GEOFF’S AMAZING ANDES ADVENTURE
What do people do when they retire? Some people spend most of their time propping up the bar at their local bowling club; others play golf. For Geoff, when he retired he decided to go on a motorcycle tour through the Andes! Here he tells us about this fabulous adventure. But first, perhaps a little background to where he went. Geoff said he had always been interested in Machu Picchu, so joining up with Ferris Wheels’ “Awesome Andes” trip, which had a visit to the famous ruins as a highlight of the trip, was a great opportunity to visit this site as well as enjoy the adventure of a motorcycle tour through some very different country. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about it, Machu Picchu is more commonly known as, “The lost city of the Incas” and is located in the Cusco Region of Peru, in South America. It is believed that the Incas began building the city around the year 1400. The reason for it being built is debated, but many archaeologists believe that it was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. Its location is very significant. Firstly, it is generally believed to be a sacred religious site. It is built on mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture and in the previous culture that occupied the land. It’s also said that the mountains around it are in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas. Secondly, it is strategically well placed to ward off any invaders. It sits in a hollow between two mountains, with a commanding view down two valleys, and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs and, it is said, enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes that any invaders would have to climb to get to it. The terraces also reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. Two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu go across the mountains and both could be blocked easily, should invaders approach along them. So the area could be easily and very effectively defended if necessary. The city was abandoned about 100 years later, in the mid 1500s. This was around the time of the Spanish invasion, but it wasn’t the invasion that caused its demise. The Spanish didn’t find it, which was a good thing as they didn’t destroy it as they did other areas they conquered. One theory is that the population was wiped out by an epidemic of smallpox, which may have been introduced by travellers before the Spanish arrived. In any case, the city lay in ruins and was overgrown by surrounding jungle. Locals knew about it, but no-one else did. It wasn’t until American historian Hiram Bingham discovered it, with the assistance of an 11-year-old local boy, in 1911 that the rest of the world got to know it was there. Efforts were made to restore the ruins, and in 1981 Peru declared the surrounding area a “Historical Sanctuary”. In 1983 UNESCO designated it a World Heritage Site, describing it as “an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization”. It has subsequently attracted a steady stream of international visitors, and in 2007 Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in a worldwide Internet poll. Anyway, enough of my history lesson, here's Geoff to tell us of his adventure! I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Machu Picchu, but opportunities for overseas travel invariably favoured the more traditional destinations of Europe, Asia and good old USA. Having recently retired, and having returned to biking after a 30 year hiatus, the attraction of a Ferris Wheels “Awesome Andes” tour including a visit to Machu Picchu became irresistible. The tour started in Arequipa, Peru on 28 Oct 2012, with 10 tourists, tour operators Mike and Denise Ferris, and facilitators / mechanics Geert and Eddie in the back-up van. Of the tourists, only Brad from Canada and myself had not been on a previous Ferris Wheels tour, so the “repeat offenders” obviously had a high opinion of the tour operators. The first few days of riding involved some fabulous roads and mountain scenery, although the land was very barren by Australian standards. A typical day’s ride was around 350km, and included stops for lunch and refuelling, as well as individual stops for photos and rehydrating. Hotels and meals were proving quite reasonable, and this standard continued for the whole of the tour. The border crossings from Peru to Chile, and again from Chile to Bolivia were obviously designed to test one’s patience. Perhaps the lack of trees was due to all the paperwork required! We also had some short periods of rain and hail during the mountain runs, but not enough to inconvenience or delay us. The photo above shows riders taking photos of a snow covered volcano. On day 4 we came across a single vehicle accident in the middle of nowhere. Brian, one of the tourists, is a paramedic in the real world and stopped to give assistance. Roadside memorials appeared quite regularly, giving an indication of the local driving standards. Later that day Mark and Mandy hit a llama, bringing the back-up van and trailer into play until the forks and radiator could be repaired. Unfortunately Brian wasn’t able to help the llama. Next day saw some serious climbing to reach Potosi in Bolivia, the old silver mining city that financially supported the Spanish Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries, and is almost 4,200m above sea-level. (Geoff was told that it was the highest city in the world, but it's not; there are actually quite a few above this! Elwyn). The following day was a rest day, spent exploring the city and the silver mines. And here I am, all dressed up for a day’s work in the silver mines! It is said that more than 1 million workers died in the mines and refining plants, and I was having so much trouble breathing at that altitude I felt I would have added to the statistic if I performed any physical exertion. After Potosi, we rode another fabulous smooth, winding road to Uyuni. (It’s hard to see in this photo, being shrunk down to fit into the story on the page here, but the road comes in from the centre / left of the photo, then winds its way through the break between the mountains. Elwyn). This part of the trip included an afternoon ride on the 12,000km² Salar de Uyuni saltflats. What an experience riding flat out with your eyes closed! (Because there was nothing around them, they were invited by the tour guides to ride with their eyes closed, just to enjoy that experience. Elwyn). Unfortunately the smooth salt flats didn’t prepare us for the 200km of unsealed road the next day, including sandy tracts and the inevitable llama roadblocks as we headed towards Oruro. I dropped the bike twice in sandy patches, so was quite chuffed to get through a river crossing where a four-wheel-drive had stalled. Next day we continued on to La Paz, and had time in the afternoon to wander around and do the tourist thing. (La Paz is the starting-point for what has become known as “The most dangerous road in the world.” Elwyn). Thanks to national bureaucracy, we had to return to Peru via the same border crossings we entered each country, necessitating 2 days of approximately 500km each day. The photo shows part of the winding road from Arica to Puno. Fortunately the roads and the scenery kept the riding interesting. Less fortunate was the front tyre blow-out on one of the bikes, putting pillion Joanne in hospital with ankle injuries and both Jim and Joanne out of the tour. Thanks again to Brian for his paramedic training. Day 11 saw us back in Peru at Puno on the shores of Lake Titicaca (pictured left). (This is, in terms of volume of water, the largest lake in South America. Elwyn). A short cruise on the lake to one of the floating reed islands the following morning, with the obligatory purchase of tourist trinkets, then on to more mountainous roads towards Cusco, ancient capital of the Incas. Unfortunately we came across another accident involving a local biker, with probable serious consequences due to no safety helmet. Cusco is a very interesting city, with the Spanish architects exerting their authority by constructing their important buildings on top of the original Inca building foundations. The importance of both the Inca and the Spanish buildings can be determined by the quality of the stone work. As with all cities we visited, Cusco is built around the Plaza de Armas, and as usual the Cathedral was the most imposing of all the buildings. We had our second rest day here, although a walking tour through the city and some souvenir shopping was hardly restful at that altitude. (3,395m. Elwyn). Cusco is also the main starting point for Andes trekking tours and Machu Picchu, and the number of foreign tourists was significantly greater than we had encountered elsewhere. (According to one report I read, it attracts about 2 million tourists each year. Elwyn). Day 14 took us closer to Machu Picchu, riding through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and side-tracking on unsealed roads to Inca ruins at Moray and a salt extraction plant at Salineras, before reaching our destination of Ollantaytambo. This town has significant Inca ruins but is relatively unheralded. Next morning was a 4:30am start for the 1½ hour train and ½ hour bus trips to Machu Picchu. What a spectacular site! Photos don’t do the ruins justice, and the size of the city and quality of the stone work has to be seen to be appreciated. We were fortunate to have very pleasant weather (not too hot, not too misty) and the early start gave us good access and photo opportunities before the crowds arrived. (Tourism is a constant threat to the area, reaching 400,000 annually by the year 2000. In 2011 local authorities placed restrictions on the number of tourists permitted to enter the site each day. Elwyn). After Machu Picchu, we stayed a second night in Ollantaytambo (I needed 2 nights to get the spelling right!) before setting off next day towards the Peru coastline. Here were more great roads, rising and falling as we crossed the Andes, with temperatures varying from rather warm in the low regions to freezing cold in the upper altiplano. Did I mention the tricky cross winds, more suicidal llamas and even more suicidal truck and bus drivers? An overnight stay in Chalhuanca preceded another great day of riding, following a river for many km’s through mountain passes, although the scenery became more monotonous before the descent towards the coast, where sweeping bends and multiple U-turns kept us on full alert. Brad from Canada mis-judged one U-turn and came to grief, nursing a sore head and badly damaged helmet in the back-up van while his bike kept a respectful distance behind him on the trailer for the remainder of the tour. Overnight stop was Nasca, with an early morning flight over the famed Nasca lines planned for the next day. The flight lasted 45 minutes, and covered all 12 of the identifiable figures in the Nasca desert. Some were difficult to make out from the plane, and even more difficult to identify in my photos, but it was a rewarding experience and only added to the mystery of these ancient markings. The remainder of the day had us riding long boring stretches of road before reaching the coast and the famed Pan American highway. This road had many great stretches along the coastline, with mountains and mighty sandhills to the left and a rugged coastline to the right. Sort of like the Grand Pacific Drive at Stanwell Park, but without the trees and greenery. The penultimate day had more of the Pan American highway, before heading inland again for more mountain climbs then high flat plains. (The Pan American Highway is a network of roads traversing North and South America. At about 48,000km, it is recognised as the longest road in the world. The photo is of the Pan American Highway, as it snakes around the edge of the hill. Elwyn). We were stopped in the main street of La Joya for 15 minutes while the full city conducted an earthquake drill, then continued on to the highest point of the tour. From the lookout at 4910m we could see seven extinct volcanoes, although most of our group were more interested in where the next breath of oxygen was coming from. In the photo I’m wearing a space helmet for oxygen supply. (To put this in perspective, think twice the height of Mt. Kosciosko, which is “only” 2,228m, then go up a further half kilometre. Interestingly, the highest city in the world is also in Peru, La Rinconada, at 5,100m. Considerably higher than the afore-mentioned Potosi. Elwyn). (Altitude sickness, which can become evident at altitudes above about 2400m, is a real danger at these high altitudes, and can have serious consequences. Interestingly, the ratio of oxygen to the other gases in the air is exactly the same as at lower altitudes, but what happens is the air is less dense, so there is less of it for any given volume. So when you breathe in you get less air, and therefore less of the oxygen you need to survive. One solution is to supplement the air supply with pure oxygen, thereby increasing the amount of oxygen you get with every lung-full of air you breathe. Elwyn). The final day was a 6:00am start to see the giant South American condors. The sealed road soon gave way to unsealed for about 30km, including 2 unlit tunnels, before reaching Colca Canyon, reportedly bigger than the Grand Canyon. Despite many tourist buses arriving at the site, the condors decided to go on strike for the day. This was the only unfulfilled item on a wonderful tour, concluding that afternoon when we rode back into Arequipa. Thanks possibly to the thermal springs at the hotel the previous evening, Alan, Mark and Mandy were not feeling well and joined Brad in the back-up van, leaving Michael, Kaye, Brian and myself as the only tourists to ride back into Arequipa from the original 10 starters. Even I could consider myself lucky as I hit a vicuna (South American deer) just before the lunch stop. Fortunately the vicuna, the bike and myself survived intact. The various incidents during the tour seemed to add to everyone’s enthusiasm for bike touring, and a lot of the conversation at the farewell dinner that night was which of the several Ferris Wheels tours to tackle next! I certainly can see why the “repeat offenders” continue to offend. Thanks Geoff for a great story of a fascinating place. What an adventure! A very exciting way to start off your rettirement!
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