Monday, January 4, 2016

Christmas, Machu Picchu, and More Adventure Buddies!

Christmas was a bit different this year, but we did our very best to make it as special as possible. Realizing our culinary limitations both in terms of ability and kitchen accessibility, we opted out of a traditional Christmas Eve dinner in favor of American comfort food. Feasting on mac and cheese as well as pancakes, we had just enough energy to check out the downtown scene, but not enough to stay in the square too long. People were widely out and about, but traveling got the best of us and we decided it would be easier just to let Santa show up by calling it a night. And show up he did!

The next morning, the stockings (our bike socks) we hung on some parachord out on the balcony were stuffed with goodies and we had a few presents for one another. As a great combination of practical and thoughtful, I must say I was thoroughly impressed by the giving all around. Highlights include a new cup and buff for Kai, a lightweight backpack for Jon, and an amazingly metaphorical painting for me. It was a beautiful watercolor of a mountain scene with three big llamas in the front (aka us) and two smaller ones in the distance (aka Cody and Ryson who are joining us in Argentina).

Besides the gifts, we also treated ourselves to a bacon and eggs breakfast and late lunch of pan fried pork chops, garlic mashed potatoes, and green beans stewed with bacon and onion. All I have to say is either we magically made it delicious or the Christmas spirit was making things special that day because all aspects were incredible. Including the craft Peruvian beers!

Each of us taking our turn to Skype home at some point and hear about stateside life for a bit, the rest of Christmas was quite relaxing. Kai made up some rice pudding we attempted to eat in the common room while streaming the Polar Express, but people came into the hostal to use the door we had taken over for our backrest. Taking it as a sign, we only made it through half the movie before crashing back in our room with the triple beds all in a row.

The next morning, we had some errands to run. Getting a couple more odds and ends as well mailing a bit more gear took longer than expected. We also were able to book Maccu Picchu visit for the following two days with Amerinca ... Not exactly sure what we were getting ourselves into and investing a chunk of money, we all got up early to be picked up by bus outside our hostal.

The ride was about 6 hours to a hydroelectric plant and full of enough steep switchbacks that it easily would have taken us three full days to get there on bike. The valley views were stunning as we climbed, even if the road was a bit crazy. The French girl next to me seemed to love torturing herself as she would look out the widow down a sheer cliff that we had no chance of surviving if our driver swerved just a few feet to the side. It probably didn't help that I laughed at her every gasp and look of terror, but it helped pass the time.

Finally at the hydroelectric plant, it turns out our day was far from over. Our booking had reserved a hotel for us in Agua Calientes but it required a 6.5 mile hike next to the train tracks. By the time we arrived and located the hotel, we only had a couple hours to get food, meet quickly with our guide, and try to sleep before a very early morning.

Our guide told us to leave the hotel by 5 am since we planned to save some money and walk to the entrance instead of using their bus system. Thinking he would give us a bit of a cushion, we opted for a bit more breakfast and left at 5:15. Apparently he wasn't messing around because with steady walking up several flights of stone stairs in a jungle covered walkway, we barely reached the top by the 6:30 am agreed upon time. It was a fun hike and I felt like we earned our entry, but it was not a piece of cake even for a few guys who revolve their lives around physical activity. A bit sweaty, we got in line and prepared to see a wonder of the world.

Deciding to actually feel like a tourist for a change, we followed a guide around and learned all about

the positioning of stones during a solstice and equinox, the Inca, what rituals were done where, what life was like, and some historical context. Once the tour was done, we climbed up for the stereotypical view and ate our snacks to take it all in. Overall, the place was incredible. The preservation, incredible sights, landscape, and relative recency of its re-discovery made for a majestic morning. It also helped we had near perfect weather and no rain for one of the first times in Peru.

Hiking back out the 6.5 miles that same day to the hydroelectric plant, we were feeling a bit sore from using non bike leg muscles for the first time. Luckily, we had just the remedy. We had reserved our favorite little hostal for one more night and had a sensation of returning home. Besides being the longest amount of time we had ever stayed during the trip, the three employees seemed genuinely happy to see us return for another night.

Finally time to move on from Cusco, we decided to begin what we hope will be our last big bus move of the trip. Cody and Ryson are flying into northern Argentina the beginning of January so we had some miles to make up. Getting a bus towards Chile to avoid paying a reciprocity fee in Bolivia, we made it to Tacna with an almost enjoyable experience for a change. We were riding at over 14,000 ft and had planes filled with llamas and snow capped mountains in the distance for hours until the sun set over them. As a larger bus we had more legroom and really only the little girl who had an energy craze from 3-6 am made it a bit tougher.

Debating if we should bike the border crossing or get another bus, we chose to go with speed and headed into Arica, Chile on another bus. It started out fine, but we had all three bikes carefully stacked in the back and at the border, Chilean customs insisted on reading the model numbers on all the bikes so we could register them. Essentially it slowed down the whole bus because packing them is a serious effort and as three tired travelers, we had the privilege of dealing with stressed passengers and travelers.

Happy to arrive, we began to look for a bus to Salta in northern Argentina near where the guys would fly in. Our entire trip, we have been pretty successful with bussing. However, Chile was apparently determined to taint our record of success. Besides being near impossible to understand, the answers we did get were rarely for the question we asked. For example, we would ask if a bus went to Salta and they would tell us what time a bus arrived in an entirely different city that we eventually figured had a connecting bus to Salta. To make everything more fun, many companies straight up refused to take our bikes because there wasn't enough room, even though we have made smaller busses work on this trip more than once. Eventually opting to get a bit down the road since no one would take us to Salta, we had nearly 5 hours to kill.

Luckily, Arica is near the coast and we have bikes so we mounted up and found a small place on the beach to relax, people watch, and sip on a beer. Not minding the bar had perhaps the worst service imaginable and equally impossible to understand as the bus terminal, we watched the water for a couple hours before making our way back to our bus to Calama.

The ride itself to Calama went quickly, but we had to get off at 3am to go through a customs check with all of our baggage. Since the bus was straight forward, it only makes sense that the next part was terrible. Instead of having a single bus terminal, Calama decided to have an individual building for every company so we spent our chilly morning riding around the streets in search of anything that went near Salta. Since New Year´s day was right around the corner, it turns out all busses refused to operate for at least 3 days. Determined to get at least one step closer and because the people in Arica told us it had potential, we got one more short ride to San Pedro.

The scenery changed to the most desolite, desert I´ve ever even imagined. Red dusty canyons gave way to sand, but the mountains never disappeared. They simply had zero water or life present. When we arrived, we learned that the busses to Salta were also delayed for the New Year, so we found our road and sat under a tree over 3 hours hoping for a hitch that never came and watched the dust devils come toward us across the open planes.

Determined to at least have a fun night, we grabbed a few bottles of Chilean wine, started a couple card games, and downed some coffee so we had a chance at making it to midnight. As the hour got closer, we headed into a surprisingly awesome town for the middle of the desert and watched fireworks, met other travelers, and were a little creeped out by the tradition of burning paper figures in the streets. Since all the rooms were super expensive, we ended up at a campground and met a man who actually speaks English. It´s funny how helpful communication can be because within minutes we had a ride set up with his friend to the border of Argentina for a fee.

Glad we decided to ride and not bike since the whole portion was up a mountain in the desert and we never saw water, we reached Jama and had probably the smoothest border crossing yet. Thankfully we knew to print out a reciprocity fee for the country prior to the border since they don´t let you at the building. Thanks google. Finally within striking distance of Cody and Ryson even if no one picked us up, we began biking in high elevation. That night, we didn´t make it much past the border and it was so windy we camped behind a dirt hill to try and break some of it. We were also up high enough that the next morning our water bottles had ice in them. It was great to learn my new sleeping bag works astoundingly well, and almost as entertaining to hear how Jon and Kai had to cuddle a bit in the other tent.

The next morning, we began riding early and got a quick hitch to a town down the road, simply trying to cut out distance. Pushing further up mountain switchbacks, we finally flagged down a truck who seemed to be going all the way to JuJuy where the guys were flying in. Stopping at a salt flat lake to be a tourist with our drivers, we thought we had it made until we crossed a state border and the border police made us get out of the truck. Only about 15 miles from the airport, it was already getting dark so we found a place to camp and hoped Ryson could fend for himself after his flight in that night.

Waking up early to a message with the name of the hostal he was staying at, we packed up the tents just as it started to rain. We had experienced some pretty heavy rains through Central America, but this was borderline flashflood. Once we came down the hill into town, some of the puddles-streams-rivers in the road were up to our panniers. Nevertheless, we found the hostal, hugged our buddy, and were thrilled to have another conversation partner, the only hiccup was his bike got removed from one of the planes to make extra room, but it should be coming in tonight. A few hours later, we returned to the airport to pick up a travel weary Cody who had a few more struggles along the way by having to pay reciprocity fees and for some reason prove he was leaving the country, but it was great to all be together in the same place.

The rest of the day, we ran some errands like waterproofing the tent, finding an ATM that works (there´s only one in the city that accepts our cards so most of the afternoon was without money), and building Cody´s bike. If all goes well, by tomorrow afternoon the 5 of us should be ready to roll.

It feels almost like a chapter of the trip has come to a close for Jon, Kai, and me, but we are all excited to begin a new one. We had our system of food, sleeping, and travel figured out and it will be exciting to tweak it to accomodate five. The biggest thing is having more people to talk with, play games, and most of all watch suffer like we did so we can feel good about our physical ability and remember all the fun times we had getting our bodies in biking shape back in Mexico. Argentina is already beatiful and full of potential, and the five of us are super excited to make the most of a couple months without border crossings, hopefully busses, and with the most company we´ve had in literal months. Argentina, here we come!


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