Friday, June 28, 2013

Three very different and colorful days

Day 1: Mishaps, mountain biking on the Surlys, worst hotel experience in Challapata Day 2: Wonderful ride from Challapata to Oruro, 77 miles at 12,200 Ft and no wind! Day 3: Oruro sightseeing, bus ride to La Paz, a spectacular city. On June 26 we left early from Coqueza after a wonderful hostal experience, the best of the previous 4 days for the real Bolivian dirt road experience. You may know or not, but I hate mountain biking and had done very little. Well the 27 miles of dirt road from Coqueza to Salinas Garci Mendoza were AWFUL, with deep sand coming from the quinoa fields, big river rock, up and down hills, and the road disappearing into a “llama path”. So about 30 min into the ride, Steve wanted to be ready to take pictures of the cute llamas crossing the road to go to the fields and put his camera in the front pocket of the handlebar bag, and in one of the many bumpy areas the camera jumped out of the pocket and fell in front of him so he could run it over with both the front and back wheels… end of Steve’s camera (I gave him mine so he would not be deprived to take pictures). Then we were about 2/3 into the ride when a bunch of dogs came after us and one bit Steve, thank god for the double socks he was wearing because of the freezing weather. Finally we can see the town we were going to, Salinas (first town to take the bus to the pavement), and I am so happy to end my mountain biking experience on the loaded Surly that I relaxed my concentration and went down on my right side. I thought I heard something snap in my knee but fortunately I only tore my tights and skinned my knee. So not everything was bad, the weather was beautiful as well as the scenery, going around the volcano Tunupa, no wind, and blue skies. We found out the only bus was leaving at 5 PM which gave us time to have lunch and for me to go to the health center to get my knee cleaned and dressed for 5 Bolivianos or 75 cents. The bus ride was slow and dusty and we got to Challapata (beginning of the pavement) at night. We struggled to find a decent place to sleep and we settled for a residencial ran by a crazy woman. It was only 9 dollars and we had a private toilet and sink. On June 27, we had a wonderful long ride from Challapata to Oruro and we were happy to leave the crazy woman’s residencial. It was cold but calm and sunny. By now we are used to riding above 12,000 ft and the road was relatively flat with some 1-2 % hills. We had a nice traditional meal for lunch at a mining town called Poopo: vegetable soup that had rice and a piece of beef in it and “Th’impu”: Potatoes, Chuno (frozen dark potatoes), rice, beef and a yellow sauce made of onions. We got to Oruro after 7 hours of riding during rush hour but maneuvered to find a really nice hotel for 45 dollars with a buffet breakfast, and the best hot shower we had in weeks. We went to have pizza by the plaza and tried to catch up on email, posted yesterday’s blog and we were so tired we fell asleep almost immediately. June 28 today, the road between Oruro and La Paz was under construction, and since we are DONE with Bolivian dirt roads we took the bus. We had a great breakfast at the hotel, they even had scrambled eggs… papaya juice, pastries, bread, cereal, etc. We had a nice walk around Oruro and found the bus station and 15 min and 53 Bolivianos later the bikes, Steve and I were on the way to La Paz. It took longer than usual because of the road construction and we were very glad we were not riding. I saw a movie with Sylvester Stallone speaking Mexican while Steve took a nap. Coming into La Paz is truly spectacular, the city is built on the foothills of the Cordillera Real, big mountains with up to 21,000 ft peaks. The city’s altitude varies between 12,200 and 13,500. A mix of new and old and, lots of people selling everything you can imagine. It was an overwhelming short ride to find the Hotel Rosario, a little upscale from what we have grown used to… but I think well deserved break from the cold, dark and dirt. Tomorrow we are staying a day in La Paz for sightseeing and then no more buses till Cuzco.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

I never thought it could be this cold…

We’re 2 days in to our 4-day tour of SW Bolivia. It’s turning out to be a little more rugged then I (Steve) expected. We’ve seen a ton of amazing landscapes. The elevations have been remarkable. From Tupiza we went straight up to about 14,000 feet and we’ve been around there ever since. The landscape originally looked very much like parts of Arizona, except the elevations are so much higher. We’ve seen wonderful canyons, volcanoes, and lots of snow and ice. Last night we slept at 13,600 feet. No heat in the lodging. I’ve had a day of upset digestion – I went to the toilet at 11:00 PM and there was a layer of ice in the toilet bowl. Nice. Since it was a little cloudy it didn’t get as cold as usual, only 9 F. Today we saw much more snow and ice. The Land Cruisers got stuck in icy stream crossings a number of times and we had to work to get them across. The highest point we went today was 16,100 ft. Not much air up there. A highlight of the day was thermal hot springs that we stopped at before lunch. The hot water was on the edge of a frozen lake and felt wonderful. After soaking for 30 minutes we went in for lunch and I hung my wet bathing suit on the Cruiser. When we came back out it was frozen. It’s pretty much cold and windy most of the time. Tonight we’re sleeping at 14,200 ft. and we’re looking out the window at some horizontal snow and…seagulls. We are very near the Laguna Colorado, a beautiful reddish lake with some hot springs, llamas, and flamingos. There are many surprises in Bolivia. As we were having dinner on the second night the snow was beginning to fall. Well not really fall, it was traveling horizontally through the air. The drivers went out to put tarps over the hoods of the jeeps to keep the snow out. There was a small wood stove in the dining area of the hostel that was fired up with some wood from one of the groups and it quickly became the gathering point for everyone in all of the groups. There are about 24 of us in all at the hostel. We’ve met many nice people on the tour, and of course all of them are the age of our kids or younger. In the morning there were a few inches of fresh snow on the ground and some drifts behind the vehicles. The drivers decided to change the route a bit based on the fresh snow to skip some of the higher elevations. We still saw many beautiful canyons, lagunas, and salars during the day, ending at the edge of the Salar de Uyuni. The Salar de Uyuni is one of the natural wonders of the world. It is the largest salt flat in the world. Across one direction you can travel over 150 miles on salt. We got up before dawn to go to and small island of volcanic rock and big cardones cactus in the middle of the salar to see the sun rise. It was beautiful. Lots of photos and sightseeing. It was time to say goodbye to some of our new friends as we headed to the north end of the salar. Our driver and cook (Jose and Berta) dropped us off at a hostel and they returned to Tupiza. We reassembled the Surlys and headed out for a ride across part of the salar. It’s a bit of a surreal experience. Still cold and windy, but sitting in the dining area of the hostel talking to 4 new friends (trekkers) 3 from France and one from Argentina. All of them are younger than our kids (of course) ☺. It is fun though to see the reaction on people’s faces when they discover we are riding our bikes on this route. One other interesting note: of the 50 or so tourists we’ve seen in the past 4 days, I’m the only American. Pictures: Laguna negra and laguna colorada, dining room at the hostal made of salt and Steve riding on the salar

Friday, June 21, 2013

A full day of riding into Tupiza, Bolivia

We were very happy today to be able to complete the ride we had planned from La Quiaca across the border to Villazon to Tupiza for 57 miles. The ride started early in the morning trying to beat the winds again, by 7:30 AM Bolivia time we were on our way. It was 28 degrees when we left so we wore most of the clothes we brought. The first 25 miles were at around 11,500 feet on the Bolivian Altiplano and the winds built up as we went but never as bad as the previous two days. And then we were rewarded by a wonderful downhill to 9,500 feet with a wonderfully paved road (one of the few that are paved in Bolivia). We stopped several times to catch our breath, it is really hard to go uphill when you are already above 11,000 feet, get some snacks and rest our upper body from handling the bike with the cross and head winds. Once we started coming down the scenery changed again, the trees had leaves, willows, mesquites and eucalyptus, braided rivers and red sandstone formations. We stopped in a small village called Suipacha around noon where we found a small despensa that had Coca-Cola (2 liter bottle) and a can of sardines that were very tasty to have with our crackers (and source of protein, omega 3s and salt). The last 15 miles had some ups and downs but we were very happy we had made it through the day without having to break down and catch a bus. Tupiza is a medium city where many tours operate to see the south west area of Bolivia. The area has amazing places to see but hard to get to without paved roads. We decided to take a 3.5 day vacation from our bike touring vacation and go sight seeing by jeep to small villages, volcanoes, hot springs, geisers, lagunas with flamingos, and the salt flats at dawn. The jeep will drop us off at noon of the fourth day at the north area of the salar where we plan to stay one more night and explore it by bike, maybe we can do a moonlight ride with the full moon coming up. We will not have internet for at least four days, we will update the blog after June 26th when we will start our bike ride to Oruro, then La Paz, Lago Titicaca and into Peru.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

We tried….twice. And on to Bolivia

At the last update we were in Humahuaca with 2 days ride to the Bolivian border. I’m happy to say we’re at the border now (actually went across once to get my visa) and ready to ride in Bolivia tomorrow. Humahuaca was our first night sleeping at 10,000 ft. The altitude has gone reasonably well but we do get winded pretty easily. Heading out of Humahuaca was a steep (10%) grade that made Patricia a little light-headed. We took it easy and headed up the highway (Ruta 9). About 5 miles in we encountered 2 miles of 10% grade that took us up above 10,500. It was pretty hard, but the tough part was the head wind that started halfway up. By the time we were at the top it was a steady 20 MPH in our faces. It just kept getting stronger. At 10 miles we were 2 hours on the bike and slowing to under 4 MPH. It was a little miserable and we could see it was looking iffy to complete the remaining 48 miles before dark. We stopped at one of the concrete bus shelters along the highway, had a snack, and start hitching a ride. It was about one car every 5 minutes on this stretch of highway. No luck, but within an hour a bus came by that Patricia flagged down. They agreed to take us and we were elated ☺. The cost for the 2 of us and the bikes - $7. We made it to Abra Pampa by early after afternoon and found a reasonable hotel. Now we were at 11,400 ft and it was just cold and windy. Dust everywhere. A little space heater in the room just couldn’t keep up. We did a little sightseeing and came back for some computer work and napping. We decided to start before sunrise today to try to get ahead of the wind. (it’s supposed to start calming down tomorrow) We headed out before the sun was up in 36 F temps. The scenery changed from days before to what in Argentina is called “Puna” or Altiplano, high flats with mostly dry grass, very few small trees and the cattle have changed from cows to mostly llamas. The first hour we had light breeze but the wind kept building and after 20 miles he had mostly a quartering head wind. Eventually after riding 3 hrs it was up to 25 MPH with gusts. We could see dust storms ahead and we were both blown off the pavement a number of times. Finally a bus stop in the distance and we decided we had had enough. 15 minutes later we were on a nice bus for the final 24 miles for a total of $2. Nice hotel (maybe the last for awhile) with a hot shower. We walked over to Bolivia to get my required (reciprocity) $135 visa. (Thank you US state dept), We looked around a bit and came back for lunch. We verified the highway is paved for tomorrow’s route but then it’s dirt for many days. Maybe we will check out the Bolivian railway system in Tupiza. We have to remember it is supposed to be a vacation ☺. This is Patricia with the food report… I have not had a good cortado or latte in days ☹. I also have been experiencing a few symptoms from the altitude in addition to the shortness of breath, I am having headaches. It is challenging to have enough protein with the vegetarian options so we decided to add a little red meat to build our red cells faster. Today we had lunch at the place when the locals eat, and we had “Puchero” boiled red meat with vegetables and rice, here a dish for the working class and in Italy a delicacy: “Ossobuco”.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Back in the saddle and a change of plans

So, where we left, we were leaving Embarcacion to Jujuy to start riding again on Monday June 17. We had a couple of challenges, after two bus rides we made to San Salvador de Jujuy, and got there with some light left to find the hotel that our friend Agustina had reserved. It was not easy to find but we did it only to find out the gate was closed and nobody there. After a while I jumped the fence and was greeted by a nice cat in the porch. After a while Steve passed the bags and bikes over the fence and then jumped in. We essentially broke in the place… when the owner came about an hour later he was a little startled but everything turned out all right. Next morning we were ready to go at 8 when we realized it has been raining all night and still drizzling, this is supposed to be the dry season. Agustina joined us in our ride up to Purmamarca, the traffic out of San Salvador was busy and slippery at times but as we climbed passed the clouds the weather go dry and warm. San Salvador is about 4000 feet and Purmamarca about 7000 so our out of shape friend Agustina really struggled and decided to hitch a ride to a town Volcan to have lunch with us and then take a bus to Purmamarca. We kept on riding and got into town before 5, Agustina had found a wonderful place to stay called El Viejo Algarrobo (The old mesquite). Before getting to Purmamarca there was a sign stating that Paso de Jama into Chile was closed due to snow and ice. After evaluating options on how to continue we decided to skip Chile and keep going north on the famous Argentinian Quebrada de Humahuaca to “La Quiaca” to cross into Bolivia. It would take 3 days of reasonably difficult but doable riding. Day 1 to Humahuaca, Day 2 to Abra Pampa and Day 3 to La Quiaca, border town with Bolivia. After a very nice and cold evening with Agustina and a wonderful rest in the hotel with an electrical heater and a couple of blankets we parted ways with Agustina and today we made it to Humahuaca. The scenery is fantastic and hard to describe with words, even the pictures don’t do it justice to how beautiful the mountains, the sky, the cactus, the braided rivers are. We steadily climbed from 7000 to close to 10,000 today we will probably stay above that until we go to Lima at the end of the trip. We are feeling the altitude especially in the steeper up hills but since we are gradually climbing 13,000 tomorrow our bodies are adjusting nicely. Pictures: leaving San Salvador de Jujuy in the rain, Steve on the road today, a cemetery in the middle of nowhere and the church in Humahuaca.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Salta and a very interesting side trip

It was nice to get in to Salta and have a cold beer. We splurged on a lavanderia to wash all of our dirty clothes we had accumulated. For about $6 a very nice man washed, dried and folded all of our clothes while we toured some of the interesting sites of Salta. For dinner we went to a vegetarian restaurant recommended by our former yoga instructor Kat who used to live and work there. They remembered her and insisted on providing us a free dinner. A very nice evening indeed. The previous clothes washing was done in our hotel room and it was in the high 50’s in the room that night and the clothes didn’t get very dry. Nothing quite like the feeling of wet, cold bike shorts in a cold room to start the day! From Salta it was time for our first bus (but not the last) bus trip of the journey. We needed to get to Embarcacion by 12:30 to meet our friends Agustina and Beatriz to travel to Mision Chaquena. Agustina is a family physician that has collaborated with Patricia some in the past. She and Beatriz live in Cordoba but Agustina works for UNICEF with the native American tribe Wichi at Mision Chaquena. The plan was to meet in Embarcacion after noon and then ride the 25 miles to the Mision then Patricia and Agustina would work together on Saturday. We negotiated with the bus company on prepping the bikes and we were off at 8:45 AM. The adventure was just beginning. About half way there the bus pulled off at a police checkpoint. And stayed… It turned out to have a problem with its air compressor and it wasn’t going anywhere. We waited an hour for another bus. They urged everyone to get on quickly when we found out that the bus wasn’t going where 6 of us (us plus 4) we needed to go. They said go ahead and they’d send the bikes later. Hahahahaha. Patricia said no. We waited longer and they sent another bus just for the 6 of us. We made it to Embarcacion about 2 PM. A great reunion with friends, we assembled the bikes, had a nice lunch and we were ready to head out about 3:30 PM. There are too many details to include here, but a summary is the road was 33 miles, not 25, and it was dirt with large river rock, deep gravel, and deep dust. We were half way there when it started getting dark. Fortunately a small village was there so we stopped at a small market that sold us some beer secretly (it was illegal in the village I guess). A thunderstorm was brewing and dust was everywhere. Agustina called our host and he came to pick us up – in a small car. Two bikes on top (ours) and 2 bikes ridden in the dark on that road by two of his seven children. The car had a water pump problem and needed to be stopped every 5 minutes to add water. One time they added gas to the radiator by accident because of the dark. It kept getting better. ☺ Finally we arrived to find the conditions like rural Mexico. Some electricity, you flush it toilets, a hose bib in the yard. The rain started in earnest and the fine dust turned to sticky clay everywhere. It is not unusual for the family to just have bread and mate for dinner, but we got some groceries with the beer and cooked a meal for 11 on the outside firewood stove (zucchini and tomato scramble with pasta). Good times. Had a good time talking with the family and practicing my Spanish. Actually had a very good night’s sleep. In the morning we journeyed to the family’s large garden and Patricia spent the time teaching them healthy foods they could prepare with their harvest. The weather was warm even though it’s mid winter for them. The elevation is less than 1000 ft and it is just inside the tropics. It gets to 120 F there in the summer sometimes. It would be miserable. No cooling anywhere. We fixed a nice lunch at the garden and walked back. We made bread using their outdoor oven in the afternoon. Very tasty and Patricia helped knead a different recipe not using lard – it was tastier. We had decided we weren’t riding back on the road. Doing a shuttle with the car didn’t look good. There was a bus leaving at 9 PM and we worked things out to put the bikes on and we were off dreaming of a nice warm shower to clean off two days worth of dust on us (we are so spoiled in the US!). For a last act there was a small gang fight when we arrived in Embarcacion and the bus was pelted with a few rocks. Very exciting. ☺ The bus dropped us off right at the hotel and we jumped out. A nice room with breakfast for $24. Civilization, hooray.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Good and not so good surprises, up and down the hills into Salta

The not so good surprises: coming out of Tafi del Valle resulted in changing some plans in the past two days and not having internet, but the good news is that we made it to Salta as planned and we are back in schedule to meet with our friends Agustina and Beatriz in Embarcacion, provincia de Salta, to do some medical work in a native community. So the surprises: a monster hill following Tafi del Valle to a place called Infiernillo, 3.5 hours of climbing very slow at what Steve thinks was about 7-8% grade. Surprise number two, we expected to descend rapidly afterwards but the road after infiernillo was very crappy. The scenery was spectacular though. We decided to stop before Cafayate (a really nice touristic town with many wineries around it) in a town called Colalao del Valle, third surprise… the hosteria was very cheap and the water heater functioned by heating with a wood fire and there were no restaurant in town, so we made our own sandwiches. It was cold and no heat but a nice alpaca blanket kept us warm. The next day (#3 of riding) we went to Cafayate for second breakfast/lunch with internet, very civilized, what we did not know was that there were no services for the next 60 miles. But the scenery was super spectacular, the Quebrada de las Conchas (Canyon of the shells) is a mostly downhill road in excellent condition that goes with the Las Conchas river and the east walls of the canyon are similar to Sedona but 30 miles long of red rock formations. Last surprise yesterday was getting to the town where we were told there was a Hosteria, La Vina, to find out there was not one. It was 6:30 and getting dark, but as usual we found a place to stay and thanks to Sra. Maria Cota’s homestay place we had a decent room and a hot shower. Today coming to Salta there were no major surprises, as a big city the traffic was hectic at times, we had the first and only unfriendly truck experience but we made it to the Centro and have a nice hotel near the plaza. So the summary of the first 4 days is approximately 260 miles with 16.000 feet of climbing, the butts are a little sore but the rest of the body feels great.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Day one in the Pre-Cordillera (Andes’ foothills)

The first surprise was how late it was light in the morning. We knew this would be a challenging day to complete before the sun went down. Only 70 miles, but a net gain of 6,000 ft and 7,000 ft of climbing. The hotel in Tucuman was very accommodating and we had no trouble re-assembling the bikes the night before and we gave our suitcases (from Goodwill) to Carlos, the concierge. We were under way a few minutes after 8 AM. The traffic was a little heavy but not bad. The head guy at the hotel suggested a better route than we were planning and we took his advice. A lot of Tucuman reminds you of Nogales or Agua Prieta in Mexico. The air was very dirty with smoke and dust. Visibility was about a mile. We could barely see the hills we were about to climb in to. After an initial stretch of bumpy highway it turned in to a nice divided highway with a good shoulder. About 40 miles in the valley by miles of sugar cane. The air slowly got better. Finally we hit the foothills and started up. Gently at first, then a steady grind. At the lower elevations it was jungle. Up and up we climbed. Eventually we started to see some deciduous trees and then it turned to grassland. Just beautiful scenery. It leveled out a bit at the end by a reservoir or we would have finished in the dark. Found a very nice hotel for about $60, took a nice long shower and am drinking a 1 L beer at the moment ☺ 67 miles for the day, 7,000 ft of climbing. We’re pooped. Patricia’s additions: I agree it was a really hard first day, there are not many services along the way and we almost finished our reserve food we brought from the US, a guy driving an SUV stopped and gave Steve 4 big “mandarinas”, adding to Steve’s load, which I consumed in one of the many stops to recharge energy along the way. By mile 55 I was feeling pretty weak… Steve even asked if I wanted to hitch a ride, but I really wanted to finish the route I had done so many times by car in the 80s on the bike, so I got my earphones out and started listening to music, and we made it. The initial view of the high valley was amazing and felt it was all worth the crazy effort.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Two days in Buenos Aires with Elena

The weather in Buenos Aires has been perfect, 50-60 Degrees and sunny. We did a lot of walking and had wonderful meals with my mother. We are in the Hotel Dolmen, located centrally near Avenida 9 de Julio. Yesterday we walked to Puerto Madero (picture with the interesting bridge in the background) and recovered from the uncomfortable night in the plane. We had dinner at an amazing restaurant, Centro Vasco Frances, had mussles, calamari, trout and more (Elena's picture). Today we went to the cathedral and the Pink House (equivalent of the White House). You can walk inside to parts of it (picture of us in the courtyard), from there to Plaza Francia and then to San Telmo to an interesting tapas restaurant called Sagardi. To finish the evening we went to the theater, to see a play called "Una Relacion Pornografica" with amazing acting by Cecilia Roth and Dario Grandinetti. Steve was a good sport sitting in the theater and not falling asleep in spite of only understanding some words/phrases. Tomorrow we will go for a run, have breakfast and go to Aeroparque, the smaller airport to take our plane to San Miguel de Tucuman where we'll assemble the bikes and get ready to start touring on Monday morning.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

2013 Adventure: Up into the Andes

We are off to Buenos Aires on our way to start our South American bike trip on Monday June 10th. This year we are going a little longer (6 weeks), starting in the northwest of Argentina and going through parts of Chile, Bolivia and Peru to Cuzco. We are flying to Buenos Aires today to spend the weekend with my mother, going to nice restaurants, the theater and just hanging out in the cool winter temps. Sunday we fly into Tucuman, the city where my son, Federico, was born. After unpacking bikes and discarding boxes and luggage we start our bike trip to Tafi del Valle and then to Salta and Jujuy. We are meeting our friends Agustina and Beatriz to do some work in a native South American community in Jujuy and then we start ascending towards the Andes. We go into Chile through Paso de Jama (15,800 feet) to San Pedro de Atacama. We will visit several areas in Bolivia including the Salar de Uyuni, La Paz, Lago Titicaca. We cross the border in to Peru at Copacabana. Still up in the mountains we will go from Puno to Cuzco where our bike touring ends and after we meet Steve’s friend Jon we will hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. We are coming back from Lima July 18th. We will probably do about 4 weeks on the bikes with a few intermissions for visiting cool places along the way. This will be our longest and highest bike tour, crossing the Andes 3 times at altitudes above 15,800 feet. Hopefully we still have the lungs and the legs to do it. Steve will have a chance to practice his recently learned 500+ words in Spanish and I will be spoiled by being in familiar environments that are missed when I am in the States. I am hauling my Mac Air through the Andes to be able to do some work occasionally and also to be able to blog when we have internet access. More to come soon, stay tuned.