Jenn writes on 2014-05-15:
We said adios to Lima and left all of its upscale Miraflores delights, and depressing grey skies (no sun the entire time we were there!) and hit the road.
Our next stop was Huacachina, a desert oasis just outside of Ica. The ride from Lima was more blowing, coastal desert underneath overcast skies. For about 45 minutes we had some sun just outside of Pisco and it was glorious after almost a week without. Pisco, by the way, is home to the fortified wine beverage pisco.
The garbage problem grows more and more evident when there isn’t much to hide the litter. The wide open desert plains allow garbage artifacts of all sizes to blow around freely. It’s pretty gross. And the smell in some areas is even more disheartening.
Nevertheless, the desert is a pretty amazing place. As the Pan-American Highway curved away from the coast and more inland, the sand dunes grew more impressive as did the expanses of nothingness.
The dunes surrounding Huacachina rose from the ground into sight immediately as we passed through Ica. The road looped up and over and revealed the tiny town, a true oasis in the middle of the desert. In Colonial times, the wealthy used to flock to Huacachina to swim in the sulphuric waters of the lagoon, as it was believed that they had healing powers. Nowadays the sulphur water is gone but the lagoon remains (with water pumped in to replenish heavy usage by local private wells, I believe) surrounded by Colonial homes that now house hotels and restaurants. With a population of 106 (I’m not sure that I believe that as I didn’t see more than one residence in town), the town relies on tourism for its economy. And we were happy to help out.
Adam had passed through Huacachina with his new friend Leo, four years ago. They had only spent one night there before moving on. What a shame. Although small, and a Sunday, Huacachina turned out to be one of the gems of our entire trip.
It was recommended that we stay at Hospedaje Claudia, as per Leo (we got connections, baby!), and we got a good rate for name dropping. The room was one of the nicest we have stayed in; very clean and comfortable, with a balcony and a bathtub! There was also an amazing swimming pool that was clean (!) and very refreshing to take the edge off the afternoon heat.
Did I mention that there was sun!?! Not the first day, but on our second day the sun was out and in full force. That morning was spent doing bike maintenance. Adam’s front brakes were in need of some attention, as were my rear brakes, as they both seem to be sticking a bit and needed to have the pads changed again. We also gave the other brakes some attention by giving them a bit of a cleaning. Oh how I long for the luxury of my Dad’s garage – a workspace free of sand and blowing dirt with work surfaces (opposed to working on the ground), and the availability of rags, water, and various cleaning solvents. Doing bike maintenance on the road is a bit tricky. The bikes are filthy and could really use a tear down to clean up just about every part. We also cleaned out the air filters as we were about to enter back into the Andes and clean filters at altitude means better performance for the bike in the thinner air.
Just as we were about to set off for lunch, we met a couple who looked familiar to Adam (well, she did). It turned out that she used to DJ at Sneaky Dee’s in Toronto, where Adam used to be a regular in his earlier years. Tanya and Steve were just down for a week (on their way to Rio but neglected to secure visas for their trip, so had to pick somewhere else to go on a whim). He bought us a couple of rounds of beer while we talked about mutual people we knew and our trip, which revealed that Steve used to date a friend of a good friend of Adam. The people that you meet, eh?
In the early days of trip planning I had decided that once we got to Peru I was going to try sandboarding. The dunes surrounding Huacachina are well-known for buggy rides and sandboarding. The perfect place to give it a go. Once the sun wasn’t so high in the sky (hanging out on dunes in midday sun = not such a bright idea), we grabbed some boards and headed off for a leisurely hike up the dunes. Those suckers are harder to traverse than they look. One step forward, half a slide back.
We managed to summit the dune that faced our hotel to see that the dunes stretched as far as we could see into the distance. We also had a great view of Ica and the mountains behind. But it was time to try the sandboards. Since we hadn’t rented boots and bindings, the safest way for us to go down was toboggan style. With much excitement, I sat down on the board, pushed myself off and . . . stopped. A little more push and nothing. The board was just not going anywhere. I tried lying down on my stomach and even stood on the board, but the thing would not glide on its own. Then we remembered the candle. This is what we were to wax the board with. So we rubbed the candle on the bottom of the board, gave it another try, and success! For about twenty or thirty feet then we were swamped again.
Things improved once we found some smaller dunes with softer sand. Then we were really flying. But the sun was going down and walking up those dunes was tiring, so we only got a few runs in before heading back down for a cold beer and to shake the sand out of our shorts.
In the morning we continued south to Nazca, stopping off at the observation tower at the side of the highway to see the Nazca Lines. We were only able to see two or three of the figures but it was a worthwhile two Soles each to spend for a peek. From where we stood it looked like cars had been driving over the lines (tire tracks crisscrossing the desert) and that the highway had been built directly through (over?) the figures. The best way to view the lines is from an airplane and there certainly was no shortage of them circling overhead. It wasn’t within our budget to splurge for a flight and I somewhat question the reliability of the planes and pilots, so small observation tower it was.
The town of Nazca was a further 30 KM but a good place to settle down for the night. I believe that this was one of those ‘don’t wander around at night’ sort of places but I found it to be quite a nice town, with lots of shops and restaurants, and of course, some sort of festival happening with a stage set up in the middle of the street. I think we found the most expensive restaurant in town, though, with a personal sized pizza costing us almost $10. It was puny and disappointing, and the restaurant couldn’t make change for us. This continues to boggle my mind. We have run across this in so many instances where a shop or a restaurant cannot make change for a ‘larger’ bill. Understandable when you slip them a 100 Soles at a small food cart or first thing in the morning, but at the end of the day and you can’t provide change?? Nobody seems to carry a float, and I don’t understand how they can run a business that way – especially at an establishment positioning themselves as a tourist joint. Anyway, enough of my rant.
Our hotel turned out to be a hidden gem amongst a sea of expensive places. If there happens to be a tourist attraction within x number of kilometers, the closes town is definitely trying to profit off of it. Hostal Las Tinajas, at 45 solas a night (about $15) was a bargain. With a big secure parking lot, a clean room, private bath, and plenty of space and light, it suited our purposes just fine. Plus they let us use their washing facilities and hang our clothes out to dry on their rooftop.
Unfortunately our night was fraught with anxiety. Ok, my anxiety at now facing the Andes mountains again. Back in Ecuador when we attempted to ride up a few volcanoes, I got my ass kicked. It was riding that could barely be called riding on my behalf and way beyond my abilities. I fell a lot and even injured my arm. It was a hard blow to my confidence level and I spent the remainder of my time riding in the mountains fraught with fear, anxiety, and feeling that injury or death was around every corner.
From there we decided to take a break from the mountains and headed for the coast for a number of weeks of smooth, flat road riding. It wasn’t until we decided on a side trip to Huaraz that I would go back into the mountains. I was terrified. And we even chose the Canon del Pato to do it – a gravel road snaking up the mountains with switchbacks and tunnels galore. Fortunately, this trip, although challenging, was met without incidence, and was a boost to my confidence. Cresting our highest point (4085 m) coming out of Huaraz was a thrill, but somehow the thought of ascending into Cusco filled me with terror and doubt. Even though the road was paved, other peoples’ accounts of the road haunted my mind, and I couldn’t push their words out of my mind. Resigned to the fact that my ultimate destruction lay before me, I went to bed exhausted and late after spending the night worrying.
In the morning, things weren’t much better, but we packed up and went off in search of breakfast before starting our day’s ride. On the way to Cusco there are a few stops, and chose Puquio as our end destination, 150kms away. It would be a short day but we didn’t know how I would handle the ride or how long it would take. It took three hours, which is pretty typical. Underneath bright sunshine and blue skies, we climbed our way to over 4300 meters. The desert mountains took us past the Cerro Blanco, the world’s tallest sand dune, around switchbacks, up and down, and through high altitude grasslands where we saw large herds of vicuna grazing and skittishly crossing the road in front of us.
We arrived at Puquio at 2 p.m. which is usually a little early for us to stop for the day, but since the next town was about four hours away we didn’t want to arrive there in the dark, and set off to find a hotel. Puquio is a cute little town (not touristy!) with lots of churches, a bustling main square, and lots of happy children, and one of the friendliest places we stopped to date. As the only tourists in the village , we were a bit of an attraction. We were approached by a group of girls who wanted our autographs, who then brought more friends to get our autographs. Note that we were on foot, with no indication that we were on bikes.
I think one of them might have wet her pants a little when I started dolling out stickers, patches, and temporary tattoos. It was very cute and very flattering. In return they gifted us with their autographs signed on a box lid. Everybody that we passed greeted us with a hello, and we never felt unsafe roaming the streets. Although there wasn’t much in the way of excitement, Puquio had a market filled with modern clothes and lots of shoes. We had lunch there of fried river trout, and chicken soup complete with chicken’s feet (claws removed).
Our hostal had parking (yay!) and a number of cages housing rabbits and cuy (guinea pigs). As much as I would like to believe that these were pets, they were most likely future meals. Our room was ok, clean, but the staff were really skimpy with their ‘extras’ – the room was clearly set up for one person and when we asked for a second towel we were given something no bigger than a hand towel. When we requested a second pillow for the bed, it was delivered with a bit of scorn, I believe.
The room had a tiny window in the upper left corner of the room giving it somewhat of a cell quality (which was also covered in a thin layer of frost in the morning), but the hot water was f**king amazing even if it came out of a nozzles that looked like Barbie’s dream house (pink and plastic). The mattress on the bed was also wrapped in a plastic ground sheet, which is usually done to avoid bed bugs, and not so you don’t have to get up in the night to pee.
The next day’s ride was a 300km haul from Puquio to Abancay through more amazing scenery. More winding mountain roads took us to our highest point of the trip at 4550 meters. At this height we were more comfortable using our heated gear (jackets and gloves) since the temperature dropped below 10 degrees. High altitude lakes dotted the landscape with sunshiney diamonds glittering on the surface. I was pretty excited to see large herds of llama in the grasslands, as well as more vicuna and some alpaca. They were skittish creatures who often wandered out into the road, and one of the only times I have seen an animal crossing sign with actual animals crossing at it.
We breezed into Abancay to discover it was another city built into the side of the mountain with steep road grades and plenty of one-way streets to keep things interesting. We knew that the most upscale hotel in town offered parking, but they were unfortunately full (and pricey). They recommended the Imperial Hotel down the street that also had parking. I somewhat think that rather than tell me that I was too dirty for the hotel, the receptionist thought she would tell me that they were full. It worked out for the best, anyway, since the rate was significantly cheaper than the Hotel Turista, and it was more than adequate for us. Almost fancy, I would say, with another amazing hot water shower and super comfortable beds.
The morning was somewhat relaxed as we were not too far from Cusco, but that, my friends, is for another blog day.
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