Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Day 1 begins with a knock at the door of our hotel room at 4:30 AM. It was Jon in his long underwear telling us he was not feeling very well… He had a rough night with upset stomach (gringo gut!). Patricia doctored him and got him ready to step on the bus at 5:30 AM to go to the trail head (Kilometro 82). The hiking day one was relatively short, starting at 10 AM, with lunch along the way and got to the camp site around 5 PM. The company Peru Treks was fantastic, we had 2 guides, one cook and 21 porters to support the 16 hikers (from USA, Ireland, England and Germany, ages 21-58, 4 women and 12 men). We had 3-5 gourmet meals a day and the porters set up our tents and the dining tent every day. We carried our sleeping bags, pads and personal items. Day 2 was the hardest in terms of climbing up to the Dead Woman Pass at 14,300 Ft. We had second breakfast half way to the climb and the reward of a beautiful day with clear skies so we could see both sides of the pass. Jon was feeling a little better and the gringo gut got another victim, Chris, age 29 from LA had a hard day but they both finished. The climb was hard but the month at high altitude made it easier for us. Patricia had the hardest time going down hundreds of Inca steps to the camp site because of left knee issues. It was warm when the sun was up but as soon as it hid behind the mountains it was freezing. We slept with most of our clothes on, gloves and hats inside the sleeping bags. Day 3 started with frost on the tents, it would be the longest day with three inca sites, two minor climbs, finishing in the last camp site near sunset. Jon and Chris were pretty well recovered, but Mike from Florida was having a hard time with one of his hip (he needs a replacement ASAP) but the guides were outstanding in supporting our wounded hikers and he also made it all the way. We descended into the rain forest to 9000 feet enjoying of the warmer temps at night. Day 4 started very early, waking up at 3:15 AM, since the porters had to take camp and get back to Cusco. We climbed in the darkness to the sun gate and got the first glimpse of Machu Picchu before the herds of tourists came in. We spent the morning and early afternoon at the site soaking it all in. We took a bus to Aguas Calientes where we had a nice lunch with cold beer and flushing real toilets (not holes in the ground where you have to squat and pray you don’t fall backwards into the mess). Took a train and a bus back to Cusco, and were happy to be back in our hostal with hot showers and a real bed (forgot to say we did not shower at all during the hike). The next day we caught a 20 hour bus to Lima (more stories to tell in person later). In Lima we packed the bikes in boxes we got at a bike store and we are now enjoying 2 days of leisure at sea level. Home in less than 2 days.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Final two days into Cusco

We have been in Cuzco now for over 24 hours and we are enjoying having all the facilities, warmer weather and the company of our friend Jon Kiser. After Ayaviri we had a great long day of riding to Sicuani going over Abra La Raya at 4300 mts (14,300 ft). The night in Ayaviri was very unusual. We walked around the market and found several items for breakfast and most importantly I found a half a liter thermos to hold hot water to drink mate in the morning (since the water heater broke). The city was kind of noisy when we went to bed early because it was so cold the only warm place was in bed under three wool blankets and a comforter. The taxis and micros were honking while we fell asleep but a little later in the night the music and singing woke us up. There were large groups of musicians and dancers going around the plaza in a choreographed dance until midnight. We watched a little from our room window but were too cold to go outside. We left after having breakfast in the room in what was a steady and low grade slope. We stopped in a town named Pucara for a nice lunch for 12 Soles (4.5 dollars) and kept riding to the top of the hill to the border between the Puno and the Cuzco region: Abra la Raya. Most buses stop there for tourists to take pictures and buy arts and crafts. We had several people come to us in awe that we rode up the hill. A couple of Germans were taking pictures of our tires: Schwalbe Marathon which are being distributed in their town in Germany. The Cuzco area roads were not as smooth as the ones in Puno, but we had a nice downhill. The head winds also started shortly after we started the descent and kept blowing until we arrived in Sicuani. We saw a Brazilian touring from Mexico to Chile, and a nice valley following the Rio Verde. Sicuani was a big town, like Ilave a few days back. We found a nice clean room after searching the town and went off to explore the area. We reflected on how many similar towns we had walked where we are the only tourists in town. Had a nice dinner at a restaurant with wifi and went to the warmest place we could find, our bed under three blankets. Yesterday was the last day of riding and we knew we would have use a different kind of transportation part of the route because there were 140 KM till Cuzco. Our day started well, no breakfast because it was Sunday and the possible restaurants were closed. We continued to follow the valley of Rio Verde, with many small towns along the way, some of them processing the wheat that was harvested, drying potatoes or having “criadero de cuyes” (guinea pigs for consumption in restaurants). It was up and down in the valley and we were doing fine until the switch of the wind was turned on, and we had to pedal hard to go downhill. A little bit before four hours of riding we came to a town Cusipata which was the last town we rode into this trip. We waited with 50 locals for a bus or a microbus to take us towards Cuzco but we were unsuccessful, no one will take us with the bus in the supercrowded buses. So I asked a taxi to take us to the next town, and there another taxi was going to take us to the following town but he offered to bring us all the way to Cuzco. We arrived at the Plaza de Armas in the early afternoon and made it (barely) up a steep hill to our Hospedaje WalkOn Inn. It was the second time I have been in Cuzco (was here 9 years ago with my children) but the first for Steve. We are enjoying our time until we start hiking the Inca Trail on July 10th till July 13th. We will probably update the blog with our best pics of Machu Picchu then.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Puno to Ayaviri

So it seems that there aren’t any really easy days on the Altiplano. If it’s not the climbs, elevation, or wind, then something else will magically appear. Puno to Juliaca was set to be our easiest day yet. Puno was a nice town with a reasonable number of tourist restaurants and coffee places. We had a nice hotel with a warm room, nice shower, and filling breakfast. The news of the morning with the breakfast staff was about the (huelga) srike/protests going on in Juliaca. Apparently a new hospital is set to be built in Puno to replace an aging one in Juliaca, and the people in Juliaca are quite upset. They were protesting for 2 days by blocking the roads in and out of Juliaca and this was day 2 of the protests. We set off not knowing exactly what to expect. The first 5 miles out of Puno were a steep climb that got us warmed up. Gave us a great view of Puno as we left also. The ride was pleasant with warmer temps and not much wind. As we approached Juliaca we started seeing lots of broken glass on the road about 5 miles out. It continued and just got thicker as we came in to the city. The protests were mostly over but there was broken glass and big rocks on the road everywhere. The Schwalbe Marathons came through though as we had no flats. Almost all of the businesses in the city were shuttered as a way to participate with the strike and to protect themselves from the protests, which at times turned violent. We eventually found the hotel we were looking for only to find it completely shuttered. Fortunately it was really open and we got in and had a nice room with a hot shower a few minutes later. The Lonely Planet recommends skipping Juliaca and we can see why. Lots of poverty, congestion, and not much in the way of services for tourists. We were off in the morning after breakfast for the 60 miles to Ayaviri. We’ve finally left Lake Titicaca for good and headed inland a bit. The ride was really pleasant for the first 58 miles, which is the point where the cold rain and wind started. Ayaviri is not a tourist stop but it’s much more pleasant than Juliaca. The room here is OK but looks like no hot shower today. For $25 it’s not bad. We’ll be off to dinner in a bit then up early for the 66 miles to Sicuani. From there we have a chance to make it to Cusco in one hard day (85 miles). We should ride over 14,000 for the first time tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Into Peru… Copacabana to Puno in 2 days

One of the great things of this trip is that some days are not so great… hard riding, freezing rain, no too good accommodations with a room temperature equal to refrigerator temps (40F), pretty bad food (Chinese/Peruvian mix). And then the next day it is sunny, riding is not too hard, we find good food, great wifi, a hot shower and we feel GOOD! We left our cozy and beautiful place in Copacabana after a hearty breakfast we prepared in our room to encounter the first touring couple in 3 weeks of riding. They were from Switzerland and had been travelling by bike in Argentina and Bolivia for 16 months. We rode with them through the Bolivia/Peru border and shared some of our experiences. The good thing of the day was riding along the coast of Lago Titicaca. Rural, non-touristic Peru is hard to ride through, there are basically no services unless you enter into bigger cities. We passed on Juli, a city that Lonely Planet rated friendly to tourists to get more miles and all of a sudden we were in the middle of nowhere a little inland from the lake with black clouds forming over the mountains. Still riding around 13,000 ft. As we were preparing for the potential rain we heard big thunder… and a few minutes later we were being hit by pieces of ice instead of rain. Then the rain and moderate winds came but it was not bad enough to get us wet. By the time it was clearing we arrived at Ilave, our destination yesterday. We were the ONLY tourists in this place and people looked at us as if we were from a different planet, especially Steve. We struggled to find a decent place to sleep, but we found a Hostal fairly clean but freezing inside. Then it was time to find some food… the only restaurant open was the Chinese/Peruvian fusion. We ate because we were starving but I don’t think I would try it ever again. Back to the room we went into bed fully clothed and slept through the night. This morning we left at 6:30 AM, without breakfast and the temperature was 28 F. As we searched for a restaurant to have some breakfast, I was dreaming about coffee with milk and bread but we had nothing for about 14 freezing miles. Finally we found small town with a small dark restaurant, offering “Sopa de Cabeza” or “Sopa de Pata” –meaning head soup or leg soup (we later learned it is head of lamb or leg of lamb). We asked the owner for just coffee and he said yes, he had to boil some water and promptly left the restaurant to buy some instant coffee across the street. The rest of the day was great, it warmed up, we had tail winds, and we made it to Puno (main port to go into the Peruvian side of Lago Titicaca) before noon. We found a nice restaurant with wifi to catch up from the previous 3 days and talked to family. The hotel is nice, warm and with hot showers and the food is divine! We walked to the city, hung out at a coffee shop, had a nice “Aymara” dinner and planned our last 4 days on the bike. Easy day tomorrow to Juliaca and three hard days to get to Cuzco.

La Paz to Copacabana

We were very happy to make it to La Paz. We were able to score a room for two nights in the recommended hotel from Lonely Planet, the Hotel Rosario. It was really nice. The staff was super friendly in every way and they did all of our laundry, which was quite a bag full. Our first dinner out was a nice vegetarian salad bar with a piece of trout as the entrĂ©e. After dinner our server offered us a special shot of liquor. He poured the shots at the next table, keeping the bottle covered. I knocked it right down and Patricia had a sip. Afterwards he brought the bottle (really a one gallon jar) to the table and uncovered it. It had a 4 foot snake inside! That will one up the worm in the Mezcal bottle! Patricia was a little disturbed ☺ The next day was sightseeing in La Paz. The weather was perfect. We checked out several churches, arts areas, and a great public park. It’s hard to describe the three dimensional nature of La Paz. Think Bisbee with a million people. Up and down everywhere. In the park we met a nice French couple and he and I played a game of chess with an outdoor board and 3 foot high pieces. It was very pleasant. That evening we went to the municipal theatre to see a native dance production. No snake liquor that night. It was time to get back to riding. Our goal was to make it to near Copacabana, a nice tourist town on Lake Titicaca. We knew it was going to be a long day and the intermediate towns were iffy for hotels. To get us a better chance we grabbed a taxi the first thing in the morning to take us back up to El Alto where the La Paz airport is. La Paz is at 12,000 ft and the airport is at 13,500 ft. It’s 6 miles of 5% grade in between. In El Alto we mounted the bikes and headed out – in to an amazing traffic scene for a Sunday morning. Market day and microbuses and people everywhere for about 10 miles. Finally it calmed down and we were rolling in the countryside. We found a nice little roadside restaurant with trout for lunch. We spent the day riding at around 13,000 and it took its toll. We made it to Estrecho de Tiquina about 3 PM and took the ferry across a narrow stretch of Lake Titicaca. On the far side we were very much hoping for a hotel, and there was none. It was looking a little gloomy. A police officer suggested a microbus, and we found one in 2 minutes and were on our way to Copacabana for $4.50. It was a tight fit with 14 of us in the 7 passenger van ☺ In Copacabana we again hit the jackpot with Lonely Planet and were able to get a fantastic room overlooking the harbor. A penthouse with windows all around and stained glass, Jacuzzi tub, kitchenette, fireplace, and space heaters. Woo Hoo! Today we took a boat to the Isla del Sol and toured Inca ruins and hiked the length of the island. It was spectacular with views of Lake Titicaca and the Cordillera Real all day. What a beautiful place. In the morning we head towards Cuzco to meet a friend for the Inca Trail. Crossing the border into Peru early in the morning. Stay tuned. PS: we are now two days into Peru but no wifi until now. So we will update the blog again tonight

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