You're here for a good time, not for a long time.

You're here for a good time, not a long time.

September 30, 2011

Back in the Game

A lot has happened since we first arrived in Cusco.  After all that dirt on the way it was supposed to be the promised land.  Gringos, bike expertise, and of course Macchu Pichu.  As it turned out, though, within three days we were back on the road heading for Lima again. 

Monday Charlie and I finally found some motivation to get off our asses; it was time to make a decision.  First we went to DHL to inquire about having a shock sent down.  It was doable, but there would be a 30% import tax.  Apparently used items are even more difficult than new.  Pat in California’s option took a hit.  Furthermore, no one could truly recommend a mechanic in Cusco.  There were a lot of maybes and pretty sures.  It was wearing me down.

Charlie and I went to a hardware store after DHL and bought a hammer and long flathead screwdriver.  We used them to tighten the spring on my suspension.  To do this you have to prop the bike up so the rear wheel is off the ground.  The spring goes around the threaded shock and is held down by two discs with little knobs coming off them.  You lodge the screwdriver between the knobs and hammer them around the threads very slowly lowering them and thereby tightening the spring.  We lowered the spring about an inch total.  That got the bike sitting higher, but the resistance was still way too soft.  Then I noticed the mechanic in Huancayo hadn’t turned my rebound all the way up.  Rebound measures the resistance given by the shock.  With the lowered spring and tightened rebound I was starting to wonder if I could make it to Chile on the weak shock.

Chile is the next promised land.  For one, they sell the DR650 there.  It’s also the wealthiest country in South America so professional tradesmen are easier to find.  Best of all, my mom is flying in on November 15th for two weeks.  At that point I can have her bring any parts my heart desires.  Regardless, that was seven weeks and +/-3,000 miles away.

Next I got on to cleaning my air filter.  It wasn’t due yet, but I’m beginning to appreciate the idea of preventative maintenance more and more these days.  While I was soaking it in hot dish soap water Charlie made a discovery.  His right fork was leaking oil.  Now we both had serious suspension problems.  Charlie had KTM’s WP forks put on his Tenere in California.  The only shop that would have those seals in a 2,000 mile radius was KTM in Lima.

So in about two seconds it was decided that we’d leave for Lima on Tuesday.  My repairs were getting nowhere anyway and I was tired of getting such underachieving advice from everyone in Cusco.  Charlie and I have been talking about making some serious weight loss attempts since we took off together.  No, we’re not getting pudgy; we’re just carrying too much shit that we don’t use.  Lima was only 700 miles north and we didn’t plan to be there long so we decided to remove the side panniers and ride with only the essentials.

I got all my tools, spares, clothes, electronics, and a slew of other stuff into my yellow Sea to Summit bag and my dad’s purple backpack.  The only issue was waterproofing so I lined the leaky luggage with garbage bags.  I bungeed them both down on the back rack and Tuesday morning we took off.  The bike rode like a gazelle without the side boxes.  It was so light and responsive and there was no wind resistance.  The suspension was strong enough that I could hit the corners pretty hard as well.  We were making good time. 

We got to Abancay just after noon, stopped for lunch, and kept going.  We didn’t research this ride because it was such a simple mission: get to Lima as fast as possible.  What we didn’t know as we left Abancay was that we were coming up on 190 miles of mountain passes and high plains.  An hour out of town the clouds started forming overhead.  There was no turning around, so we just geared up and rode right in.  By the time we got to 4,000 meters the rain was pounding and turning to slush.  It was 4:00pm and dark grey everywhere.  We were right in the middle of the harshest point on the Panamerican highway and there was nothing to do but keep going.  We rode through the snow on wet roads until 7:00pm that night.  Stranded at over 4,000 meters in the dark in a snowstorm on a motorcycle was never the plan, but staying on the road was our only option.  This was the only time in the last 15,000 miles that I didn’t have my camping equipment and I was regretting it. 

Finally the pass peaked at 4,600 meters and afterward the snow turned back into rain and around 6:30 the roads dried up completely.  I lost feeling in all my fingers and most of my toes up there.  We stopped at the first little town on the other side of the mountains and went to bed feeling quite lucky.  My bike had sagged back to its lowest position by the end of the day.  We won’t be attempting that section of the road in the afternoon on the way back. 

Wednesday we hit the road early and knocked down 400 miles, pulling back into Flying Dog Hostel in Miraflores district at 5:00pm.  All they had open was a matrimonial room so Charlie and I got to share a bed that night.  Thursday morning we rode to KTM, where we bought our TKC-80’s two weeks prior, and explained our dilemma to their mechanics.  Charlie was in luck; they had his fork seals.  His bike would be ready before Monday.  Mine was a different story.  Depending on a lot of factors, they figured about a week if it all went right.  I had expected this scenario, but to actually hear it and face it was devastating.  Another week in Lima?  Another week in Peru?

If the third world was getting to me in Colombia, it has absolutely broken me at this point.  I’m all for culture, but at some point all the half-assing around here takes its toll.  The culture of what is acceptable and safe is just so different down here.  I told the mechanic I wanted my suspension to work in Huancayo.  I’m sure by his standards it was working just fine when I brought it in.  He proudly gave it back to me that next morning a little better, but still soft by any professional’s standards.  The hostel here advertises Wi-Fi and hot water.  Both are barely there.  When a restaurant runs out of eggs, they don’t tell you; you just don’t get eggs with your breakfast.  Everyone is accustomed to such low standards.  And when you’re trying to get a big motorcycle roadworthy, it’s extremely frustrating.

That afternoon was another low point.  I was 700 miles north of Cusco, which I had fought so hard to get to, and still I had no answers.  The bike was in good hands, but even they were scratching their heads.  I was getting real down imagining myself stuck in Lima for the better part of a month waiting for parts, customs, and shitty mechanics.  I remembered that the bike import wasn’t a stamp on my passport like other countries; it was a separate piece of paper.  I could leave the country without the bike no hassles.  Just leave it on the side of the road even and walk away with only a backpack. 

Before the trip’s future got too dark Charlie and I decided to head down to the hostel bar.  There we met some German girls and decided to head out to a discotech with them.  Out of nowhere, Charlie and I ended up staying up until 5:00am forgetting about the motorcycles for the first time in weeks.  It was a blast; the disco was full of university kids both Peruvian and gringo. 

At one point I met a Peruvian girl who seemed pretty cool until she told me that the United States overreacted to 9/11.  She said deaths in such numbers were insignificant to the problems Peru constantly deals with.  As a privileged American I usually brush off the judgmental comments like that, but this time I got offended.  I thought about explaining to her that the first world has been in turmoil since the attacks.  Or contrasting that at home we are accustomed to prosperity and progress.  Elaborating that it was a loss on the grandest scale possible for our country.  Then I realized how far removed she was from grasping any of it so I gave up.  I almost could have remarked that not a single person in the United States even knew that the city of Yungay and all of its 75,000 residents were buried in an avalanche in 1970.  In the end I held my tongue and said we’re a proud country, just like Peru.  That conversation was over. 

Halfway through the night Charlie and I got separated and it was each man for himself.  We both managed to trudge home and safely retire before sunup… barely.  Today, Friday, we woke up around noon with an email waiting for us from KTM.  They wanted to see us.  We taxied over there mid-afternoon to find Charlie’s bike all ready to go.  Mine was disassembled in the corner and the shock had been sent to Lima’s premier suspension expert.  I waited around until 4:30pm and one of the mechanics drove me across town to the expert to hear his verdict. 

When we arrived the mechanic asked Dinno (the specialist) what he thought about the shock.  He casually replied that it was fixed.  I was cautious, but excited.  He took me in to his shop where he had the shock in a vice.  With the spring removed, he compressed the shock all the way down and as soon as he let go it gradually raised back up.  He said that it was staying down before he fixed it… ‘as if you’re just riding a spring right?’  Exactly.  It was so nice to talk to someone who actually knew what I wanted out of his service.  He said my bladder had leaked, something that is common over time.  He even figured crossing the mountain passes had played a roll.  I asked him what he did and he mentioned replacing all the oil, nitrogen, and a couple other things.  I’m not a shock guy and between our Spanglish conversation some of it was lost on me.  I asked him if it would get me to Argentina supporting all of my luggage.  He said definitely.  He charged me $100 and that was that.  I’m a little hesitant to put full faith in his fix, but he’s KTM’s suspension guy and seemed so confident and level-headed about the whole thing.  A garage full of Japanese and European bikes was promising too.  Even if the unit only gets me to Chile, that’ll be good enough. 

So the spirits are high again.  Tomorrow I pick up the bike in the morning once they reinstall the shock.  Then we’ll be leaving here as soon as possible.  Al is working his way down right now from Colombia and might show up in the next few days.  We’ll be in close touch.  As for now, it seems that the darkest hour has passed.  There’s only one more third world country between me and Santiago… and it’s the poorest of them all.  I’ll try to have a better attitude about Bolivia, but it’s going to have to really impress me if I’m going to stick around long.

Next stop is Cusco again via the easy route (the 700 miles through snow route).  There we will quickly do Macchu Pichu and I will send A LOT of gear home.  On the ride out here it struck me; I set out for 2,000 kilometers with just two light bags.  What the hell is all of the other stuff?  Unnecessary.  My plan is to ditch the Pelican case, send the camping gear home, and get everything into the side boxes.  Keep the weight low and forward.  And then tear up Bolivia.

September 25, 2011


Day Two in Cusco and my spirits haven’t been higher in weeks.  Either that or they just got real low over the final 500 miles since Huancayo.  The seemingly short ride to Cusco was all dirt and took three days of backbreaking riding from dawn until well past dusk.  My rear suspension sank even lower and my bike rattled to bits the entire time.  For a while there, it seemed like there was no end in sight and that the real mechanical headaches would start once we arrived.  As soon as we arrived in town, though, it all turned around.

When Charlie and I pulled into Huancayo we flagged a taxi and told him to take us to the nicest hotel in town.  We hadn’t seen internet in a week and most nights our hotel rooms more resembled prison cells.  The cab took us to Hotel Presidente.  At $80/night it wasn’t cheap, but it was the shot of civility that we needed.  Great beds, HDTV, hot water bath tub, and blazing internet.  We indulged late into the night.

The next morning while packing his gear Charlie noticed that his SW Motech racks had broken in two places somewhere along the previous three days of dirt.  The breaks were bad enough that they had to be welded immediately.  We checked in for another night and took off for the mechanic’s district down the street.  Our first stop was Honda and they said they could weld Charlie’s racks and fix my suspension that day.  Then they said they couldn’t.  Then the little 4’5” Peruvian mechanic needed to take Charlie’s bike for a ‘test ride’.  He had to pull his ass all the way off the seat just to get one leg on the ground.  No helmet, he ripped down the street with a huge smile on his face as the rear tire flared out to the side and then jerked back into alignment.  Charlie just had to watch and hope.

When the mechanic came back he said he knew a more specialized shop that could do the work that day.  We followed him there and met an even shorter guy.  I showed the new mechanic my soft rear end and Charlie mimed that where he wanted welds and reinforcements.  He seemed to understand, although wasn’t paying much attention to our requests.  We left the bikes with fingers crossed and went back to Hotel Presidente to soak in the luxury some more.

The next morning we were waiting outside the mechanic’s front door at 10:00am ready to go.  He showed up ten minutes late but seemed confident.  He brought us in and first showed us Charlie’s racks.  He had welded them, and apparently reinforced them, and even painted back over the job.  It looked alright from a distance, but as it turned out it was a pretty sloppy job and very poor quality paint.  My bike was sitting noticeably higher.  He had tightened my spring a bit and from what I gathered refilled my shock with something (oil, gas, or nitrogen).  It wasn’t great, but the rebound was a little bit stronger.  I figured it would get me to Cusco.  He charged each of us $60 (included bleeding my brakes) and we were off.

Mounting Charlie’s boxes back on the poorly welded racks was a real dilemma back at the hotel.  We managed to jam them on there around noon and then hit the road.  By the time we left town my bike had sagged back to its lowest position yet.  And then came seven hours of hard pack dirt, mud, and gravel.  The scenery that day was more of the same, sparsely populated highlands.  It was a good look at some real hard living as we pulled through the dusty villages along the way.  People out there didn’t look at us with smiles; they looked confused, startled, and often resentful.  They were friendly enough when we stopped, but the social disconnect was obvious between us.  This was a world that time forgot.

Around 5:00pm Charlie and I pulled over and asked for directions like we do every twenty miles.  We had taken the wrong path.  It took half an hour to get back to the turnoff that led to Ayacucho, our next destination.  The turnoff was unsigned and hidden off on the right side behind a building.  Straight ahead led to nowhere; the tiny turn to the right led to everywhere.  Not a single sign to designate the two. 

Back on track an hour behind schedule the sun started to dip behind the mountains.  We were still a long way from Ayacucho.  Tired and beaten, we finally pulled into Churcampa in pitch black at 7:00pm.  The place had a hotel and everyone in town was very excited to help us.  Some kids organized parking for us behind the gates of the local Catholic Church.  Right next door was our hotel.  It worked out well and Charlie and I were both asleep by 10:00pm.

We awoke at 5:00am the next morning and were on the road soon after.  Since we hadn’t made it to Ayacucho, we had some miles to make up if we planned to get to Cusco by dusk.  It looked doable.  I started asking around how long it would take.  The answers ranged from six hours to two days.  Nobody had a clue how far it was.  These people didn’t leave their homes.  They may have been to Cusco once fifteen years ago.  It was hard for us to fathom as Westerners who will drive three hundred miles just for a weekend.    Whatever it was, Cusco was far away.  Worst of all, we were in the middle of nowhere.  It was either go back to Lima via two days of dirt, or keep pushing for Cusco via days of dirt.  No escape.

On that section of the ride I hit a low point.  The bike was rattling worse than it ever had been.  Some of it was mental; my pannier locks bounce and the sound gnaws at my sanity.  Some of it was real; my rack was still loose and jiggling around on the left side.  Every bump hit harder than usual with the rear shock out.  I went from resenting the bike, to pitying it, to praying for it.  My back was knotted up from the last week of rigid dirt riding.  My shoulder had a piercing pain concentrated in one spot from constantly adjusting the throttle.  I had been putting off all of these things for days now and with Cusco sounding further and further out of reach it was all coming down on me.  Of course there was nothing to do but keep my eyes on the road and navigate the course.  Eventually I started in on a very complicated series of mental math calculations and decided Cusco was in fact within reach by the day’s end.  That was my light at the end of the tunnel.

For a while it looked like we were going to make it.  The first seven hours of dirt went by easily enough and by noon the time estimates had dropped to twelve to eighteen hours.  We kept pushing through the mountains weaving from one range to the next over all the ridges in between.  Around 3:00pm we got to Andahuaylas.  140 kilometers further and the pavement started.  We gave the local kids some candy, got gas, and tore into the dirt again.  The prospect of making it to Cusco was finally put to bed when we got stopped at a construction zone and told it would be an hour wait.  They were paving the road.  Finally, in 2011, Peru got around to connecting some of its most important dots.  We were a year too early to benefit. 

Unfortunately they were only paving a short section and we quickly were back on dirt after they set us loose.  Just like the last five days the road was about 1.5 lanes wide.  I hit the wide corners fast when I could see around them and the sharp corners slow and inside.  Right as the sun was setting, my lines proved to be not enough.  I was riding the inside of a curve when a semi emerged from around the corner.  I got right on the shoulder next to the ditch and snuck by him and his trailer.  Right behind him was another semi; he was taking the curve a little sharper.  His trailer was coming around the inside riding the shoulder that I had planned to finish out on.  There was no point in protesting or evaluating; I rode right down into the two foot deep ditch and promptly dropped the bike against the hill in the soft mud.  Charlie was too far ahead to notice, so it took me a few minutes to figure out how to straighten the bars and right the bike on my own.  Even though it wasn’t all the way on its side, the ditch made it challenging to get any leverage to pull it up.  Finally I weaseled my way between the hill and the bike and pushed it up.  Then I had to get on and out of the ditch.  I got real muddy, but it actually went pretty smoothly after that.

By then the sun had set and we still had forty dirt miles to go.  Charlie and I have been caught in the dark lately and it’s never our intention.  We’ve been pushing ourselves to keep up with Ivan’s route and the maps are often very deceiving.  Even worse is that the sun goes down early behind the walls of mountains.  Regardless, we had to finish.  Downhill dirt roads in the dark with cliffs around every corner were not fun for the next hour and a half.  It seemed to go on forever, but we finally pulled into Abancay around 7:30pm.  The ten day dirt battle was over.  I’m not sure that I won, but I survived.

Saturday afternoon after 130 miles of mountainous pavement we pulled into Cusco.  We settled in a motorcycle hangout hotel called Casa Grande and instantly crawled into bed with our computers.  First on my agenda was sending out the S.O.S.  I explained my suspension situation on both ADVrider and Horizons Unlimited asking the experts for ideas.  This whole trip was organized by information from those forums and there was no doubt they’d have ideas for this road bump.  I posted my distress calls and went down to Norton Rat’s Tavern for a pint of keg beer.

Norton Rat’s is known to be a motorcycle knowledge mill and I went there looking for Ivan’s friend Jeff Powers.  Jeff wasn’t there, but they had ESPN on in English so I stuck around.  When I got back to the hotel my luck had already changed.  An ADVrider inmate named Pat from California had already gotten back to me.  Pat had been following Alex’s and my blogs from the start and he rides a DR650 at home himself.  His profile stats show him to be an expert and he had (relatively) good news.  Although I already had resigned to it, it was sad to hear that my rear shock was obviously blown and in need of a replacement or a professional rebuild.  Rebuilds are technical and I’d already been ripped off once.  Replacements don’t exist in Peru.  That’s where I’m at now.

The good news is that Pat has a spare stock shock at home that he’s willing to ship down at the rock bottom price of $150.  I had looked into buying some $1000 replacement shock, but Charlie made a good point that putting 1/3 of the bike’s value into one component isn’t the smartest financial decision… especially since I don’t know that I’ll even own the machine in six months’ time.  The only problem is that Peruvian customs are known to halt delivery on such items and start up a nasty import tax process that could waste a lot of my time and force me to show up in Lima.  I’m still working the details out on that.

Today I went back to Norton Rat’s and talked to Jeff Powers.  He recommended me to a trusted mechanic whom I’ll check out tomorrow morning.  I pondered that and watched the Packers dominate the Bears over more draft beer in the evening.  If the mechanic doesn’t have a quick, local solution, I’m left with two options.  Slow Alex down and have him buy me a shock in Colombia where my bike is sold, or have Pat send down the shock and potentially deal with customs.  Right now all signs point to Pat.  I just have to do a little more research to make the process as smooth as possible.  I’d also like to thank Darrell from the community as well.  We met in Mazatlan in the motorcycle parade and he’s been in touch on the blogs ever since.  Today he offered some sound mechanic advice on my situation as well as a generous cash donation to Alex’s Paypal account.

The ADVrider community proved its worth yet again.  Even when we’re out here with the odds stacked against us there is a legion of supporters ready to jump in and help in any way.  There aren’t not a lot of people out here riding motorcycles around the world ignoring all the fearful warnings, and that makes it a very tight group.  I’ll make up my mind in the next 24 hours on how to get this part down here and if I make the wrong decision, I rest assured there’ll be more people to help bail me out.  

September 20, 2011

Fotos IX

Here are some of the better pictures of Peru so far.  There should be plenty more to come.  Check out the latest report below.  Also, you can click on these photos to enlarge them.  I just realized that.

My bike vs. Charlie's in the lonely Peruvian desert between the Ecuador border and Lima.

These dunes came and went the whole way down.
Charlie taking in our very first view of the Cordillera Blanca.

Here's the lake and glacier that we hiked to from The Way Inn.

And another shot from the ride that day.
36 tunnels in 17 kilometers.  You can see two here.  The scale of the valley is impossible to convey.

Here's Charlie in front of a couple tunnels.
Looking west down on the two lakes above Yungay from 15,300 feet.  Struggling to breathe.

This is the road we climbed up on.

One last shot of the Cordillera Blanca after we came down from Huari.  'These are the days you should be having'


9/18/2011- New Heights

The last three days have been absolutely draining, although full of adventure.  Except for the worst food poisoning I’ve experienced in my life this morning, the Cordillera Blanca has continued to deliver.  Charlie and I left The Way Inn late Friday morning after we both repacked our panniers.  I culled a few small items, but more importantly packed all my heavy items toward the front of the boxes for a better ride.  Down in Huaraz we made a stop at the city’s only trusted ‘big’ motorcycle mechanic.  We needed Herbert to remove a nut holding Charlie’s front sprocket on since none of us had a 30mm socket.  Herbert and his brother loved our bikes and gave us a lot of good advice.  They sent us off around 1:00pm heading north for Huallanca.

Charlie and I had been debating for days where to go after Huaraz.  We fantasized about going up and around the range then eventually meeting up with Ivan’s route.  We also wanted to cross through the middle.  Before any decisions, though, we had to go to Huallanca.  Every motorcyclist I’ve met heading north has told me about the road from Huaraz to Huallanca.  It’s well-renowned as one of the coolest roads in the world by experts. 

After a gas stop in Yungay, we were ready to experience all the hype.  Just north of Huaraz, Canyon del Pato starts.  It’s a canyon at least 1,000 meters deep with nearly vertical walls.  The road led in from the highlands winding down until it spat us on the West side of the canyon.  With seventeen kilometers remaining before Huallanca, the road turned to dirt, barely clinging to the canyon wall.  Then started a series of 36 different tunnels in those next 17 kilometers.  The road was one lane with no guard rails to shield the 100 meter drop down to the river below.  Throughout the descent I looked down the stretch and could see the next several tunnels up ahead.  Some tunnels were 10 meters long, some 500.  All of them were dark, narrow, and very bumpy.  The road was built to support a hydroelectric plant in the canyon so there were gated paths leading deeper into the mountains inside the bigger tunnels.  There were rope ladders hanging overhead and precarious rocks were tied into the wall in case they gave way.  Charlie and I both agreed it was about as Indiana Jones as it gets rolling through these empty rock tunnels.  All the other guys were spot on, coolest road in the world.

Finally we burst out of the thirty-sixth tunnel into Huallanca.  We stopped for lunch and pulled out the map.  The map showed the entire road around the range being more dirt; we talked to a construction worker and he confirmed it.  After a little more deliberation we decided to head back to Yungay for the night, and then cross the mountains via Yanama on Saturday.  I normally hate backtracking, but heading back through the tunnels only led to more bewilderment at the opposite angle.  The pictures won’t do it justice, but I’ll get them up soon. 

Saturday morning we were up early with our eyes on the pass.  As soon as we left Yungay the road turned to dirt; it was the last pavement we’d see for the next hundred miles.  The road for Yanama climbed up through a valley in which two lakes had formed at around 3,500 meters.  The lakes were a beautiful bright blue, and fed by a glacial stream.  Surrounding them were little clusters of local livestock feeding off the nearby vegetation. 

From the lakes the road really got wild.  It turned into a series of switchbacks that piled on each other in the tightest formation I’ve seen.  Each switchback was about an eighth mile long and only a hundred feet above the previous.  We kept running into some Peruvian tourists in a taxi the whole way up and they couldn’t get enough pictures with us.  Finally at 11:30am we hit the pass at 15,300 feet.  Right at the top was the snow line and there were flakes falling.  It was cold, but more dramatic was the lack of oxygen.  Charlie and I were both panting standing still.  We took a lot of pictures, accepted some food from Peruvian tourists, and then kept going. 

Around 1:00pm we arrived in Panama after a steep descent through thick fog and plenty of mud.  We got a pretty bland lunch,  and then kept pushing forward hoping to find a hotel in San Luis, where we would meet up with the mountain loop road.  The road kept dropping past countless untouched Peruvian ranches that probably haven’t changed at all in the last couple centuries; the farmers were sewing their fields with oxen and wooden plows.  We pulled into San Luis around 4:00pm; it had a paved main street and that was it.  The place didn’t look too inviting, so Charlie and I decided to grind even harder to the next town Huari. 

The road to Huari was more of the same: dirt, potholes, stream crossings, and no guard rails.  It was about forty miles and we knocked it off pretty quick considering.  After an entire day of dirt, I was getting pretty good at leaning a 500 pound dirt bike around hairpin curves.  We finally got to Huari just as the sun was setting.  We went to the best hotel in town, and put down $15 total for a room with three beds, cable TV, and hot water.  They let us park the bikes in their garage for an extra buck each, and finally the ride was over.  My back was completely knotted from fighting the handle bars all day; I haven’t been happier to take a break.  I’m happy to say the bike did surprisingly well.  The only mishap was a loose bolt on my luggage racks.  I’ll have to tighten it up tomorrow morning.

That night we went out for a quick chicken and rice dinner in the little town center and then walked back to our hotel to pass out at 9:00pm.  3:00am I woke up uncomfortable with rumbling guts.  I rolled over and slept until 5:00am.  That’s when I woke up with a weak stomach and a run of diarrhea.  I took an Imodium and went back to bed.  6:30am I was on my hands and knees puking into the toilet bowl.  For the next three hours I couldn’t get out of the bathroom for more than ten minutes at a time.  Several times I was taking turns on which way to face the toilet, lucky to get a flush in between.  As soon as the city woke up Charlie went down to his first aid kit and came back with a drug cocktail for me.  I started with an anti-nausea tablet and puked it up immediately.  Then I took another and managed to keep it down long enough to kick in.  Next I took two Tinidazol antibacterial pills and later two Norfloxacin to stop the leaking.  That was six hours ago and everything seems to have calmed down a bit.  I haven’t eaten anything but some Ritz crackers and a banana.  I’ve kept down plenty of Gatorade, so I’m well hydrated.  Tomorrow I expect to wake up weak, but functional.  Then it’s off to Cusco; four more days of dirt and mountains.  We me (and the bike) luck.

9/20/11- High Times

Charlie’s drugs worked perfectly and after one hollow day in bed I was ready to head off.  We took off early in the morning from Huari destined for Huanuco, across another mountain range.  The first sixty kilometers were painstakingly slow.  It was a paved road, mostly.  Around every corner was a patch of mud or gravel that made the whole ride slow and miserable.  Every time the wind started to hit my face I had to slam on the brakes and dodge potholes.  It was maddening too because I couldn’t fix my loose side rack in Huari so every bump I could hear my racks rattle just a little bit.  What has happened is the steel racks have actually worn enough to rattle themselves free on the left side.  I used Loctite to glue the bolt in last time; I tried to get it off but was afraid of breaking my wrench.  I’m going to limp it to Cusco and deal with it then.

I’ve just done some research on Cusco and apparently there is a strong adventure rider stronghold built up.  It makes sense; Macchu Pichu is the biggest attraction on the continent so everyone ends up there at some point.  There is a place called Norton Rat’s Tavern and that will be my first stop.  Even more pressing than my racks is my rear shock.  The rear end has slowly sagged over the last 15,000 miles and six months, but in the last 500 miles there has been a dramatic depreciation.  When I left home I could barely touch the ground over the bike with my tip toes.  Now I can stand flat footed with the seat inches below my ass.  Even worse is the riding performance.  Normally when I hit a speed bump, I go over and the rear end bobs once and then settles.  With a shot shock it bounces up and down several times after every bump.  The worst is when I hit a bump coming into a curve.  It’s not fun leaning at 60mph with my ass end floating up and down around the corner.  It needs to be fixed and Cusco will be my ticket.

After we hit the pavement outside of Huari Charlie and I headed east into the mountains.  The ride was cold and often wet.  Back in Central America we’d feel out the rain before putting on our liners; not here.  It’s too high to get wet, too cold.  We had our rain gear on most of the day.  We came over the big pass at 14,200 feet and then started a descent towards Huanuco as the sun was starting to dip.  It wasn’t ideal, but there was no other option.  Charlie and I navigated one of the worst roads I’ve seen for at least an hour in pitch black.  It was another steep, windy, one-lane paved road with two-way traffic and no guard rails.  On the downhill side were only steep cliffs.  It was actually better in the dark because we could see the oncoming lights coming around the corners.  We pulled into Huanuco tired and resolute at 7:30pm.

This morning, Tuesday, we covered another 250 miles, all of it over the mountains and arrived in Huancayo.  We’re on Ivan’s route and he has written in two more days before arrival in Cusco.  Except for the llamas and our ride across some arid high plains, the ride was nothing spectacular.  Just another day riding a motorcycle around the world.  I’m really excited for Cusco.  We’ve been off the gringo trail for over a week now and I’m tired of feeling like an alien every time I pull into town.  It will be nice to get back to a party scene too for a few days.  After that, it’s off to them Amazon and then Lake Titicaca.    

September 15, 2011

In the Andes Now

When I used to sit in my hotel room in Alaska and dream about this trip I always imagined high revs on mountain roads under a snowcapped backdrop with clouds forming in the distance.  I envisioned myself climbing as high as the bike would go into the unknown and then ditching it in the bushes to push even further on foot.  As it turns out, I was dreaming of Peru.  Finally outside of the desert coast, this place is starting to show its true colors and they’re like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

Charlie and I tore out of Lima early Tuesday morning.  Ivan’s route had us backtracking about 200 miles north and we wanted to get that over with as soon as possible.  We only got pulled over once on the way back up and this time we had some fun with it.  The best strategy is to make their job as hard as possible.  Step one, pull over about 500 yards past where they flag you.  Step two, don’t shut off the engines or take off helmets.  Step three, take a picture of them.  Step four, ask directions.  Perform these without one word of Spanish and you’re free within minutes.  We made it to the Huaraz turnoff just after noon, filled up our tanks, and said goodbye to the Pacific.

The rest of the afternoon we meandered into the foothills across endless fields of red rock and eventually up into the thin air.  The ascent really picked up just as we entered a thirty mile construction zone.  Construction zones are great in South America because motorcycles are treated like royalty.  We always ride to the front of the line, and usually the flaggers let us pass through even with oncoming traffic in the open lane.  We made pretty short work of it, although the entire time battling a layer of peat gravel that was recently laid down without any tar underneath.  Peat gravel is the worst; it scatters like regular gravel, but like sand it never bites solid ground.  It feels like riding on flat tires.  Our TKC-80’s ate it up.

After a couple hours we had gained some serious altitude and the weather was starting to turn.  Sprinkles were starting to come down on every other switchback and the air was getting painfully cold.  Finally, at well over 4,000 meters we crested the pass.  The next horizon came into view and it was what I’ve been waiting for since those sunless days in Fairbanks.  In the valley below was Huaraz and rising up into a long stretch of jagged glaciated sawtooth peaks behind it was the Cordillera Blanca Range.  The Cordillera is the highest mountain range in the world outside of the Himalayas and we had a course set for dead center.

Charlie and headed down into Huaraz which sits at 3,500 meters and eventually found a hotel with parking after a very tedious struggle.  We had only planned one night in Huaraz, but the looming peaks overhead were swaying our ideas.  That night I went to bed at 8:30pm; I was exhausted from the ride, the cold, and most of all the altitude.  I woke up at 7:00am Wednesday morning refreshed and excited.  Charlie and I both agreed that we were finally getting into some real adventure so we went to a local gringo breakfast shop to figure out how we could sink our teeth into it.  Inside it became apparent that Huaraz is Peru’s gateway to the Andes.  Everyone was there to camp, trek, or climb.  My kind of people.  Charlie struck up a conversation with a climber named Kevin who had been living in Seattle for the last several years attending UW.  We had a good chat and Kevin recommended us to a mountain lodge called The Way Inn.

After nearly six months of hostels I’m getting really tired of their unending corny names, but The Way Inn sounded like an ideal place to use as a base to explore the Andes.  We rode up that afternoon via a dirt road that I swore was leading to nowhere.  It was fifteen kilometers up into the base of the mountain range past countless Peruvian farm fields and stone huts.  Kevin’s advice delivered; The Way Inn is built on a rolling highland prairie overlooking Huaraz with the big peaks just an hour’s hike away.  We settled into a nice room with a fireplace and two beds; Charlie was kind enough to cover the brunt of the cost because he loved the convenience versus the dorms and he knew the private room was outside my budget. 

After soaking in the atmosphere for a while, I went straight to the one constant of this entire trip: bike maintenance.  Tuesday afternoon I noticed my fifth gear was becoming less and less applicable as we climbed higher.  I could get up to 70mph in fourth gear, switch to fifth, and then inevitably I’d lose the speed and end up back in fourth gear even on the flat sections.  The thin air wasn’t giving enough power to keep fifth going.  Wednesday on the dirt road I was forced to ride my clutch way too much getting off the line every time.  The weight of the spare tire wasn’t helping.  The solution was easy and for once I was prepared.  I put the bike up on blocks, loosened the rear wheel, and swapped out my fifteen tooth front sprocket for my spare fourteen tooth.  A test drive up and down the driveway left me satisfied; way more low-end torque.  I won’t be able to go 80mph at sea level anymore, but I don’t plan to make it back down there for quite a while.

This morning, Thursday, Charlie and I pulled the side boxes off our bikes and got ready to go exploring.  We packed up a sack lunch, water, some warm clothes, and a tool kit for the excursion.  We had no plan nor directions, we just wanted to go as deep as possible into the mountains.  With a smaller front sprocket, dirt tires, and a lightened load, my bike ripped like a monster the whole day.  We cruised on gravel for ten or fifteen kilometers before coming to a turnoff that peeled off between two peaks.  Although the path was considerably worse than the last stretch of gravel, it was what we were looking for.  We set off on the steep incline full of loose baseball-sized rocks. 

For ten minutes we climbed in first gear slowly but surely carving forward.  A ways up a Peruvian on a Honda dirt bike flagged us down and said we were entering Huascaran National Park.  There was nothing official about him, except that he was asking for the park entrance fee ($1.50 each).  Neither Charlie nor I had much change so we ended up giving him about $2 and a couple cigarettes.  He was happy and so were we.  He gave us some information about the park and said we’d find a lake at the top.

The rest of the ride could never have been accomplished with the gear payload I usually carry.  It was an obstacle course for the next twenty kilometers.  Dodge the rocks that you have to, pop over the rest.  I went through most of it standing on my foot pegs leaning slightly over the handlebars.  It’s the best way to keep track of the bike’s weight and it lets your knees take the blows instead of your ass.  The trail met up with a bright blue stream and we started following that up the valley through a series of switchbacks.  On either side of us were towering cliffs and at the other end we could see a massive snow-covered peak. 

Finally at the mouth of the stream the path ended near some camping spots.  Charlie and I parked, cabled our bikes and helmets together, and continued on foot.  We scrambled up the valley on goat tracks for another half hour before finally reaching the top the ridge between us and the lake.  We were in the middle of nowhere, finally.  On top of the ridge we ate lunch and took in the view.  There were two peaks overhead with a ridge between them that had a glacier advancing into the lake in front of us.  The lake was turquoise and full of little icebergs.   Every few minutes the ice would shift and crackle through the valley.  After the hubbub of Lima, this was a welcomed change.  We took a lot of pictures and hung out in the high-altitude sun until the clouds started to get darker in the distance. 

Around 2:00pm we were back at the bikes, exhausted from the lack of oxygen.  We took off just as the hail started falling on us.  Although it didn’t get us wet initially, the hail was striking down like needles even though my riding gear.  We followed the stream back down and soon dropped down into rain.  Slippery rocks, mud, and poor visibility the entire way back; still no clue why I loved it so much, but it was a blast.  We pulled into The Way Inn soaked and exhilarated.  It wouldn’t have taken much to get my blood pumping after the last 1,000 miles on the Panamerican, but today was a rush.  

September 12, 2011

Diplomatic Power

Lima has delivered: new tires, lots of McDonald’s, and some expert motorcycling advice.  While Charlie and I weren’t originally too keen to spend four nights here, it seemed to work out pretty well anyway.  I’m well rested and energized to head into the Andes to see what all the fuss is about Peru.  The last 1,000km of dunes set the bar pretty low, so just about any change in scenery would get the ball rolling in the right direction towards Cusco.

Charlie and I got up at a leisurely hour Friday morning and hit the road for three more hours of sand, wind, and corrupt police.  We knew that Ty was having trouble finding our lauded Continental TKC-80’s in Lima, so we made our first destination in town the KTM dealer that was supposed to stock the tires.  We pulled up around 1:00pm letting Charlie’s Garmin lead the whole way.  Lima didn’t look too promising; the outskirts are several miles of sugar can huts built up on the sand.  Beyond that was a dirty industrial zone where we found KTM.  Inside the dealership we asked if the warehouse had our tires; they did.  Ecstatic, Charlie and I each bought a set right there.  We considered buying a spare rear ($170 for two tires is a smoking deal), but decided to wait and think it over.  We left the building beaming with satisfaction, excited to show off the fresh rubber to Ty at the hostel.

Outside KTM while we were lashing down our new tires a Spaniard pulled out of the garage on a cherry KTM 990 Adventure R.  It’s a cool bike, so we had some questions for him.  Charlie and I picked Nacho’s brain for a bit about where to buy gear.  Before long he was leading us across town to his favorite shop.  Nacho immediately began giving us helpful advice.  He was very aware of what a foreigner would and wouldn’t know.  He warned us that Lima doesn’t have a bike culture, so we have to protect ourselves more on the road.  Also petty theft seems to thrive here.  I asked Nacho how he ever arrived in Lima; turns out he’s a diplomat for the European Union.  Not a bad guy to find in a city of 9 million. 

The more we all hung out the more information Nacho had.  After the gear shop he had a couple hostel recommendations.  It wasn’t Ty and Jill’s hostel, but it was nearby and we wanted to ride his coattails a little further.  Nacho brought us to a nice location in the Miraflores district, Lima’s first class downtown.  Charlie and I checked in, showered up, and half an hour later walked down to the corner to a bar that Nacho had in mind.  He took us in, ordered us his favorite drinks, and called Ivan.  We sat there for twenty minutes listening to Nacho’s previous adventures on his bike all over South America.  As a diplomat, he is deployed to different places around the world for years at a time.  In his spare time, he gets to know them via one of the coolest adventure bikes on the market. 

Soon Ivan showed up, who according to Nacho is Peru’s foremost motorcycle adventure expert.  Ivan was just as cool to hang out with and had an answer to every question.  It’s refreshing to talk to two people who actually understand what it’s like to be on a bike for ten hours a day.  They know what sounds good, and what sounds like a waste of time.  Ivan plotted a route for us on Charlie’s maps that leads from Huaraz to Cusco through the Andes.  He swears it will be some of our best riding the entire trip.  We have to go back north to get to the start, but it will be well worth it.  Ivan’s stories were plenty, but to prove his status in the motorcycle adventure world he showed me a picture of himself with Alex’s hero Hubert Kriegel.  Ever since Al concocted this adventure three years ago, he’s been showing me pictures of Hubert all around the world.  What a trip to see the man himself with his classic red glasses standing next to my friend Ivan at the southern tip of South America.  The further I go, the smaller the world.

Saturday morning Charlie and I were up early and off to Ty and Jill’s hostel.  We were also hoping that Andy and Cass had shown up.  We walked into Ty’s room to find him smiling at us with five brand new TKC-80’s in the corner.  He had bought us each a pair at KTM just minutes after we took off with Nacho.  What looked like a nightmare developing actually turned into a great success; within six hours we had a home for each new tire.  We’re leaving a pair for Alex to pick up and Charlie and I each will carry a spare rear for 6,000 miles down the road.  I figure that finding them was hard enough once and I seem to have enough worries on this trip as it is. 

My engine, for example.  It’s running great right now but Saturday I noticed a small buildup of tar around one of the important gaskets on the engine head.  I don’t have a spare, and it won’t be easy to find.  I’ve shown it to the other boys and everyone assured me that it’s not the end of the world.  If I had a spare, maybe I’d change it; since I don’t, I’ll just keep an eye on it.  It’s not dripping and there’s no pressure behind it anyway, so no sirens.  In truth, it’s just a single cylinder engine with 19,000 miles on it.  It’s bombproof, but it’ll still show some wear.  The bike just isn’t as pretty as it was when I left and I’m starting to accept that as fact.  It won’t get any prettier over the next 10,000 miles, that’s for sure.

Today, Monday, Charlie’s and my bike went to professional shop to have the tires replaced.  I had my fourth oil change as well.  It’s not cheap work, but I trusted the mechanic (also named Tato) that Ivan recommended and every so often it’s nice to have a pro work on the bike and tell you it’s in great shape.  It’s going to have to be for the next stretch.  Charlie and I intend to get pretty far into the wild while the other four take the Panamerican to Cusco.  Tonight might be the last with Andy and Cass for a while, at least until I move to Perth, Australia (one of the ideas I’ve been kicking around [don’t worry, I’ll come home first]).  It will be sad to see them go, but I’m used to it after over five months of goodbyes.  I have no doubt we’ll be seeing Ty and Jill again soon.

I’m constantly eyeing my bank account on this trip, fretting over money spent and future expenditures.  Whenever I get real bent out of shape I have to pull up a world map and convince myself just how far I’ve come.  We’re well into South America now yet it seems like last week that Alex and I were pissing away in Barranquilla.  While the trip still has months to go, it’s time to come up with a more concrete plan for the ending.  We’ve always talked about getting to Argentina as the goal.  That’s just over a month away.  There will be plenty to accomplish there, but at some point I need to start focusing on how to get home. 

It’s not a backpacking trip where you book a flight online and hop in a cab to the airport.  I’ve got to find a freighter that will ship the bike to the states for a reasonable price.  Or a buyer that will take it from me.  A freighter might only send it to certain places; I’d have to coordinate a flight ride it home from the port.  And the cheapest option may involve heading into Brazil, which I never planned to do.  Or I can wait around down here and work.  Maybe a ski season in the Andes?  That would make up for my hernia-botched Baker experiment.  There are a lot of options, that’s why I’m already working on them.  For the last two years my only focus was getting on the road, so it’s a thrill to have a new project and new dreams to ponder. 

I’m anxious to get to Buenos Aires.  Not because I’m sick of this, but because I want to have it under my belt.  Every day we get closer, the goal becomes more feasible.  I don’t want to miss anything in between, but there are times recently that I’ve wanted to just ride day and night all the way to BA to validate all the hard work, obnoxious claims, and machismo surrounding this trip.  That day will come, and with it a whole new set of goals.  Waiting is the hard part, even on the trip of a lifetime.

September 8, 2011

Cruisin' Peru

1,000 miles have methodically ticked by since Cotopaxi.  They’ve been pretty easy, but I already feel sorry for Alex having to catch up.

The morning we left Secret Garden at Cotopaxi I walked out to my bike to find a flat front tire; the first since Mexico.  I was mentally preparing to start the tire iron war when Charlie told me to check the valve before disassembling the front end.  I spat a nice glob of mucus on my finger and applied it to the valve stem… and bubbles were blowing out.  I’ll take this scenario over a flat any day.  In two minutes I had the valve replaced with a spare and Charlie’s electronic pump was bringing me back to 35psi.

We made good time that day.  I don’t know that we covered a remarkable distance, but we pulled into Cuenca, Ecuador past sunset after a lot of hard mountain riding.  The picture below looking down the valley with Andy and Cass was taken that day.  At our overpriced hostel that night Andy got ahold of Jill and we hatched a plan to meet up with her, Ty, Alex and Kristi in Peru the next day.  We were out the door early in the morning and off the Panamerican for the first time since Cali.  Instead of following the Panamerican inland we dropped down to the Pacific coast and cruised the beach until the Peruvian border around 2:00pm.  As I mentioned in my last post, the crossing was as simple as they come… and free. 

Two more hours of freeway cruising and we arrived at Loki Hostel in Mancora, Peru.  Loki Hostel is a well-known name throughout Peru and Bolivia as they have several locations over the next two countries.  They’re known to be party hostels where every night goes off.  After hearing endless good reviews from everyone up ahead, I was excited.  Upon arrival, Loki fit the bill.  A big bar with a pool table on the left, a swimming pool in the middle, and three stories of dorm rooms on the right.  It’s right on the beach and the perfect stage for a fiesta.

As it turned out, Loki failed to impress me.  It was great to see everybody, but at the end of the day I was in adventure mode, not party boy.  I had a good time our first night, but the entire environment seemed forced.  The place was setup fine and had potential, but at the end of the night the magic wasn’t there.  Back at Zephyrlodge drinking games would materialize out of nowhere and involve everyone at the table; at Loki I was shrugging off dread heads every ten minutes who were all begging for extra members to their power hour.  Maybe I would have been more receptive back in Guatemala, but this is South America and my eyes are on mountain roads and Argentinean wine fields.  The appeal of stumbling around on dirty overrated beaches wore off thousands of miles ago.

Our second night at Loki was real tame given our 6:00am wakeup plan.  To absolutely cement my criticism, the Loki bar blasted music through our window until 2:30am.  I woke up unsure whether I’d even slept and saddle up for a 600km day.  Andy was feeling crook right at the onset, but he managed to suck down a Gatorade and compose himself.  An hour into the trip I pulled over to make an adjustment and (my greatest fear…) the bike wouldn’t start back up.  It was turning over, but it wouldn’t ignite.  Good thing we’re experts at this now.  While Charlie and I started tearing the bike to pieces Andy’s illness caught up with him and he decided to push ahead and find the next hotel for the night.  He wished us luck and said he’s see us in Lima if not before.  We haven’t seen him since.

Fearing the makeshift stator from Panama had failed, the first thing we did was check for spark.  Charlie held the plug to the frame while I hit the starter; his yelp from the shockewas a good sign (we had spark).  We replaced the plugs with new ones from Cali and the engine turned over immediately.  The used ones looked alright and weren’t that old, so I’m not sure what happened.  I didn’t really care, the bike was running.  Charlie and I took off in pursuit of Andy and ended up riding until 7:00pm (well into the dark) to Trujillo without ever seeing him.  The weather that Wednesday was generally overcast, very reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest.  All of Northern Peru has been very desolate.  Charlie and I rode through a hundred mile stretch of nothing but flat desert in every direction.  The entire way we fought a brutal wind and sand slapping our eyeballs.  Every fifty miles or so we would pass a group of pedestrians draped in purple robes dragging a life sized cross along the desert.  It’s obviously some Christian reference, but I still haven’t figured out the point.

That night we broke the golden rule: we rode at night.  Neither of us really wanted to, but there was nothing between sundown and Trujillo so we had to keep going.  It got real cold and visibility was limited on those rural desert roads.  There was plenty of traffic to keep us from feeling vulnerable, but the physical toll was starting to weigh heavy on me when we pulled into Trujillo.  Charlie’s GPS led us directly to a hotel and we crashed the second we hit the beds.

Thursday, today, was another long haul.  Charlie and I hit the road well-rested at 10:00am and rode hard over hundreds of miles of dunes all the way to Barranca by 6:00pm with very few stops… except for two laughable police encounters.  Around 5:00pm on the final stretch Charlie was flagged down for passing on a double yellow on a long straightaway.  This was one of the most enjoyable police experiences I’ve had.  The cop was so impressed with our bikes and our situation that he couldn’t keep a smile off his face the entire time he explained Charlie’s infraction and the resulting fine.  The entire time we just smiled back and spoke only confusing English to him.  He took Charlie’s license and explained that we would have to wait until the morning to get it back when we pay the traffic fine at the bank in Barranca.  Playing along, we agreed that would be great; write the infraction please.  He explained this several times waiting for us to offer a bribe, but Charlie wouldn’t budge.  Finally the happy officer had a ‘solution’; he handed Charlie his license and then kindly asked for a small act of kindness so he could take his wife out on a date.  Without blinking Charlie gave him three dollars and we were off.

Literally ten minutes later we were both pulled over for speeding.  Same story, they took the licenses and told us they’ll be at the bank in the morning.  We told them to write the tickets again.  The whole time I spoke the most basic Spanish I could.  Alex and I have slowly learned it’s better to play dumb than to try to defend yourself.  When they know you can understand, they know you’re coercible.  When you stand there and tell them it’s cold out with a big smile on your face, they get real tired real quick.  The main guy wrote out two infractions and showed them to us.  Charlie and I looked at them, smiled, and gave two thumbs up; the four of us stood there looking at each other for a moment.  Then, out of nowhere, another ‘solution’!  The cop handed our licenses back to us, recommended a nice hotel in Barranca, and told us to have a nice afternoon.  We smiled for real this time.

Ten minutes later again we arrived in our fancy $20 hotel and I’ve been on my computer ever since.  We’re three hours north of Lima, which means we’ll be seeing Ty and Jill tomorrow.  Charlie and I intend to buy dirt tires and then head back this direction for some of the storied mountain roads up here near Huarez.  Apparently there is a dirt loop with 40 tunnels along the way through a national park.  Sounds like paradise.  We’ve been cruising pretty fast the last week, but in truth we haven’t missed much.  Just a 700 miles of dunes and desert.  Peru is supposed to have a lot to offer, so I hope Huarez kicks it nicely with a fresh pair of Continental TKC-80’s.

September 6, 2011

Fotos VIII

Just a quickie here.  We left Cotopaxi on Sunday and have since arrived in Mancora, Peru.  The border crossing was the easiest yet.  The scenery was expansive.  South America seems to have a more streamlined process than Central.  Had a great night with Ty and Jill, but they hit the road today and we'll do the same tomorrow heading for Lima.  There is a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert next week in Lima; I hope to attend.  Here are some pictures of the last couple thousand miles.

Previously the highest point my bike had ridden: 3,300 meters.

Las Lajas Sanctuary.  We thought it looked a little tacky.  Note Andy's forehead front and center.

Not so tacky from this angle.
Overlooking Quito's expanse with Charlie from Pichincha Mounain.

Mitad del Mundo.

Charlie and I at the waterfall above Secret Garden.  It was underwhelming but good to get outside.

The best shot of Cotopaxi I could get.  Meet Cass' ass!

Charlie and I at the refuge struggling to breath.
Final day in the Ecuadorian mountains.  Another mysterious picture of Cass.

Here's Charlie's bike staring down into the lowlands where the clouds have crept in like the tide.  We were up there.


Over the course of the last few weeks this motorcycle ride has taken a decidedly different turn.  I’ve been living above 2,000 meters for the last nine days and it’s only up from here.  We crossed into winter just before Quito and every day on the road takes us further into the cold.  Of course this hemisphere is working its way toward summer, but that’s four months away.  Until then, the shorts and tee shirts will stay at the bottom of my stuff sacks with flannels and jeans on top.

Friday the gang was ready and we headed for the hills.  Garmin doesn’t make maps for Ecuador so Charlie’s GPS couldn’t save the day on our way toward Cotopaxi.  We had written directions, though, and they were good enough.  There was a lot of head scratching, but by 1:00pm we pulled up to the Secret Garden hostel via ten miles of wet, slippery cobblestone road.  Charlie and I have both decided that we are getting better tires as soon as possible.  The Pirellis we currently ride are fine for tarmac, weak on gravel, and dangerous in dirt.  With Peru and Bolivia in the distance, we are each going to buy a pair of Continental TKC-80’s (the stock BMW dual-sport tire) as soon as we can find them.  Until then, we’ll just have to do what we did Friday: let the tires slide and do your best to keep the center of gravity on top of them.

Our hostel in Quito for the first two days was called Secret Garden.  It was a decent night’s sleep, but we had complaints.  More than the inflated prices, cold showers, and weak Wi-Fi, the security guard pissed us off the most.  Quito municipal law states that city-wide quiet hours start at 11:00pm, so Secret Garden shuts down all common areas at 10:30pm and hires a contract security guard to enforce the curfew.  Being treated like children is annoying enough; when the hostel staff first told me to go to bed at 10:30pm I laughed.  It’s inconceivable.  Then I met the security guard and while taking a leak in the public bathroom past curfew.  He was an asshole and yelled at me for wandering around past curfew.  The night only got worse from there for the other guests.  Two people caught the guard trying to pickpocket them.  He advanced on half the female residents.  Worst of all, he pulled his baton out and threatened to whack an Australian for eating chicken in the common area with the lights off.  We found the Aussie minutes later finishing the meal on the toilet in our dormitory.  All this for just $10/night!

Secret Garden in Quito grew old real quick, but everyone kept saying that the real gem was their outpost hostel out in the hills near Cotopaxi National Park.  We showed up on the bikes with high hopes, and for the most part, they were fulfilled.  I’ll get the bad out of the way first.  The food at Secret Garden Cotopaxi was a joke.  Every meal left me hungry for more and starved of protein.  I’m struggling to keep weight on right now and getting ¼ hotdog per meal did not help.  Sure there were all the free bananas you could eat, but they were also the base ingredient for most meals.  Which leads me to the toilet: a composting dung heap.  There was also very limited electricity.  Candles are great, but often the rooms didn’t have enough to see across the room.  The only heat was a fireplace in each dorm (actually pretty cool).  The whole point of Secret Garden Cotopaxi is to be green and self-sufficient, etc.  But at $30/night for a bunk bed, I expect a bit more than bird food and a glorified outhouse. 

That said, I did enjoy my stay in the mountains.  There were three volunteer hosts who had the most interaction with us and they were great.  Eli and David from Utah as well as Dominic from Germany created a super fun, laid-back atmosphere the entire time I was there.  The day we arrived Charlie and I did a two hour hike to a nearby waterfall with Dominic.  It wasn’t too intense, but the 3,500 meter elevation had me wheezing the whole way.  That night over our vegetable soup main course we committed to a tour into Cotopaxi National Park that included a hike to the glacier.

Charlie, Cass, and I hopped in a Mazda pickup with our certified guide Carlos Saturday morning set off for the world’s highest active volcano (Andy decided to hang back and plan the route to Peru).  It was an hour and a half ride out there on roads that were better suited for our dirt bikes.  The terrain was surreal; sparse grassland with giant boulders scattered across it.  Every so often a pine forest would pop up and then disappear just as quickly.  By the time we arrived at the trailhead parking lot there were patches of snow in every direction and we were high in the clouds. 

With the wind blowing at least 15mph, we got dressed for the cold and followed Carlos to the trailhead.  Carlos walked us right up to a shale hill and pointed up.  300 meters above was a building in the distance.  It was a kilometer hike straight up with nearly 1,000 foot gain.  There were no switchbacks, just one foot in front of the other for forty-five straight minutes of struggling to breathe.  About half-way up Cass was forced to turn around with the initial signs of altitude sickness.  Charlie and I kept plodding along following 5’8” Carlos who’s tree trunk legs powered straight up like a machine.  By the time we reached the destination both Charlie and I were absolutely winded, but excited to finally get some exercise. 

The building on top is a refuge and starting point for mountaineers attempting to summit the peak.  The elevation: 4,810 meters.  Highest I’ve ever been.  We stopped inside for a hot tea and a Snickers.  The tour usually continues on to the base of the glacier, but Carlos learned in the refuge that an avalanche had cut off the route to the glacier for tourists like us.  That’s alright, we had proved ourselves.  Charlie and I climbed a little higher for some pictures; it was cold.  Not Alaska cold, but I figured out it was about -7F degrees with wind chill… on the equator.  Charlie walked past the eves of the refuge and saw icicles for the first time in his life.  They don’t have real mountains in Australia.

Satisfied, we descended in about fifteen minutes taking bounding steps like astronauts shuffling down the slope.  We found Cass fully recovered at the bottom and all piled in the truck.  Carlos got us home by 2:00pm.  Around 5:00pm the clouds lifted and we got to see the snow-covered peak for the first time.  They say Cotopaxi is one of the most perfectly formed volcanos.  I understand; it rises out of nothing and comes to a perfect point at the top.  All of us agreed it would be a treat to watch it blow.  We still haven’t seen lava on this trip and that needs to change.