When “real” mountains call – Cordillera Blanca

Yes, I admit that I’m a sucker for real mountains. To me, it’s one of the most beautiful landscape forms on earth. Real mountains – with rocks, glaciers and snow. Up to this point the Andes were disappointing. But now, we were headed for real mountains. Into the Cordillera Blanca – 180 km (112 mi) long and with more than 50 peaks over 5’700 m (18’700 ft) the highest mountain range in the Americas.

Already the ride there was quite something – first through the desert,then the “Duck Canyon” (Cañón del Pato).
Built on an old railway base,
the road climbs from 500 m (1’640 ft) to over 2’000 m (6’561 ft) – through 35 unlit one-lane tunnels.

Slideshow: Cañón del Pato

The campsite in Caraz is nicely situated at the foot of the snow clad mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. Various Overlanders had already made it their home when we arrived – even some old Friends.

With a mutual goal, ehm destination, – even if the mode of transportation varies as greatly as the origins of the overlanders – a companionship develops/exists. 

John, Michelle, Craig, me and Mandi with the starter of the Broccoli-Saltado menu

First, it was Mandi’s and John’s “fault”. Then, we actually met a motorcycle on our excursion to Laguna Parón – Michelle and Craig from Australia, two up – on their way North.

Swiss Rösti – grated patatoes with bacon, topped with peruvian cheese. Yummy!

Of course, after this, we simply couldn’t leave!

Laguna Parón: an exposed,sometimes a bit steeper and often one-lane, track. On 4’185 m (13’730 ft) a shimmering mountain lake surrounded by glaring white mountains under a brilliant blue sky.
The sky alone is something to rave about: never as blue as above 4‘000 m (13’000 ft). No need for a filter or picture editing. The lake: an expanse of luminous turquois. The mountains: jagged rock covered with snow and ice.Most of these peaks are over 6’000 m (19’685 ft); nothing gentle or inviting but of an exclusive majesty.

AN-106 and AN-107 form a nice 253 klicks (157 mi) loop, crossing the Cordillera Blanca twice. An intoxicating

For some, the intoxication ends deadly. R.I.P.!

variety of narrow curves,exposed single lane roads,
snowclad peaks
and shimmering lakes
under an increasingly cloudy sky. Higher
and higher,lower and lower
– a change in altitude of over 2’000 m (6’561 ft).

Descending from the Punta Olímpica Tunnel

Then ascending up to the Punta Olímpica tunnel.
On 4’735 m (15’534 ft) it’s the highest road tunnel in the world and with 1,4 km (0,86 mi) the longest in Peru.

In Huaraz, right in front of our hostel, my cooler “exploded”.

Meaty choices – market in Huaraz

The fan, which had made some strange noises for a while already, had finally given up working.

Between tradition and modern age

My precious cooling liquid shot out like from a fountain, dousing the street. With the help of Paul – an American rider – Thomas succeeded in obtaining replacement. First a small ventilator from the “cheap” motorcycle brand Pulsar, which fitted the frame.

KTM versus Pulsar – how sweet 😀

Concerned by the amount of air transported, he finally but the old fan wheel on the ventilator motor of a KLR.

View from our room in Huaraz

Experiment successfully completed, he even found some suitable cooling liquid.

For a cultural stop

Adapted for the high mountains

we crossed the Cordillera Blanca againfrom Huaraz to Chavín de Huantar
On a road with no name
we headed out once more – for the fourth time across the Huascarán National Park. In the freezing cold, on 4’852 m (15’918 ft), we met another rider Gabriel from Ecuador, on his way to the Guayanas. Buena suerte para tú viaje!

Even though the peaks were covered in clouds, we enjoyed the ride.Again this intoxication through curves,narrow roads and mountains…Descending into lower altitudes (below 4’000 m/13’000 ft) a strange plant appeared beside the track. It looked like a gigantic candle growing out of a bush. They gained in numbers beside us, but sadly disappear more and more all over the world… The Puya Raimondii, adorning this scenery so fantastically, is threatened with extinction.

After a cold, very long day (261 km/162 mi) on an average of 4’000 m (13’000 ft) we were quite annoyed to discover that the promised secure parking of the hotel was over 4 blocks away. Sending our guide away, we listened to the recommendation of a friendly old man. Thanks to him we ended up in a nice hotel room, secure parking directly behind the house, with a real hot shower AND a HEATER!!! One of the best and cheapest rooms (12 USD) in South America up to now 😉

Advertisements

In the Land of the Cloud Warriors

Peru greeted us with a road block. Luckily, it was cleared within 30 minutes.
In Zorritos we pitched our little green house (the tent) for the first time since the US – directly on the beach, under some palm trees. Here, we met some Overlanders – the first in almost forever – even some Swiss. All of them were the reason we left later for the Land of the Cloud Warriors than planned.

600 km of small, exposed roads lead us from the coastal plains deep into the Andes. Steadily climbing,the expression “Cloud Warriorsgained a completely new meaning for us.

With the one and only Peruvian gondola (airial tram, teleferico), inaugurated in March 2017, we overcame 661 in 20 minutes, ascending from 2’278 m to 2’939 m. The view was amazing,
the sky almost cloudless.

Whoever had the idea to build a 580 m long, up to 110 m wide and max 21 m high platform on a mountain ridge on over 3’000 m above sea level? And if that feat wasn’t impressive enough, actually constructed houses, watch towers and a mystery on it? This fortress, Kuélap, was able to accommodate over 2’000 people.

The Chachapoyo (quechua word for Cloud Warriors) constructed this master piece between 800 and 1300 AD. They were a pre-Inca-culture that was only conquered in 1475 by the Incas. 100 years later, shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards, they were extinguished.

On the three levels of the fortress one can find the ruins of over 300 round houses,at the time topped with soaring reed roofs. Some are still decorated with rhombs or zigzag patterns. The mystery, named “El Tintero” (ink pot), is a building, the shape of an inverted cone, that has no obvious function. Already the Cloud Warriors were into guinea pig breeding,

Is that the way the Cloud Warriors prepared their guinea pigs for BBQ?

their houses or kitchen boasting separate areas for “our pets”.

Slideshow: Kuélap

Between Pedro Ruíz and Celendín  a wealth of testaments to the Chachapoya-Culture can be found.
All of them threatened by “grave robbers”. Worthwhile destinations would be Karajía, which we passed unknowingly, and Revash, only reachable on foot – unpractical in motocross boots.

Parking, as secure as it gets

 

Instead we concentrated on the stunning landscape. Rode more curves. Simply had some fun.

 

How blue are your…

Mindo (1’250 m/4’101 ft), a center for butterfly farms 
and starting point for bird watching,seemed little attractive to us,apart from our room. Therefore, we continued to a small town, Saquisilí (2’900 m/9’514 ft), notable only for its weekly market – one of the biggest in the highlands. Apart from the main plaza, the whole town is ruled by the market. You can buy almost everything – new, used or recycled. Even animals are on offer. But careful, what we know as pets at home, are often meals around here – not only the rabbits but the guinea pigs too.

Slideshow: Markt Saquilisí

The Quilotoa Loop offered us the nicest – up to that moment – ride in Ecuador, with an incredible scenery. The mountains, really more hills – and why not hills, the altitude is “only” above 3’000 m (9’842 ft) – than mountains, are often farmland all the way to their tops. Thus, having an attractive checkered effect. The attraction is even increased by a visit to the Quilotoa Caldera (3’914 m/12’841 ft) and its crater lake.

We had little success sighting the volcanos, like the Cotopaxi and the Chimborazo, which are the often photographed backdrop for the Ecuadorian scenery. At the Cotopaxi it was raining when we passed and Chimborazo was hidden in the clouds. Therefore, trekking wasn’t on our to-do list.

The road meanders on over 4’000 m/13’123 ft (4’200 m/13’780 ft was our highest point) past the Chimborazo. The volcano finally showed some mercy and granted us a few glimpses of its snow covered peak. Due to its proximity to the equator it’s the farthest away peak to the center of the earth. Since the earth, due to its rotation and the resulting centrifugal force, isn’t a ball but an equipotential ellipsoid – with a radius that is smaller at the poles than at the equator – the Chimborazo (1° latitude south, 6384,557 km from Earth’s center) surpasses the significantly higher Mount Everest (28° latitude north, 6382,414 km from Earth’s center) by more than two kilometer (1.24 mi).

To get the chill out of our bones we stopped for a tea break. The giant guinea pig on the roof of the restaurant wasn’t enough indication about the specialty of the house, but we quickly caught on. Therefore we not only had tea but our first taste of cuy (as the beasties are called here), too. 30 minutes the “roast” is barbequed, rotated at high speed on refined equipment, over the pit before ending on the plate. The meat proofed to be a tasty – thanks to a marinade??? – rabbit-like experience – just a bit tougher.

It was a bit a shock to the system when we rode past banana plantations and rice paddies in the coastal plains – only a few hours later.  

Tom’s GPS made him the presentof a 30 kml (18.6 mi) “goat track” to the coast for his birthday. Followed by a tasty fish and shrimp ceviche
(raw, marinated in lime juice and thus “cooked”) lunch to celebrate the occasion.

We skip the Galapagos. Tom always says that we need to leave something for our next visit in 20 years 😉 Who knows, perhaps he has found his seaman’s legs by then 😀

Instead we visited Isla de la Plata, in Machalilla National Park, the poor man’s Galapagos. The 42 km boat ride, mostly on the open ocean, already caused Thomas a – needless – headache. Blue-footed Boobies and Magnificent Frigatebirds are courting, mating and nesting on the island at the moment.

It is surprising how undisturbed the Boobies are by the passing visitors.They are nesting everywhere – on and beside the path.According to our guide, the courtship lasts about two weeks – until the female is ready to mate. The male spends this time dancing for her. Short breaks and some fishing are accepted 😉 After the eggs are laid, they’re equals. They take turns at brooding (or is it breeding?). Their blue feet, that give them their name, turn blue at the age of app. 10 months, due to their diet, mainly sardines.

The Magnificent Frigatebirds nest in trees, a bit further away from the path. The males have a red (scarlet) throat pouch which they blow up like a balloon to attract females. With spread wings, filled throat pouch and loud calls they court for a mate.  

Slideshow: Isla de la Plata

Luckily, digital cameras don’t need films anymore. These would have been full with bird pictures, leaving no other shot, when we met a couple of humpback whales (sadly travelling north, not playing) on the way back.

Leaving the coastal cloud cover – lasting all of dry season – behind, we climbed the Andes as fast as we had descended. The road to Cuenca (2’550 m/8’366 ft) rises to over 4’100 m (13’450 ft), into the clouds, in the El Cajas National Park before descending to the city.

Cuenca charms, like Quito, with its colonial Old Town. Unlike most other towns we have visited in Ecuador, its attractive – to the eye and the taste buds. Even outside the center one finds parks, nice cafés and restaurants.

After a few days in the city, we will head on to Peru.

 

Searching for THE Half of the Earth

On different sites we had already read about the Venezuelan tragedy. Thousands leave their country, hoping to find a better life in Colombia, Ecuador or even Peru – a country where half the population lives below the poverty line with less than two dollars per day to get by. From what we hear the Venezuelan economy is almost non-existant. The money is worthless, food rationed and many “everyday articles” are now luxury items. Each of the receiving countries is happy to be “degraded” to transit country. Hour-long wait at the borders is normal – some travelers needed up to ten hours. Of course, we had no ambition to join the wait.

We decided to get up really early and leave the hotel shortly after 4 a.m. At 4.30 a.m. the Colombian side was still deserted. Immigration was really quick and cancelling the TIP (Temporary Import Paper for the motorcycles) easy, once the responsible officer was found. But nothing had prepared us for the situation we found at the Ecuadorian border – only a few minutes later. People (and their luggage) everywhere – sitting or sleeping on the ground. It’s not like the nights at an altitude of 2’800 m (9’200 ft) are mild at this time of the year… The line to enter the immigration building was endless. It is incredibly embarrassing, when you can pass the line – families with newborn babies, elderly and disabled people – and enter the building, containing a line of about 20 people, right away. But what were we to do?

The counter for the temporary import was unreachable. An officer first had to wake people up and ask them to clear a path for us. It is hard to imagine, how hopeless one must be to pack most valuable/necessary belongings in a couple of suitcases – if you own any – and leave everything behind for the unknown. By 5.45 a.m., we, the privileged, were able to leave the border behind us.

Now, Ecuador isn’t called Ecuador without reason. Somewhere, you reach the equator, half of the earth, basically the middle line. Heading for Quito we crossed the equator multiple times, looking for it 😀 Thomas had seen pictures, where people parked their bikes directly in front of the equator monument.

So we visited a pre-Hispanic equator site – no, that wasn’t the one –
and then the Mitad del Mundo, which isn’t accurately constructed on the equator – no, that wasn’t it, either. Exhausted from the useless search we rode into Quito (2’850 m/9’350 ft). There we stayed for a week in order to recuperate 😉

Slideshow: Quito

A small apartment, a ten minutes’ walk from the heart of the historic Old Town, and a underground parking space – it would have been perfect with a heater. We spend two very nice afternoons/evenings with Takeshi, his wife Kanako and Wasabi, their dog. I even got my hair cut, for only 2.50 dollars. 

Thomas finally discovered, that the monument we had been looking for was situated on a different highway. We were leaving Quito northbound again, but visiting meant a detour of 100 km (60 mi). The search for the middle line didn’t mean that much to us. Riding on, I tried to catch the GPS at the position 0°00’00.0“, without success.

Finding the 0° latitude

 

 

 

100% Colombian

Welcome to the Heart of Colombia – the coffee zone. Colorful towns, unpaved roads along steep mountain sides, raging river, suspension bridges and – naturally – coffee.
But 100% Colombian doesn’t mean only coffee but as well Sugarcane – actually Panela. Panela, sugarcane molasses pressed in form, can be found on any market and in any supermarket all over Colombia.
Agua Panela – sugar water out of Panela – is often the only available hot beverage for a non-coffee-drinker like me.

Across the Puente de Occidente – 291 m (318 yards) long,
finished in 1895 as one of the first suspension bridges in the Americas –
we continued with an overnight stop in Santa Fé de Antioquia  (550 m(1’804 ft)

to Jardín (1’750 m/5’741 ft) – the selfproclaimed most beautiful town in Colombia. Really a nice place
with the opportunity for some short hikes – we simply had to do at least one. Through banana plantations,
past waterfalls and strange statues,
we enjoyed ourselves until it started raining. A small tienda (shop) offered some protection.

Due to the weather we shortened the hike

by taking the adventurous cable car,

right through the banana plants –

back down to town. We spent a relaxing afternoon Colombian style.

Slideshow: Jardín

Once more we hadn’t realized what it means to continue south from Jardín. Therefore, the end of the asphalt took us by surprise.

The road became smaller while continuing to climb past coffee, banana and corn fields. The sporadic houses ended, cloud forest took over.

A while before the “pass” we reached the clouds and continued in the drizzle with almost no visibility. Carefully we continued, always hoping that we would encounter any oncoming traffic in one of the few wider sections – and so it was.

On the other side, the weather worsenedand so did the road condition.

We had planned to spend quite some time at the Steel Horse Finca, run by an English overlander couple, in Filandia (1’923 m/6’309 ft).

Service was due and Thomas really wanted to mount the rear tires.
Not because our current ones had reached the end of their life cycle but because it was annoying to carry them, especially off-tarmac.
Here rainy season hit us full gale. The sun was seldom peeking through the clouds.

But we had to visit Valle de Cocora with its gigantic wax palms. Salento  (1’895 m/6’217 ft) proofed to be another colorful town but full with the Mother’s Day crowd.

Since the clouds moved in shortly after our arrival, we decided to visit the valley early the next morning. Shortly after sunrise, we took the first Willy
to the valley. Starting out without rubber boots

we soon turned around. After a short shower, now well equipped with boots,

we had the valley more or less to ourselves.

An appreciated visitor was the sun  😉

With the arrival of the tourist crowd, mainly Colombians, we left.
Spending the afternoon in town brought its own surprises.

Slideshow: Valle de Cocora & Salento

In Popayán (1’737 m/5’698 ft)

we decided about

the rest of our stay in Colombia.

Tierradentro was expected to be a unique attraction. Not only offering astonishing underground tombs (7th – 9th century AD),

known for their decoration, but a nice hike along small paths.

Up to now archeologists discovered around 100 of these unusual tombs, the only ones of their kind in the Americas. These, between 2 and 7 meters in diameter and different in depth

were dug out of the soft lava stone. The doomed ceilings of the largest ones are supported by pillars.
A great number are decorated with geometric motifs.

Little is known about the people who built them.

Slideshow: Tierradentro

But the weather on this side of the mountains was even wetter. We skipped San Agustin with its statues, instead heading south to cross the mountains on the Trampolín de la Muerte,

a dirt road,

mainly one lane,
hugging the steep mountain side,

to reach the Panamericana. Since our boots were getting soaked on a daily basis and my jacket really leaked,

Hopefully better than my KLIM jacket

our adventurous spirit dwindled.

Reaching Ipiales  (2’898 m/9’507 ft) and the border to Ecuador, in the hope of drier weather, suddenly had top priority. But just outside Ipiales lies the Santuario Las Lajas, a sight not to be missed. A great finale for our first South American country.

Colombia, we would love to return – in the dry season 😀

Salt of the Earth

In the middle of a short refueling stop Tom’s KTM simply dipped over. This would have been less surprising had it not landed on the kickstand side. Apparently, the crossing from Panama to Colombia hadn’t improved its condition. With a zip tie we fixed it to the frame and rode to Villa de Leyva. As soon as we had found a room, we started looking for a welder. Luckily, that proved to be an easy task.

Good looking workshop, isn’t it?

The man welded it back on without burning a hole into anything.
We would have hated to lose the side tank.

Critical observation

This matter settled to a certain degree of satisfaction, we could finally get down to the reason of our being here – the small, white-washed colonial city on 2’140 m/7’020 ft.

Slideshow: Villa de Leyva

During our exploration we discovered the best butter croissants of our trip. Still warm from the oven they simply melted on the tongue. Heavenly!
Of course, we had to visit more than once 😀

Our arrival in Zipaquirá (2’650 m/8’692 ft) was overshadowed by disappointment and consistent drizzle. On booking.com our accommodation was put down with private parking. It wasn’t mentioned that they only have one parking space, in front of a garage but otherwise nothing private.
Lucky us, it was occupied by a car 😦 It was no fun to empty our side bags and carry it all to our tiny room.
At least, the room had an small wardrobe where we could stow our riding gear.

Big attraction – for us too – was the salt of the earth.
Zipaquirá used to have big salt mines. Today, one of only three existing Salt Cathedrals is located in town – the only one in THE AMERICAS – using 24 mine shafts of an abandoned salt mine. 250’000 t of salt rock were moved in order to build it. Before entering the first shaft you receive an audio guide – ours was in German.

The path leads past 14 chapels representing the Stations of the Cross – Jesus’ last journey – 180 m (590 ft) down into the earth. To decipher the meaning of each cross (chapel) demands not only a lot of fantasy but some explanation, too.

There is nothing along the path that prepares you for the gigantic cathedral at its end – consisting of three naves, each with its own biblical symbolism.
The first nave stands for the birth of Jesus,
the second for his life and the life of mankind.
The third is symbolic for his death and resurrection. The cathedral offers 8’700 people the opportunity to listen to Sunday mass.

Slideshow: Salzkathedrale von Zipaquirá

Along the way to Guatapé Thomas added his own salt to the earth as the temperature rose above 30° C (86 F). Our navigational systems lead us to the back entrance of town, rewarding us with beautiful scenery. Of course, a surprise had to await us just before reaching our destination. A suspension bridge, its access blocked for more than only cars.

Guatapé has more than one attraction. It’s a lovely, very colorful city (1’925 m/6’315 ft) known for the zocalos – brightly painted bas-relief depictions of people, animals and shapes – on the lower half of many traditional houses. An idyllic artificial lake

as well as the Piedra del Peñol, an unexplainable granite monolith. Twice was the charm as far as accommodation went. We ended in this really great hostal, with secure parking, in walking distance of town.

Slideshow: Guatapé

The small, family run place was extremely hospitable. It became a perfect stay when Steve and Takeshi joined us.

Colombia’s heights and depths

Once again in possession of our motorbikes we felt a strong urge to leave Cartagena.

Packing up in Cartagena

Without a real plan we headed out of the city in search of a quiet place that would allow us to prepare for Colombia. A stopover in San Juan Nepomuceno offered exactly what we were looking for. A neat, quiet hotel with AC in our room and a sitting areathe former restaurant.

Thomas was suffering under the humid heat that still accompanied us. Therefore, it was out of the question to ride along the Caribbean coast to the northern most point of the South American mainland, Punta Gallinas. But we still had some way ahead of us in order to reach the mountains. The route – only a few meters above sea level – let through a hot and humid landscape, which did little to entice us.

Mompos, a small city on the Rio Magdalena – apparently one of Colombia’s most perfectly preserved colonial towns – is considered the inspiration for Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez fictional city of Macondo in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”. The local tourism industry thrives on it. With a bit of luck we found a small pension in the center, which offered AC rooms. Additionally, they were willing to keep our bikes in the lobby.
The colonial center proofed to be very neat. Along the river were some nice restaurants.But the climate was still a torment for Thomas.

Slideshow: Mompos

After 540 km (337 mi) from Cartagena, for the first time in Colombia, we reached an altitude of more than 300 m (950 ft). We were eager to reach the cool heights of La Playa de Belén, a small town at 1’450 m (4’757 ft), nestled in an otherworldly landscape of eroded and weathered brownstone rock formations sprouting skyward – columns, pedestals and caves – that have formed over time due to rainfall and tectonic shifts. Our side trip ended rather harshly in Ocaña when locals told us that La Playa de Belén was a “hot town”.

Clearing a landslide

How is it supposed to be hot at 1’450 m (4’757 ft)? It was already considerably cooler – some called it comfortable – at our current 1’240 m (4’068 ft). A nice lady explained that there were some guerilla activities going on around La Playa de Belén. Usually not a danger for locals but for us Gringos? Disappointed we turned around and dived back into the hot/humid depths of Colombia.

Steve’s company and some cold beer in Aguachica made the disappointment to be back to “boiling” at only 202 m (663 ft) bearable.
A short intermezzo with the locals helped as well. 

Finally, after 730 km (456 mi), the road started climbing. Not only changed the scenery dramatically, the mood and the well-being too. Riding on small main roads led to some surprises. Contrary to our navigational system’s opinion, the pavement sometimes simply stops. Dirt tracks lead on.
Our next stop was Barichara. A small colonial town at 1’335 m (4’380 ft), consisting of cobbled streets and single/double-story whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs. The town frequently is used as shooting location for Spanish-language films and soaps. We came to stay in a small pension at the outskirts of town spoiling us with a nice view. All rooms have these amazing open-air showers. Later in the day Takeshi joined us.

A part of the Camino Real served as alternative physical exercise. A part of the Camino Real served as alternative physical exercise. The local path is based on the trade routes of a Pre-Columbian culture, settling in the vicinity during 800/900 AD. The “cliff” of Barichara was a sacred site – integrated in a route network of 1’300 km (812 mi). Geo von Lengerke, a German, “discovered” the Camino Real and reconstructed some of it. We left early to beat the heat and the thunder storms. After an ample breakfast in Guane, including the local speciality goat meat, we treated us to a return trip by bus.

Slideshow: Barichara & Camino Real

Our ongoing travels through Colombia will show us that any noticeable height is followed by depth. Each cool stop by a hot and humid one.