Pan America 2011 - 2012

American writers like Kerouac and Miller influenced me a lot when I was in my Twenties. And I heard lots about the West Coast from American travellers, recommending great national parks and the Route 101 that is sort of famous thing to do for cyclists. So I decided to postpone other planned adventures and flew to Vancouver BC, equipped with my good old pushbike, a tent and a  (warm!) sleeping bag.

After fantastic landscapes and forests down South to San Diego I teamed up with Kathrin, a great cycling mate. When we reached the Southern tip of Baja California, we decided to move on together, crossed Mexico into Guatemala and Belize. After living in a rented house on the Lake Atitlan we ventured out for snow capped mountains of South America, crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza and moved up North again, to Machu Picchu. After 11 months and 11000 kilometres I arrived back in Germany, with Kathrin...

IMG_1637Uyuni is an interesting town. It is the major settlement on the worlds largest salt lake as well as the major departure point for the Jeep tours to the lagoons in the vast Southwest of Bolivia. Some old loco and a metal sculpture in front of the train station, and wide streets barely occupied with traffic give the town a bit of a Western movie feeling, except for the dozens of Landcruisers. There is a touristy pedestrian area with restaurants and souvenir shops as sort of city center, and a number of freshly painted colonial looking buildings including the church. Just a few hundred meters away the wide streets turn into wide bumpy dirt roads, with smaller unplastered red brick houses at its sides. A cold sun during the day barely warms, the usual west wind in the afternoon chills and at nightfall its getting really cold.

We do what most tourists do in Uyuni – we go on a three day jeep tour through some colorful lagoons and the Salar de Uyuni, the worlds biggest salt lake. We are a group of seven, Domingo the driver, a German couple and two young Swiss backpackers. 900 kilometers between 4000 and 5000 meters above sea level on sandy rough gravel with a handful villages – part of our cyclist minds already suffer from viewing the endless lonesome tracks we know that other bicycle travelers have done - with luggage and heaps of food and water.

But for the time being we enjoy the comfort of the warm jeep, the company and the contrast of the soft ascending reddish hills and some snow-capped mountains in the distance. Llama and Vicuna flocks dwell on the sparse dry grass. Ilian, the Swiss suggested to do the tour counterclockwise to avoid the crowds of other jeep tourists. Some 40 jeeps are on these tracks every day. That plan works out perfectly, and we have most of the sights for ourselves. Domingo, our driver would show us points of interest, explain that the locals here live from the Llamas and from growing Quinoa, a grain that only grows up here in the Altiplano. Apparently, some vegetables like potatoes and onions do grow as well here in the dry cold climate. Nowadays, mining companies are big employers here. Even a train line runs to Chile only for the valuable minerals like copper, silver and gold. Domingo would stop at small guest houses for lunch and diner, and cook simple and good meals himself with the food he carries on the jeep.

IMG_1751 La Laguna Colorada

We reach the Laguna Colorada, one of the highlights of the tour by sunset of the first day. The water shimmers in perfect red and white and yellow in front of some mighty snow-capped peaks. White and purple flamingos wade the shallow ice cold water in the icy breeze. Not much grows here, except for a few dry grass tufts, and some water plants these graceful creatures live. Walking down to the shore to put my hand into the waters I'm really surprised, having found a hot spring spot by chance. Just as a perfect ending of the first day, the few clouds in the sky turn purple a after sunset.

Arbol de PiedraThe night we'd spend in a nearby set of long stone houses that serve the jeep tourists as hospedajes. There is no heating here, just a bit of solar powered light, so we wear all our clothes at diner. In the end, Domingo serves us hot spicy wine and provides each of us a hot-water bottle for the night. Once again I'm more than happy with Udos warm sleeping bag.

We rise very early on the next morning, have a quick breakfast and drive to a field of geysers called “Sol de mañana”. Icy winds blow sulfur smell into our noses when we walk around the hellish scenario of bubbling white mud wholes and steaming breaks in the icy covered earth. Not far away those who dare can warm up in a nice open air pool filled by some 38 degrees hot spring water. What a treat after the cold night!

Next we cross some 5000 meters altitude pass in snow storm on our way to the most southern point of our tour, the Laguna Verde. The lagoons at this altitude are actually lakes, filled by small rivers from the surrounding mountains with all sorts of salts and minerals like borax, copper or iron. These minerals would shape the colors of the lagoons, ranging from deep red over orange, white and even green as the sun shines. We are lucky to get a bit of sunshine, and a bit of the incredible green shimmer of the Laguna Verde.

We had back North, crossing the picturesque Dali desert, stop for photo shootings at the tree rock and a number of smaller lagoons full of red flamingos. The landscape is fantastic with its high rocky peaks and volcanoes and the soft shaped red hills. I have no idea how Domingo navigates between the dozens of jeep tracks running in every compass direction without any signs. Every once in a while we spot some vicunas, and by dusk we reach civilization again, spend the night in a little hospedaje made from salt in a small village near the salar.

Flamingos at Laguna Honda View over the Salar from Inca Huasi

SAM_0313After visiting a cave with petrified water plants we enter the wide and plain and incredibly white salar. Just a few weeks before the Salar was still flooded from the rainy season, and not different stages of dryness create different textures on the surface. For a while we drive over a little bumpy field, later the salt crystals would shine like crazy diamonds in the sunlight, and later the surface would develop the famous pentagonal or hexagonal textures. Out here without points of reference we take all sorts of funny photos. We drive for a while, barely without getting closer to the distant volcano on the opposite side. Eventually we reach Inca Huasi, a cacti covered rocky island in the middle of the salt desert. Some of the cacti are estimated to be more than 700 years old, and more than 10 meters high. All of a sudden it feels warm in the midday sun without icy winds. And if there were not flocks of yelling tourists, you could actually hear the cacti grow. We have lunch and leave the island all too soon for the latest stations of our trip, the salt production fields and the train cemetery near Uyuni. On the way, we spot two bicycle tourists heading for Uyuni, and admire their SAM_0316bravery! Later we'd meet the two again in our hotel, and marvel about bicycle touring. Rainer and Michaela from Frankonia, Germany tell us a lot about their adventure trip out there.

On the next day Kathrin and I ride our bicycles back over the bumpy road to the salar. We stop in the middle of the endless white, far away from the tourist tracks for some picnic, enjoy the warming sun beams, some Yoga and the almost perfect silence. Twice swarms of flamingos fly over us, incredible moments! The little shortcut we intend on our way back, directly to Uyuni ends up pushing our bikes through mud, covered with a thin layer of salt for a kilometer or so. We let the trip end with some great banana shakes in the last bit of sunlight, and our time in Uyuni phase out with some tasty hot cakes in our heated hotel room, looking forward to visit Potosi and La Paz by bus, and warm up in the subtropical Coroico for a few days soon after.

If you fancy more impressions, here are more pictures with german subtitles provided by Kathrin:

Torre de Compania Jesus, PotosiIt takes more than 4 hours on the meanwhile almost fully paved mountain road from Uyuni to Potosi. There are a number of long steep ascends, a few villages and a lot of beautiful rock formations and canyons on the way. After the Spaniards found one of the biggest silver resource in the prominent Cerro de Oro (gold mountain), they not only exploited it full scale with local and African slaves, but as well built a splendid colonial town with numerous churches. Back then, Potosi became the richest town in South America, and the legend says that the streets were plastered with silver and gold - a real El Dorado. With more than 4000 meters above the sea, it is as well the most elevated city today. Small red brick houses creep up the slopes of the surrounding hills. Heavy traffic on the steep and small cobblestone lanes mixes with a good portion of pedestrians. Soon I figured out that my idea to bike with all our stuff from the terminal into the center was not wise with all the fumes, and the little availability to store bikes and luggage. After what seems hours we find a hotel where we could leave our bikes, and stroll off to waste another hour waiting for our lunch in a Cafe.

At the best time of the day we visit the famous the Casa de Moneda and the impressive Torre de Compania Jesus. Walking the narrow cobblestone lanes we marvel at wooden balconies and carved doors on colorful painted old houses. At times, those gates were open to allow a view into the patios as well. Just before dusk we get a guided tour up to the magnificent bell tower of the cathedral. Eager to get to La Paz, eager to get out of the cold of the Altiplano we decide to catch a night bus. That bus terminal is even more outside of town, yet I'm not in the mood to cram our two bicycles and the luggage into a small taxi in these busy lanes. Luckily it is all downhill to the cold terminal, and we reach La Paz by sunrise on the next morning.

The view of the city squeezed between the hills from El Alto, the distant peak of the snow-caped Illumani and the steep uphill creeping settlements were touching me instantly. We spend two days organizing things, working a little and doing some sightseeing. Near the the footbridge over the capitals main streets through the city, young boys with wollen ski masks offer their services as sho shiners, and kind of scare the tourists. The side walks of the steep busteling roads east of the Iglesia de San Fransisco are plastered with colorful makeshift market stalls selling fruits, vegetables, radios and clothes. As usual in Latin America, street are dedicated to only one branch of products, electronics, or clothes, or food, or plumbing material. Vibrations of the outlook of prosperity and wealth seem to be omnipresent.

La PazOn the third morning we catch an old taxi with roof carrier to bring us and our bikes some 20 kilometers out of town, to the Paso de la Cumbre at 4700 meters above sea level. Our goal is the subtropical Coroico, to warm up and cure our chapped skins after weeks in the dry and cold Altiplano. The views from the pass to the surrounding snow peaks and the lake are spectacular. At the same time, two groups of “adventure downhill cyclists” start on the same route, and we rush down some 30 kilometers of thick gritted paved road into a scenic cloud dotted valley.

Little by little the vegetation becomes more lush and vivid. There are wild flowers and trees and even wild strawberries at the side of the road. For the next ascent, the adventure cyclists are loaded into their support vans and driven up. We reach the entrance of the “Camino de la Muerte”, the death road through misty jungle and waterfalls, dropping down to 1100 meters in the end. Before the new paved road was build, that stretch of 35 kilometer gravel road, built by Paraguayan prisoners, was the only connection from La Paz to the Bolivian Amazonian areas. Often the road is no wider than two or three meters, and bordered by almost perpendicular slopes. Just imagine how trucks and buses in opposite directions could possibly pass each other. Many lost their lives here.

On the Death RoadNowadays, the road is used almost only by herds of adventure cyclist groups, and I'd consider it a nice and easy downhill ride. And I ended up flat on the gravel, platsch. Well, we've had mist, we've had rain too, but enjoyed the lush and vivid green. An Argentine motorcyclist advised us about the 8 steep cobblestone kilometers from the bottom of the valley some 700 meters up to Coroico while waiting for better weather. In the end, we could pitch our tent in Attila's “La Jungla” restaurant and were spoiled with home made pesto and pasta and the first warm night in ages. Attila, the charismatic Hungarian owner told us a lot about the area and his business while we ate great breakfast before the fierce climb to Coroico. The views were perfect, the cobblestone was slippery and bumpy, and another surprise was just around the corner: those “no see em's”, the sand flies that gave us the itch in the Caribbean already were here too to spoil Paradise!

Anyhow, we settle in a cozy bungalow in the Villa Bonita for a few days. Hummingbirds fly, flowers blossom and ripe mandarines hang from the trees of the tropical garden. And with long sleeves and socks these nasty sand flies have less impact. Just resting, reading and little bit of work for me - peace on earth!

SAM_0598After five days in Paradise we decide to move on. Kathrin takes my luggage on the bus to La Paz, and I try to climb the Paso de la Cumbre. 11 kilometers down to 1100 meters on slippery cobblestone and dusty gravel, then the new road to La Paz climbs up to 4700m. Not as steep as some ascents in Guatemala, but steady. Serpentine by serpentine through the mountain woods I cycle on, every kilometer reveals new fantastic outlooks to the cordilleras or Coroico sitting on its cliff-like hill above the lush valleys. Half past 5, just past the Drug Control (they didn't even notice me) at 4000 meters and after 10 hrs cycling I run out of time and energy and try to hitch. A very friendly family from La Paz picks me up and brings me directly to the hotel.

Kathrins camera is repaired, her trekking boots repaired and my new round glasses are ready. With the flights home booked and the limited time we have left, we decide to take a bus to Copacabana on the famous Titicaca lake to spare time to visit Peru. After some great views from El Alto down to La Paz, the journey continues along the Cordilleras in the Altiplano. The area seems to be more fertile that what we've seen before, with more quinoa fields and more grass land. And finally we see the incredibly blue lake Titicaca. With 180km length and 70 kilometers width it is the highest navigable and second-largest lake of South America. Some wooden boat carries our bus over the lake to the Copacabana peninsula, where we passengers have to take a little motor boat. Another hour of steep climbs and series of serpentines until we arrive in Copacabana. The town is famous for its pilgrimage church at the Plaza, the blessings of cars and the mayor tourist access point for the Isla de Sol. Hospedajes, hostales, souvenir shops and restaurants border the buzzing tourist road from the Plaza to the docks at the lake. In the evening we walk the Via Dolorosa that leads up a rocky hill with a splendid views over the town between the hills at the shore of the lake. A series of crosses are installed at the top, with concrete benches for healers and snack vendors serving the gasping and beer-thirsty pilgrims. Not long and we marvel upon the fantastic sunset over the lake, and not long after that cold winds force us back down to town.

Plaza and Church of Copacabana Decorated bus for the blessing

The nearby Isla de Sol is the birthplace of the Inca mythology. The tourist boats to the island leave at 8:30 AM. Both finding a open restaurant before that as well as the quality of the breakfast were disappointing. The small motor boat fills up with three dozen backpackers until the last Hiking down the Inca stairs in Yumanispace. It takes some two and a half hours with the lulling dull sound of the small engine for the few kilometers. We finally reach the Northern village. Some kids asking four times the regular charge for the public toilet after the long boat ride torpedo my mood heavily. A hike leads to the Inca ruins and over the hills to Yumani, the Southern village of the island. From there boats would pick up the tourists and bring them back to Copacabana.

Together with the backpackers from two boats that arrived at the same time we pay the 10 Bolivianos for the ruins and venture out for the walk. Certainly I did not expect such a crowd, and in my mood I feel simply no connection to the Inca culture at the places. Half way through the hike a white banner over the stone wall bordered trail greets the backpackers, and two villagers with nicely printed tickets ask again for money - 15 Bolivianos for trail maintenance. They must have invented that toll station just recently, as the low numbers on the tickets suggest. Grumpy as can be about the short sighted tourist concept I pay the fee.

The view over the lake to the Isla de la Luna and the distant white peaks reward for the hassle, as well as the charming spirit of Yumani. Its gardens look green, and small cobblestone paths and stairs bordered by stone walls lead from the hills down to the dock. Tourism picks up here too. There are guesthouses and restaurants. A 5 Boliviano fee has to be paid for the ancient Inca Stairs, yet that seems more appropriate than the funny toll stations in the middle of nowhere. We end our visit with an endless slow boat ride back to Copacabana, and book us a night bus to Cusco, Peru for the following day. Time to leave a surprising country that I really liked, and time to head go for the last great destination of my journey.

Walls of SaqsaywamanI'm sitting with Kathrin and a liter of ice cold Brahma beer in a bar in the center of misty Lima, beating time until midnight. Depeche Modes "Enjoy the Silence" pounds from the Jukebox, way too loud. We just survived the 20 hour bus ride from Cusco to here, and are now waiting for our flight back to Europe. It's been almost 11 months on the road for me, and 8 with Kathrin. Pictures of the amazing jouney and the last weeks in the Valle Sagrado pass through my mind.

We arrive at 5 AM in Cusco at the bus terminal. An older man approaches us, offers a range of hostales in town. Too tired to send him away, we sip our coffees and eventually follow him to a quiet hospedaje above San Blas. While walking he explains us the Puma design of the town intended by the Inca rulers and some sights on our way up. Climbing the cobblestone steps with our loaded bicycles is a torture, but when we arrive at the Hospedaje Inka we are more than happy with the breakfast in the car-free place with the great view over Cusco and our "suite". Hummingbirds dwell in the yellow blooming trees, and the cat plays with a mice every day in the garden. Five nights we stay, forge plans, stroll the narrow alleys framed by thick stone walls and visit some core tourist sites like Qoricancha and Saqsaywaman. The masons of the Incas left incredible evidence of their excellence in the mighty walls. Within some 200 years their masons cut and joined giant multi-edged and out-of-square stones together that no knife can be put between, and they did this without using metal tools nor wheels nor horses. Just at the peak of the Inca civilization the Spanish conquistadors arrived and succeeded. After their victory they built numerous churches on top of the foundations of the former Inca palaces, which gives the historic city center its incredible touch.

Ruins of PisacFrom Cusco we head to Pisac. We are a little late for the Rainbow gathering in the nearby Lares, so we decide to cycle slowly down the Valle Sagrado towards Machu Picchu, kind of avoiding all the expensive tourist tours, kind of doing things our way and our pace. The Sacred Valley of the Incas is less than a kilometer wide and flat with the Urubamba river, framed by bald rocky slopes and distant snow capped mountains. From Pisac to Ollantaytambo and further down the river various Inca sites tell the story of that once great civilisation.

The Spaniards planted a tree on the Plaza of Pisac when they arrived. That tree blossoms red still today, its canopy overlooking the field of souvenir market shacks. Still intact terraces on steep slopes and the picturesque setting of the ruins of Pisac overlook the surrounding valleys and give me a first glimpse what Machu Picchu might be like. The remains of castle and temple buildings are located on the ridge of a rocky hill towering some hundred meters above the village. We hike up early in the morning, barely meeting anyone until the tourist buses arrive about 9AM.

On the outskirts of Urubamba we pitch our tent at a quiet campground run by a German-Peruvian couple for a few nights. From there we visit the agricultural laboratories at Moray. It is a long way up from the Urubamba river to Maras, and still lots of up and down on gravel from that villages to the archeological site. Three giant round sinkholes have been dug here by the Incas, and framed by terrace steps. Scientists say, they used it probably to study crop behavior under the different climatic conditions on the different levels of the terraces. On the way back kids were often begging at us in languages, make us feel uncomfortable. One would eventually hit Kathrin with a whip. I never experienced something like that before.

From our campsite in the hardly touristic Urubamba we go hiking in a nearby valley and enjoy the tranquility of the unspoiled landscape near the glaciers of Nevado del Chicon. The visit of the parade of the Virgin Carmen in Pisac and an excursion to the salt producing sites near Urubamba keep us another day on the idyllic campground before we move on to Ollantaytambo.

Nevado del Chicon IMG_2342 IMG_2533

For the ruins there we take a guide, who explains a lot about the meaning of the word Ollantaytambo, the advanced water system and how the 100 ton heavy rocks for the Temple of the Sun were brought here (without horses). The temple of the sun is actually a set of roughly 3 meter high 4-squared rocks, that have been joined together seamlessly. Looking at the bald hill slopes around us, I can imagine how many trunks of trees were abused for this project. What our guide does not mention is the one successful battle the Incas fought here against the Spanish, which was won by drowning the Spanish in the floods of a opened water reservoir. On the opposite hill are Colchas, old storehouses that could keep crops and corn fresh for months by utilizing the frequent chilly and dry winds. Trails lead to these ruins that are still free to visit. Other than that, Ollantaytambo is the starting point for many tracks as well as the train station to Machu Picchu. Therefore it is fairly crowded by tourists and has great pizza.

On the following day we set out early in the morning, tackling Abra Malaga with 4300 meters above the sea. It is an amazing scenery to climb up. The road leads through a gap between two giant rocks with endless serpentines through lush green along a wild river and various Inca sites. We reach the pass in the late afternoon. The thick fog that renders to soft cold rain a little later. The awaited downhill ride turns out rather freezy. Soaked to the bone and shivering we reach a small borderhouse restaurant in a tiny settlement on the road just before nightfall. Natty and Pilar, the owners allow us to dry and warm at the wood fire, serve us a great trout diner and let us sleep in a corner of the shack. Business never really stops for Natty, every hour or so some truck driver bangs at the door shouting "Senora, senora, gasolina" or something like that.

Luckily the rain stopped at night, dawn brings blue skies and great views to Mnt. Veronika. We leave the place early, riding down the bumpy road under construction to Santa Maria at about 1100 meters above sea level. Vivid green banana and coffee plantations and temperatures way above 20ºC - we are back in the tropics. With the lack of sleep and motivation we find us a Formula 1 taxi driver that brings us to Santa Teresa in record time - over the dusty gravel death road cornered by steep slopes of the Urubamba canyon. A distant snow capped Mnt. Salcantay revives Kathrins memories on her rainy and misty trek there a few years ago. We put our tent at the hot tubs outside of town, and enjoy the bath before herds of young tourists arrive in tourist vans or on foot. We drink beers and chat with JP, an Californian surfer and Jerome, and author from Belgium.

IMG_2666 Machu Picchu!

The next morning we ride two hours up and down on dusty gravel to the train station at Hidro Electrica, where we can store our bikes for a few Soles. The last leg on our way to Aguas Calientes is a very scenic two hour walk along the Urubamba river and the train line. We are already spotting the steep slopes of the rocky walls of Machu Picchu. How does it feel to be so close to the dream destination of this trip! When we arrive, we put our tent a little outside Aguas Calientes on a campsite near the bridge and the bottom entrance of Machu Picchu.

The great day starts funny - we could not hear the alarm and wake up just before 6. So we climb up to the main entrance, some 500 elevation metres. All works out well, and we arrive at the viewpoint terraces of Machu Picchu just in time for a great sunrise on a spotless blue sky! Sipping our self-made ice coffee while watching the sunbeams reaching the peak of Wayna Picchu first, then little by little lightening up the temple ruins - what a feeling! We walk around the ruins after, listening to the guides explanations and marvel upon the architecture of the Incas. When by 9:30 AM the bigger crowds arrive, we are already on our steep way up to Mnt. Machu Picchu. On the way we meet Max from Luxembourg who studies Engineering in Zurich. On top at 3000 meters above sea level a giant rainbow colored Inka flag moves majestically in the winds above the great scenery of the Machu Picchu ruins in front of Mnt Wayna Picchu. In the distance, the white peaks of mnt. Salcantay and mnt. Veronika and other mountain ranges are clearly visible, a 1000 meters beneath us the Urubamba river rushes in his rocky river bed in the narrow S-shaped valley. What a day! Just before we leave the Machu Picchu area, a park ranger tells us a few insights of the Machu Picchu business, e.g. that the very expensive tourist trains are run by Chile and little of the money stays in Peru.

HummingbirdThe hike and bike back to Santa Teresa goes easy. Once again we enjoy the hot tubs, and decide to take a little detour to Quillabamba, wishing to see the rain forests. The 20 kilometres from Santa Maria to Quillabamba turn into a real torture on a very bumpy, very dusty, very busy road. It takes us more than two hours pedalling. When we reach the bustling city, we can't find a peaceful place in town, nor a reasonable way to get into rain forest. So we leave, head back to Abra Malaga by bus, cycle down the scenic serpentines in best weather to Ollantaytambo and finally reach the peaceful campground in Urubamba again. A few more nights there, an incredible Ayuhuasca ceremony of dancing rainbow colored wines in an electric jungle for me, and time is up for this journey of the Americas. A 20 hour bus from Cusco to Lima, some more 20 hours in airports and airplanes, and we are back in Germany.