Sunday, 27 July 2014

Cusco to Nasca and beyond

By Mark

After a relaxing afternoon at the hot springs in Santa Teresa giving our aching muscles some much needed attention we left for Cusco again for a quick stopover to get the usual washing and so forth done before making our way to Nasca which would take us a couple of days.

The road to Nasca is a great road for bikes, shame we had to share it with all the other trucks and buses. In the morning when we first found ourselves heading down into a deep valley we constantly had kamikaze truckers riding our arses less then 2 metres from our rear tyres breaking heavily just before corners and even swinging out beside us through corners before pulling back in behind us before they cleaned up some other poor soul coming the opposite direction. We kept at it until we came across road works which has become a very common occurrence now in Peru and we snuck all the way through to the front. Like always they never let bikes through so we had to sit in line as everybody around us got more and more agitated waiting for the road to open. This when we realised we should have just stayed at the back. When we were finally allowed to go it was every man for themselves and watch out bikers because if you get in the way you will be run down as one particular car driver came ever so close to Sanne and I. I was pissed off but not as much as Sanne who chased this one car down the road constantly honking her horn and trying to get his attention, in all of this frustration Sanne took her mind off the road and next thing I see her trying to take a sharp bend but she was never going to make it. I looked ahead and see a bus coming the opposite direction and all I could think of was the worst possible scenario, Sanne going straight under the front wheels of the bus. Luckily for her the bus driver was on his game and had slowed and pulled over as she went straight off the side of the road. Still shocked I spoke with her and tried to calm her down at the same time hugging and kissing her and was very happy I still had a girlfriend.

A few more kilometres down the road we took an early lunch break (Mary Jane popped by as well with a calming word or two) and talked about what we needed to do to survive the horrible drivers here and to also let all the other traffic pass us. This is where my bike started to want to play funny buggers and blew a fuse for no apparent reason then going on to not always wanting to start. Great, now I have a starter motor problem. Luckily the bike starts 95% of the time and the other times a light tap on the starter motor and Tortuga fires into life. Yes, I have now finally got a name for my bike, after so many years and kilometres on the clock I have decided to call my bike La Tortuga (the turtle)

The lunch break was the best plan of all as after we finished, the road was much quieter and we had an enjoyable ride from there on in stopping late in the afternoon at a great little spot by the river to camp. Thinking we would be OK there the night we set up camp, cooked dinner and retired to bed early thinking how great it was to have this place to ourselves, that was until about 9.30pm when a truck drove down to where we were and started digging up sand from beside the river and loading the truck. We both thought great and what are the chance of this happening. I stuck my head out of the tent and said hello but they were not interested one bit, just said "Buenas noches, amigo" and went back to digging, well at least it was not a grave they were digging for us, half an hour later they were done and gone thankfully.

The following day saw us climb up and down the mountains again reaching above 4000m which just seems to be the norm these days. The only difference was the landscape slowly changing to a drier and more arid landscape and by the end of the day I found what has to be one of the best wild camps we have ever had. We set up camp on a sand dune over looking the rolling mountains only 30kms from Nasca. It was quiet and nobody around, no late night visitors until Sanne got paranoid thinking she could hear someone or something walking around the tent, it wasn't until the next morning she worked out that it was just the tent making noises in the light breeze!
We rode on down into Nasca and was surprised at the fertility of the soil as there were all sort of crops growing everywhere through the valley which changed the landscape enormously from its barren brown and grey colours to rich bright greens which casts a huge contrast to the backdrop of the mountains and the worlds largest sand dune, Cerru Blanco at 2078m.

After getting another flat tyre the day previously I stopped at the first bike store to pick up a new tube. Ever since I bought the damn second hand tyre in Chile and fitted in Argentina I have had nothing but problems and constant punctures, something that was wearing very thin with me. We booked straight into a very basic room in town, fixed my tyre and booked a flight to fly over the well known and famous Nasca Lines. We had read that there had been problems in the past with flights going down and also that if you have a problem with motion sickness then this would not be highly recommended so Sanne was sitting this one out. We also read that you should not take a flight that costs under $80 but our hostel was selling tickets for $70 and after looking up the company's history it looked like I should be safe, cannot say the same for my stomach.
Early next morning we were off to the airport, for the first time I can remember I felt a little nervous before the flight but I had nothing to worry about really, it was all just a question of when are we actually going to take off, so after about an hour or more we were off to board our new plane. The plane I took was actually one of the largest in Nasca seating 12 passengers, yes huge I know but considering most planes are only 4 seaters this was much bigger.

We took off for our 30 min joy flight banking to the left and right so that passengers on both sides could get a good look at the lines. The first thing I noticed was the amount of lines, they are everywhere criss-crossing the land in numerous directions not really making any sense of it all, the next thing is trying to spot the actual formations which at times was not very easy, then getting a good photo was even more difficult. In no time at all we were headed back to the airport and well, I felt a little disappointed in it all. Basically you take off, go straight to the images in the dessert, fly by twice to get a really quick look and move onto the next and behind you the next aircraft is doing the same thing. Five to ten minutes more would make a big difference to the experience. The best thing about the flight was that all the noisy Mexicans that were on board had all gone very quiet after about ten minutes in and you could actually take it all in with a little more peace and quiet. One thing to report at least that there was luckily know one throwing chunks while on board.

After my flight we headed back to the hostel, packed our bikes and headed just up the road to what is meant to be a nice relaxing little oasis in the sand dunes which surrounds a lagoon, Huacachina. Well it was not the quiet haven we were expecting with V8 dune buggies hooning around the sand dunes killing any peace and quiet that we were after. With no decent camping options and the sand dunes way to soft for our heavily loaded bikes we opted for a hostal for the night.

From here we wanted to head back into the mountains and we had heard about a beautiful mountain range we wanted to ride through, of course our lazy arses were not going to hike through them. We stopped by one last town on the coast which was meant to be a nice little haven but we did not get this feeling at all and with the heavily overcast and hazy day we headed back inland for the mountains. We could not wait to get off the Pan American highway, it is so boring and monotonous and we do not understand why anyone would want to ride the entirety of this road. We have now been on it three times and each time we could not wait to get off of it. Enter more road works which ended up delaying us and we had to ride into the night to our next destination which ended up being in some small town where we set up camp in the grounds of a hotel.
The next day was still hazy but in no time as we climbed up out of the town we finally were able to see the landscape again including a beautiful mint green coloured river running down through the valley. I was riding along enjoying it all until I started to feel a very slow and heavy feel in the front end, great just F@#King great! Yes you guessed it, another puncture. I completely lost my shit by the road side throwing my gloves and kicking anything that was in my way. By this stage it was no longer funny and I have all the experience I need now in fixing punctures. So after my huge dummy spit which I think Sanne thought was over the top and  uncalled for, (well she doesn't ever get flats or has to fix them so I think it was completely called for) I finally got around to fixing it. Back in La Paz I bought a new tyre which was meant to be for Sanne's bike but with the on going problems with my crap-tastic tyre I took it and put it on my bike leaving the old tyre by the road side for some other unlucky fellow to think he has scored well with a good tyre, huh, never! While repairing the tyre three young guys from Lima stopped by to ask if we were OK and needed help and proceeded to hang out with us until we were done and back on the road. We spoke to them about the horrible drivers here and they just agreed, good. At least it is not just us who thinks it is bad. They also gave us some bad news that the road would be closed in an hours time for a car rally.

Well, the road closure was a blessing in disguise as we found a great place to sit by the road side and have lunch and wait for the rally to come through, three long hours later and they were through and we were back on the road. One problem, so was everybody else and it was wacky races time again. The real problem was that we were on a very small road where most of the time the road was only wide enough for one car so at every corner you are honking your horn like mad to let other drivers know you are coming. A few close calls later I had found another wild camp by the river and we sat and chilled by the river for the rest of the afternoon.

The next day we were headed for Huanuco, nothing of any real interest here but just a place to sleep the night and look for new tyres for Sanne's increasingly worn tyres on her bike. The ride to Huanuco was awesome. Riding through the valley that just kept closing in on us all the time until we were riding through what felt like natural caves ever climbing up the mountain until we hit over 4300m before descending again and onto a main road which was chaotic and heavily potholed. Late in the afternoon we finally arrived and straight into peak hour traffic grinding us to a halt. Well at least we found all the bike shops easily, shame the same cannot be said for finding tyres. We were the talk of town and had many locals stopping and chatting with us. We might go as far as saying we hate the Peruvian drivers but off the road they have to be some of the nicest people we have met on the trip. They always want to stop and talk to us and ask what we are doing and where we are going, always happy to answer any questions and help us where they can. One guy gave is directions to a hotel that he knew had parking and was cheap so we headed there after having problems in the city to find a hotel with parking.

We really didn't think much of Huanuco so we left the following day for a possible 2 day ride to Huaraz, trekking capital of Peru and known as one of the best places to hike outside of the Himalayas. Well we didn't make it far, we got about 50kms out of town where we were stopped once again by road works. This time it was going to be a long wait. We arrived at 10.30am and the road was to be closed until 5pm! All for a 2km stretch of road. Ridiculous! We spoke with the locals and the road workers but there was no way they were letting us through and there was no way we were going to wait until 5 and ride in the night again as we had no choice as there we no villages for quite a distance. We checked the map and with no other choice than to go back to town, that's what we did! At the hotel that night we figured out a plan of which way to go. Instead of the direct ride of 350km's we now had a detour of over 600km's to get to the same place - great!

Part of the Cordillera Vilcabamba just outside Cusco  

Another beautiful camp spot, however some strange goings on in the night

While stopped waiting for me to repair my puncture we had some curious on lookers

Cerro Blanco, the worlds highest sand dune

30km's outside of Nasca we found another incredible spot to camp

Nasca city and one of many replicas of the Nasca lines

30km's south of Nasca we visited an open gravesite where many of the bodies, whats left of them are mumifed

What I would look like mumified!

One of many lines I saw on my flight, this one is the Colibri (Hummingbird)

Known as Manos (hands), not sure what the rest is meant to be

Mono (Monkey)

The noisy Mexicans, love the pose on the guy?

Enjoying a cold beer at sunset in Haucachina

These mad hatters were doing a marathon through the sand dunes while we enjoyed our beers

The eerie haze we woke up to after pulling up to camp in the night

My discarded tyre

Our view after having to pull up to wait for the rally to come through

Creative selfie

This landscape reminded me of riding through the Elqui Valley in Chile

This is how much the valley closed in on us as we climbed up towards the pass

Awesome rock formations

It got slightly chilly up over the pass

 No shortage of these guys around, I don't know how they handle the cold!

I guess if I had a coat like this I would be pretty warm

This is part of the Cordillera Yauyos

Looking back down the valley towards Haunuco

The end of the road for us, a LONG wait for everybody else

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Machu Picchu

By Sanne

Of course we couldn't come to Peru and not visit the biggest draw card that Peru has to offer: Machu Picchu. It is visited by approximately 2,000 people every day so we knew to expect a very touristy place, but we hoped that that wouldn't take too much away from our experience.
Because Machu Picchu is cut off from all roads, the only way to get there is by train. A very expensive train. The Peruvian government has instated a special 'tourist train' which takes tourists from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu village) which costs over $100. Tourist have no choice but to take this train as they are prohibited from boarding the local train. However, people in the know (which includes us, obviously) can take the backway which involves taking a road from Cusco that loops to the north of Machu Picchu and finishes in the village of Santa Teresa. From there you have to walk 10 kms along train tracks to Machu Picchu. It takes a bit longer doing it this way, but it is a hell of a lot cheaper, and well, it's actually a really nice ride.

We set out from Cusco and passed by the village of Pisac which is meant to be some kind of 'alternative, new-age haven for foreigners'...sounds horrible doesn't it?! We had planned to stay here a night but the sight of the hordes of tourist vans and the try-hard hippies wandering around was just too much to bear, so we continued on the road towards Santa Teresa, thinking we would maybe find somewhere to camp along the way, but we didn't. So without having planned to we actually made it to Santa Teresa late in the afternoon after having crossed a pass over 4,000 metres and then dipped into an almost sub-tropical climate. Bolivia and Peru have both fascinated me with how often you go in and out of different climates simply by the change of altitude. Coming from Denmark which is as flat as a pancake, I love being in these mountainous countries - it's so much more exciting than just flat! Especially when the last section of the road was on another 'death' road with sheer drops off to the side, but so stunning. The whole ride was worth it just because of this road!

In Santa Teresa we checked into a hostel which was owned by a sweet elderly couple. The next morning we left our bikes behind parked in the foyer of the hostel and with the very few belongings that we could carry, we began our trek towards Machu Picchu. First part of it was actually in a taxi to the hydro-electric station where the very last bit of road ends. Another 'death' road. From here we walked 6 kms along the train tracks surrounded by beautiful lush forest to a little guest house right on the side of the train tracks half-way in between Santa Teresa and Aguas Calientes, that we had had recommended to us. It was a lovely and quiet little oasis set in green gardens. Very much an antithesis of Aguas Calientes, the Machu Picchu village 4 kms further on which is where the hordes of tourists get unloaded off the trains and if there ever was a place whose raison d'etre is tourism this is definitely it! After unloading our bags at our hostel we walked to Aguas Calientes to buy our Machu Picchu tickets - $50 per person.

The next morning we got up bright and early and started walking the 4 kms to Machu Picchu. Now, I know that might not sound like very far, but when the last 2 kms are on an ancient and extremely steep Inca stair case, I promise you it's a workout. We were shattered by the time we got to the top! Sensible/spoiled tourists take the tourist bus up but at a price of $10 each way for a 10 minute bus ride we chose the economical option. Besides, we're really tough you know? Because there were only a few other nutters walking up it was quite tranquil...which made for quite a shock when we made it to the top and were met with tourism inferno. We squeezed past the hordes of khaki-clad tourists at the entrance only to find ten times as many inside the gates, most walking around like chickens following their guide. Mark and I gave each other an exasperated look and then pushed our way through this snails pace parade. If we hadn't we would have still been there now, waiting for some fat American to move over. I might have 'accidentally' elbowed one of these specimens in their side while squeezing past but I assure you it was just an accident...

We hightailed it to the top of a hill to get a good overview of the place and here we sat contemplating this very special place. So now is as good a time as any for some background info about Machu Picchu:
This 15th century Inca site takes its name from Quechua and means 'Old Mountain'. It was unknown to the outside world until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham came across it on a trek. Although situated only 80 kms from Cusco, the Inca capital, the Spanish conquistadors never found it and consequently did not plunder or destroy it, as they did many other sites. Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over the site and few people knew of its existence. Because of this, it is a relatively intact archaeological site, although many of the buildings here have been reconstructed to give people a better idea of what the original structure looked like. It is thought to have been the home of the Inca emperor and is believed to have been a very sacred religious site for the Incas.

How Machu Picchu was constructed is one of the most interesting things. The Incas were masters of a technique in which blocks of stone are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. Many places here are so perfect that it is said that not even a blade of grass fits between the stones! How they moved and placed the enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones. Makes me exhausted just thinking about it!

As touristy as it is, you can not deny the uniqueness of this place. It is truly one of a kind. The setting on a mountain ridge surrounded by towering lush mountain tops all around is awe-inspiring and very deservedly it has been named as one of the 7 Wonders of the World. It is one of those places which you can sit and stare at for a long time, just taking it all in, all while you're contemplating how the hell the Incas managed to build this phenomenal place using only man power. Incredible.

When we returned to Santa Teresa, we both felt like we were about 100 years old, that's how our muscles were aching. Those Inca steps were a killer! So no better place to be than a hot springs, one of which we found a couple of km's outside Santa Teresa. This place was way more tastefully designed than the other one we went to in between Puno and Cusco and also not at 4,000 metres which made it much more pleasant! It was pure bliss to float around in the crystal clear water which had a perfect temperature and on top of this we could camp there for free, which we did. It was a perfect way to finish off our little Machu Picchu trip, and although our sore leg muscles dissipated after a few days, the memories of Machu Picchu will stay with us forever.

On the way to Santa Teresa

The last 25 kms before Santa Teresa is a beautiful stretch of 'death' road

Walking on the train tracks from Santa Teresa to Machu Picchu

We had to step aside for the odd train once in a while

Splitting rocks with my hammer... The local workers invited me to try!

On the tough, tough walk up to Machu Picchu - check out those steps!

First view of Machu Pichu in the morning light

And here it is folks...Machu Picchu

Look carefully at this photo... notice the human face?

The 'Inca Bridge' which is an insane path along the rock side...! For obvious reasons closed to the public!

Looking down into the valley below

There are a few llamas hanging around too

Extraordinary craftsmanship

At the wonderful hot springs just outside Santa Teresa

The water was crystal clear and ooohhhh so warm and nice....!

They had these awesome showers too with hot water straight from the hot springs

Finishing off with this oddly named dish we saw advertised...