Over the last couple of months, the Smiles & Miles website has received a bit of a facelift in preparation for an upcoming surge of stories. We’ve created a format that will allow us to continue to share our stories and lessons in a way that we hope will make them more accessible for our readers. Most notably, we’ve added separate pages for each of the countries where we’ve shared our journey and for the resources we’ve made available. There is still lots of construction going on behind the scenes and we welcome your feedback as we continue to make adjustments and additions.
Along with the new appearance, we’ve also added the final stories from our time in Bolivia:
The Bolivian border is almost in sight. As we drive through some road construction, we are suddenly jolted by a deafening sound. To my ears it sounds like a gunshot. I think fast. What do I do in case of random gunfire? Duck? Head for cover? Leave the scene as fast as possible? The entire construction crew freezes on the spot. As our Ural limps to the side of the road, I realize that leaving the scene quickly isn’t an option but also isn’t necessary. There was no gunshot, just the sound of one of our trusty Chinese tires bursting, punctured by construction debris. A quick swap with our spare and we’re on the road again.
Soon we are at the border, warmly greeted by a Bolivian official who speeds us through the necessary paperwork. We make it out of Peru and into Bolivia in about an hour and a half, making this one of our smoothest border crossings since leaving the U.S.. On the Bolivian side, we meet a young Australian lady not quite as well-prepared. Her Bolivian visa has expired but her desire to stay in the country has not. Leaving all of her possessions in Bolivia, she legally enters Peru and then immediately heads back across the border into Bolivia to receive a new visa. But her request for a new visa is declined. She has overstayed her welcome by overstaying her visa. This is a traveller’s nightmare but the risk that you take by trying to stretch the rules. We offer our sympathies and head off down the road, never learning her fate.
Our first stop in the country? Fuel. Or so we had planned. We pass several fuel stations that are unexplainably closed before finding one that can help us. Well, sort of help us. Bolivia has a law in place to prevent Peruvians from crossing the border and taking advantage of lower fuel prices. Within 100 km of a border, vehicles with foreign registration can purchase a maximum of five litres of fuel. We’d heard about the fuel limitations and aren’t surprised. Our solution is to stop at every open fuel station that we see for the remainder of the day, all two of them, purchasing what we can and then moving on.
We are now leaving the shores of Lake Titicaca and once again crossing the altiplano as we head toward the widest part of the Andean range. Our wheels are pointed in the direction of the capital, La Paz, but we’ve made a decision to skip the big city in favour of travelling off-the-beaten-path. We turn off the main road and head for the town of Viache.
As we move further into the country, we start to form a clearer picture of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America despite being the richest in natural wealth. Bolivia’s politics and history are tumultuous and tragic, but their culture has changed little in centuries. It is estimated that 64% of the population live below the poverty line with this figure increasing to 80% in most of the rural areas where we are travelling. Average annual earnings are around US$900.
Nowhere is the state of the economy more obvious than in the road conditions. The road to Viache is treacherous. When we arrive we learn that there is only one hotel, but the hotel owner is not there. I have one person trying to reach her by phone and another searching her out on foot, returning with the assurance that the owner will arrive in just a moment. We keep waiting, but sunset is fast approaching. If she doesn’t show up, our best alternative is to head to La Paz which will take more time than we have daylight. We decide it is best to head to the city now.
The city is one giant street-market. Pedlars are hawking everything from food and medicine to hardware and household machinery. The number of street-side vendors is roughly equivalent to the number of pedestrians, and trying to find our way through the throngs of people is quite a challenge.
After driving through the city in the darkness for about 30 minutes, I finally see a hotel sign. I hop out and head toward the hotel. Rushing along the crowded street, my eyes on the signs overhead rather than on where I am headed, I trip on an uneven piece of the pathway. Landing face-down on the sidewalk, I slide down the broken pavement. I knew that my diligence in wearing my full motorcycle gear was going to pay off at some point, but I hadn’t expected that it was going to be for the protection it would offer during a high-speed walking accident. Fully clothed in my helmet, motorcycle jacket, Kevlar trousers, and leather gloves I seem to be completely unharmed. From the corner of my eye I see dozens of leather boots and full skirts shuffling past and then finally a gloved hand reaching toward me to offer assistance. I turn to see the puzzled face of a police officer. I accept his hand, spring to my feet, offer a “Muchos gracias” and continue on my way, dazed but acting as if nothing unusual has happened. I can’t imagine how ridiculous this must have looked to the many onlookers – a very tall and strangely clad foreign woman doing a dive and slide through the street market. I do know how to put on a show.
After all of this excitement, I find the hotel and learn that it has absolutely no parking available. Not good. We keep going and when we eventually spot another hotel, it takes about 20 minutes to make our way through the traffic just to get around the block to the front door. But it is worth it – a nice hotel with secure parking included. The price is about US$50 which is significantly more than we have become accustomed to, but at this point the price seems reasonable if it will get us off of the busy streets and provide a much-needed resting place.
After parking and settling in, we explore the neighborhood on foot to find someplace for dinner. Wandering the streets, we really have an opportunity to soak in the atmosphere of this bustling market city lost in time. We are mingling with the throngs of Indians in bowler hats and petticoats as we browse for some exotic delicacy. We finally settle on one of the nine street-front chicken vendors across the street from our hotel. Yes, despite our searching, chicken is once again the best option for dinner. As we eat, we reflect on our first impressions of Bolivia. The government and infrastructure are presenting us with some new challenges, but the people we have encountered have gone out of their way to help us and make us feel welcome. We will grow to appreciate the people of Bolivia even more in the coming days as their country continues to put us to the test.
We are headed for Bolivia along a road that alternately follows the shores of Lake Titicaca and then heads up the hills into the altiplano. As we pass yet another herd of sheep, one of them begins to run along in the ditch beside us. He then proceeds to leap into the air and perform a dramatic somersault. No, I am not making this up. We couldn’t believe our eyes. A somersaulting sheep? Is there a circus nearby? We contemplate pulling our Ural off of the road as both operator and passenger are staring at each other in awe, laughing uncontrollably, and losing focus on the road ahead as we try to make sense of what has just happened. It takes us awhile to recall that some of the livestock that we had previously encountered along the road had one leg tied to A stake by a long rope because they had a tendency to roam into traffic. We figure this must be one of those rogue sheep who literally reached the end of his rope as he ran along beside us. It must have been a pretty unpleasant experience for him, but I must admit that he has given us one of the best laughs ever.
Further along, in Zapata, we spot a church with a rickety, toppling steeple that looks worthy of exploration. After making our way into the village, we discover that the church we had seen isn’t actually all that interesting, but we happen across the ruins of another church that are truly fascinating. The decaying architecture looks part Inca and part colonial – unlike anything else we have seen. Much of the building is still intact but it looks like it has been closed down for a very long time and the grounds are now home to yet another herd of sheep. We spend over an hour wandering around the grounds, wishing that we could see more of the interior than what we can make out through a tiny hole in one of the doors. Once again, here we are at a fabulous site that is not mentioned in any guidebook.
As we leave Peru, I am reminiscing on the marvels of archaeology we have encountered here. Ruins from the Incas and even more ancient cultures have fired my imagination. Although Cusco and Machu Picchu are immensely interesting sites, many temples and burial sites are still being excavated here, and ruins are almost continually discovered in remote jungle regions. Peru still has the rare feeling of a country in the 21st century that hasn’t been exhaustively explored. I am in awe of the fascinating sites that we discovered right along the roads and paths that we traveled. This is a fascinating place and reminds me once again of how many interesting things there are to discover when we don’t strictly follow a book.
In fact, most of greatest experiences of all of our travels have had absolutely nothing to do with what is mentioned in The Lonely Planet, Eye Witness, or various other assorted books that we use to plan our routes. For us, travel is about discovery. It’s more difficult to encounter interesting and unique people, places, food and experiences when following a guidebook word-for-word, step-by-step. We have our own wheels and suddenly the world has opened up to more possibilities. We are free to explore sites not mentioned in any guidebook because they are far too difficult for the typical traveler to reach by plane, bus, or train. We’ve had opportunities to experience a more authentic side of each country by getting off the beaten track and away from the more common tourist destinations: to interact with the people, to witness the history, to experiment with the language and dialects, to taste the foods, to live part of the daily life. We’ve had a true cultural exchange.
Getting off of the more common routes has also allowed us to spread our money around, supporting a range of small, locally owned businesses in tiny villages that rarely, if ever, see travelers.
There is plenty more to see, do, and discover here in Peru. We look forward to returning, but for now it’s on to Bolivia.
Cradled by the bold southeastern Andes Mountains, Cusco is our final stop in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Approaching the city, we see yet another massive walled Inca complex, Sacasyhuamán, overlooking the city. The fortress was the site of the final battle with the Spaniards that ended the rule of the Inca.
Sitting at a daunting altitude of 3400m, with stone streets and building foundations laid by the Incas more than five centuries ago, Cusco is a fascinating blend of eras. The city was the political, military, religious, and cultural centre of the Inca empire and although the Spaniards razed most Inca buildings and monuments, they found the structures so well engineered that they re-built upon many of the original foundations.
The old centre of the city is organized around the Plaza de Armas, lined by arcades and carved wooden balconies. We pass under the porticoes that line the square, walk across the plaza, and enjoy the spectacular architecture, mountain views, and diverse crowds of people that surround us. I wander through the endless galleries searching for a soft alpaca sweater or a piece of stylish silver jewelry. Ever practical, I end up with a simple fleece jacket to fend of the high-altitude chills. I’m finding that my electric motorcycle jacket just doesn’t work that well when it’s not actually plugged in, meaning that I’m pretty much frozen every time I leave the bike.
We visit Norton Rat’s Tavern, a relaxed pub overlooking the Plaza de Armas and run by a Norton motorbike enthusiast. The place is a Mecca for motorbike travelers passing through Peru who all stop here to write a message in the guestbook. We were no exception and the front door and guest book are now emblazoned with Smiles and Miles logos. In fact, we’ve since received several messages from fellow travelers who spotted our logo here.
We overnight in Sicuani (home to great street food and delicious local cheese) before continuing south the next morning. The bikes venture across the altiplano, a high wind-swept plateau extending from Southern Peru into Bolivia, northwestern Argentina, and northern Chile. Our route takes us through Juliaca, a chaotic and ugly mess of half-finished buildings, potholed dirt roads, and trash-strewn streets clogged with sales carts and tuk tuks. By the time we get through the city, we have the sense of having made it through a war zone.
By afternoon, we catch our first glimpse of the sapphire waters of Lake Titicaca at 3830m above sea level. The magnificent lake, straddling the border of Peru and Bolivia, is South America’s biggest lake and the largest lake in the world above 2000m. To Peru’s indigenous Andean peoples, Lake Titicaca is a mystical and sacred place. The original Inca chieftain is said to have risen from the lake’s waters along with his sister to found the Inca Empire.
Our stopping point for the day is Puno, a ramshackle and fairly uninteresting city but a good jumping-off point to explore Lake Titicaca. In the morning we take a boat to the Uros islands. As improbable as it sounds, the Uros Indians live on floating “islands” made by hand from the buoyant totora reeds that grow abundantly in the shallow waters of the lake. The lives of these people are interwoven with these reeds, which are also used to make the massive tent-like thatched huts where they reside, to make their splendid gondolas with animal-head bows and to make up part of their diet.
The Uros began their unusual floating existence centuries ago in an effort to isolate themselves from the aggressive Collas and Incas. They might remain on their floating islands because they believe themselves to be lake people by birth, the very descendants of the royal Inca siblings. Their unique practices have endured since the time of the Incas, and today there are some 45 floating islands in the Bay of Puno. Although a few of the islands are set up to receive tourists, the vast majority of the Uros people live in continual isolation and peace, away from curious onlookers and camera lenses.
Each island is inhabited by a small community of just a few families. We experience the ancient culture on two of the islands, enjoying a snack of totora root with a flavor and texture similar to hearts of palm. We witness part of a typical day spent collecting reeds, hunting for water birds, fishing, and undertaking the ongoing maintenance of the islands. Constructed from many layers of the totora, the islands are constantly replenished from the top as they rot from the bottom. Underfoot, the ground is soft and springy and I’m certain that I’m about to take a dip in the icy waters of the lake as my foot slides into a soft spot on the island. Thankfully, there are still may layers of reeds underfoot and I manage to stay warm and dry – at least for now.
The sun is barely up as our train departs Ollantaytambo for Aquas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. To a never-ending soundtrack of pan flute music, the train zigzags through lush valleys hugging the Rio Urubamba. Entertainment is also provided by the other 50 tourists in the train car diving from side to side while snapping tremendous numbers of photos with their mobile phones. We are feeling very spoiled to have been immersed in spectacular scenery for months. I must admit that the view from the train seems quite pale by comparison.
After transferring from the train to a bus for a final steep climb, we arrive at Machu Picchu and the exploration begins. The site more than lives up to its reputation as one of the most spectacular archeological discoveries on earth. The ruins of the legendary “lost city of the Incas” sits majestically amid the highland jungle surrounded by the massive Andes.
We head straight up the hill to a spot above the ruins that affords us the classic postcard view of the site. We are overlooking rows and rows of steep agricultural terraces being visited by a few grazing llamas. In the opposite direction, we look down on the Inca Bridge, built of stacked stones and overlooking a sheer drop of nearly 2000 feet.
As we sit admiring the view, a thoughtful man named Tim approaches and asks if we would like him to take a photo of the two us with this spectacular backdrop. After some discussion, we discover that Tim and his wife, Sandy, are fellow Calgarians and are also friends with our traveling compatriots, Janet and Tom (www.adventurouspirits.com). All of us have been trying to plan our travels to meet up with Janet and Tom in Chile. Sandy also comes over to speak with us and we enjoy the opportunity to chat and put together the pieces that reveal that we have actually met before. We would certainly never have expected our second meeting to be thousands of miles from home at the top of Machu Picchu. Yet again we are amazed by the realization of how small our world is. We eventually accept that we need to get moving if we are going to see all of Machu Picchu today, so we part company and Miles and I trek down into the main section of the ruins, hiking and exploring for several more hours.
The next day, Stefan takes us to do some further exploring of the ruins he has discovered – right across the street from our hotel. We pass through an unassuming doorway and climb to the ruins of Pikuylluna. The climb is very steep but provides spectacular views of Ollantaytambo, the ruins across the gorge, and much of the valley. We take a different route down, ending up at a set of stairs that lead us back to Ollayntaytambo’s old town. I’m still amazed at the wonders of archaeology that lie around every corner in this fascinating country.
We are once again on steep dirt roads – steep dirt roads for as far as we can see. When we stop for a snack, the locals seem to think that we are more than a bit crazy to be continuing. They seem to be debating whether or not to turn back themselves. We continue, undaunted, dodging rocks and slimy puddles for hours. At one point we come across a muddy crossing that can’t be dodged. Recognizing that we are likely to be stuck without a lot of power to get us through, Miles opens up the throttle and we power into the water with an enormous splash. We come out the other side covered in red mud from head to toe but grinning from ear to ear. “That was a blast! Can we do it again?” We are truly a sight to be seen. As we make our way through a construction zone, all of the road workers can’t help stopping at the sight of us. One worker sees us coming from a distance, lifts his arms in the air as if he is about to cheer us on, but when we get close enough that he can see the state of us, his arms go down for the biggest knee-slapping laugh I have ever seen. We are definitely providing the entertainment for the afternoon.
The next afternoon, Miles spots an interesting looking road that takes off from the side of the highway. On our map, it looks like it may be part of the fabled back-route to Machu Picchu. In an effort to avoid the busy tourist route that lies ahead of us, we give it a try. It provides some spectacular drives through remote farming villages where ladies young and old are herding their cows, sheep and pigs up and down the roads. I can quickly see why this wasn’t the recommended route. We are constantly dodging livestock and at one point are chased down the road by a lady with a big stick, apparently trying to herd us along with her animals. “Yikes. Is it time to turn back yet?” We continue and reach some spectacular views of the high Andes. It is amazing to look up at these mountains and know that the mysterious and beautiful Machu Picchu lays just on the other side. Unfortunately, though, the road ends at a glacier-filled rock wall and we have no option but to turn around and return the same way that we came, our destination so close and yet still very far away.
The next day, as we are approaching Urubamba, we see a tiny shack with a red flag, the local way of advertising that there’s home-brewed chicha available inside. We stop to try our first taste of this ancient Andean tradition we have heard much about, a beer made from fermented maize. It is served warm, in a well-used monstrous glass for just a few pennies. One glass is more than enough for all three of us, in fact one tiny glass of this fizzy, mouldy corn would have been more than enough for all three of us. We made it through but won’t be going out of our way to search for a waving red flag again.
We are now heading into the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The empire built several of their greatest temples, estates, and royal palaces nestled among these rugged mountains between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It is now a beautiful stretch of small villages and ancient ruins.
The villages of this valley remain starkly traditional. Quechua-speaking residents work the fields with primitive tools and harvest salt with methods unchanged since the days of the Incas. We first pass through the village of Urubamba before stopping in Ollantaytambo, a tongue twister of a town that has clearly received a lot of space in the Lonely Planet travel guide. After weeks of being off the beaten path, we suddenly find ourselves deep in the land of tourists.
It is easy to see why so many are attracted to visiting here. The surrounding scenery is stunning: the snowcapped mountains that embrace the town frame a narrow valley where both sides lined are lined with Inca stone agricultural terraces. Searching for a hotel, Stefan and I wander through Ollantaytambo’s old town, a perfect grid of streets dating to Inca times. The streets are lined with stone walls, bougainvillea, and tiny canals carrying rushing water down from the mountains.
After checking into a hotel, we take a walk through the main plaza and across the Rio Patancha. Munching on a skewer of alpaca meat while wondering through the market stalls I can’t help stopping to admire some tapestries, hand-woven in brilliant colour. The ancient drop spindle, a stick and spinning wooden wheel used for weaving, is still used and for the past week we have seen women in colourful native dress pacing up and down roads absent-mindedly spinning the ancient spools or sitting chatting with friends with baskets of colourful wool at their feet. It’s great to now see some of their end-products.
Further along the road we look up to see the ruins of a fortress built into the hillside. The ruins represent one of the Inca Empire’s most amazing feats of architecture, each stone perfectly fit. We thought we were just stopping on our way to Machu Picchu and now here we are standing in another unexpected archaeological wonder.
On our way back through the plaza, we join with the locals in the centuries-old tradition of chewing coca leaves to ease the effects of altitude. They taste… well… green. And they make my mouth kind of numb. Other than that, I don’t seem to notice any impact. Miles is liking them. Still, I won’t be adding coca chewing to my daily Andean routine.
We stop for a late lunch and a long-awaited opportunity to try Peru’s national drink – the pisco sour. This is a delicious concoction from the white-grape brandy called pisco made frothy when mixed with egg whites, lemon juice and sugar. Miles had raved about this drink after an earlier trip to South America but wasn’t quite able to replicate it at home. It’s cold and complex – the closest thing to a Peruvian margarita. I think I will add this to my daily Andean routine, until I realize that after one pisco sour I’m having a hard time navigating my way down the street. I now understand the need for bordering the roads with high rock walls – they keep me from going too far astray.
After Note: A huge thank you to Stefan Gardt for the tremendous photo of Smiles and Miles covered in Peruvian mud. This photo has now been used by Schuberth Helmets and featured in the December 2013 issue of Motorcycle Mojo magazine.