, The sun was shining on the city and it looked good. We were soon driving among (and between)the buses and taxis, trying to make it to the downtown plaza, where we would buy some food to take with us as we drove to the east side of the city to start our trek to Coroico in the high jungle. The traffic in La Paz was absolutely crazy, but all 8 bikes learned to zip around the traffic and it soon became a fun game.

Leaving La Paz, we quickly went up to La Cumbre (The Summit), the highest spot around at 15,200 feet (4,700 meters), where, of course, there was a large cross, at the foot of which the locals present burnt offerings of llama fetuses doused with liquor and practice other syncretistic hocus-pocus.

From there it was down, down, down. We started to see some vegetation and it started to rain. Ah, the signs of the rain forest. We stopped at a roadside check, ate our (cold) empanadas, put on some rain gear and continued on down to Coroico via the paved road. When the sky broke open a little we saw some spectacular green-clad mountains around us. We descended at least 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) in 40 miles (65 km).

We had to go back up a bit on a cobble stone road to get to our hotel La Esmeralda, which had a beautiful view over the valley and was surrounded by familiar tropical vegetation. The sights, smells and views were so reminiscent of my years in the Amazon rain forest.

At night we sat on a terrace and warmed ourselves by the fire of the barbecue that was being prepared for us, while we listened to Bolivian music. The local wine was good, the food was fine and we had a good night’s sleep, which was interrupted only by rain and gun shots (which came from a nearby drug control station (funded by the US)). I suppose they were showing us that they were doing their job.

Tomorrow we ride the old road (The Most Dangerous Road on the World) back up to La Paz.

Rob (Cruisen)

Today’s cycle trip is not very long, so we use the morning for visiting the Floating Islands of the Uros people on Lake Titicaca. We start the journey by tricycle taxi from the hotel to the docks. There we find the rather well-used boats to take us for a half-hour ride through the totora reeds to the floating islands. The islands are made of packets of totora reed roots as a base, with layers of totora reeds on top. Walking on it is a bit like walking on a sponge or a soft mattress. As the vegetation rots and the island begins to sink, they put more reeds on top, until the bottom layer touches the bottom of the lake, and then it is time to build a new island. The people get around in Totora boats and live from tourist visits, hunting and fishing.

I may have mentioned before that Lake Titicaca (which means Grey Puma in the Ayumara language) lies at 12,000 feet (4,200 meters) and is purportedly the highest navigable lake in the world.

After getting back on dry land, we grabbed a quick lunch of empanadas, pastries and jugo mixto (fresh fuit drink made of bananas, pineapple and papaya). And then it was time to get our faithful steeds out of the stable and continue our journey east, to the Bolivian border and on to the town of Copacabana–still on Lake Titicaca–for the night.

The road was windy and scenic;the weather perfect. Along the way we met a hardy family–father, mother and three young children) from the French Alps, who were making a year-long tour through South America by (sturdy) bikes and various types of trailers for gear and the youngest child. (Wonder why my parents never did that.) :-)

We soon got to the border. Getting out of Peru was a snap, but getting the motorcycles into Bolivia was about a 90-minute chore. But the riders use the time to change Peruvian money into Bolivian money grab a snack or a local beer, Paceña, which is supposed to be the best in the Americas. Mine didn’t taste too good, as I am still taking Diamox for the altitude – which I will now stop, of course. We also met a young shoeshine boy who could say “do you want a shoeshine” in at a least a dozen languages – and I can tell you that his Dutch pronunciation was very good (I didn’t ask if he knew the phrase in Frisian.)

We arrived in Copacabana just in time to see the sun set over the lake. The setting would bring millions (people and dollars) in the US, but here a hotel room costs less than ten dollars. At night we went to a small restaurant where we dined on fresh vegetable soup, chateaubriant, ratatouille, French fries, and for dessert chocolate mouse and flan. Price for the whole thing: four dollars. This place would be great for retirement, if the raw sewage was not running in the streets.

Time to get a good night’s rest, because tomorrow we go up-up-up to La Paz (one of the two capitals of Bolivia) and on to Coroico in the Bolivian rain forest.

Rob (Cruisen)

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