Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Peru and the famous knitting men

After the dodgy Bolivian crossing, we go to the other side and over to the Peruvian border. This one is in the middle of a busy town though and for the first time, we are a little worried about the bikes while we´re in dealing with the paperwork thanks to the number of touts and twats in the vicinity. I´m glad I took Matt Cartney´s advice and bought a cheep alarm as it gives me some peace of mind when I´m away from my bike.

The proceedures take a lot longer than we´re used to however this time, we manage to successfuly get the bikes paperwork sorted out. We plan to get to Puno by Lake Titticaca, tonight but thats clearly not going to happen and we only make it to a town called Juli at nightfall. We get to Puno the following morning and get checked into a hotel (Don Julio)which involves several narrow planks to get the bikes up a few steps and into the hotel lobby.

From here we take a boat trip over to Isle Taquile where there are no roads or vehicles and the locals rarely marry outside their island. The men wear coloured knitted hats a bit like nightcaps that they knit themselves, red indicating a man is married while red and white indicate single status. Other colours imply a mans social status such as a senior figure while the women seem to spin wool all day long. We take a local boat owned by the islanders, rather than the tour companies which ply for business at the port (Michelle is good at reading about stuff like this, I would have just plopped myself on the first boat I found). We have also left the bikes at the hotel as we will spend a night on the island and return to Puno the following day. The boat takes around 4 hours to get to the lsland and we meet Elissio, our native guide. We will be crashing at his pad tonight and we´ll be given dinner and breakfast for 25 Soles each.

Enroute, the boat stops at one of the Uros Islands, these are the floating reed islands that the Uros people have lived on for hundreds of years. They make tacky trinkets for selling and reed boats while living off fish and tourists. We are only on the island for about 20 minutes which is long enough for me and to spot a tv inside one of the reed huts.

After about 4 hours, we arrive on Isle Taquile. While climbing an incredibly steep path which leads up to the square, Elissio explains to us and another couple who are also staying, that the island is split into 6 areas and that the crops are rotated on an anual basis, mainly potatos and maize. There are around 1500 inhabitants on the island and I´d guess at maybe 300 dwellings. Each property has land used for growing crops however that doesn´t make them totally self sufficient and to this end, this is where the knitting comes in. The islanders produce various knitted products like hats, belts and clothing that are sold to tourists and presumably exported which pays for things like sugar and cable tv. The kids have a trade of their own and while the tourist boats are only on the island between 12 and 2pm, they strut their stuff in the square selling little friendship bracelets and pose for tourist photos wearing their traditional dress and generally holding lambs, all for ´una sole´.

As you walk about the island, the kids pop up from nowhere behind stone walls and whisper (they all whisper here, there´s nothing to compete with) ´photo, photo, una sole´. Its a beautiful island and the people all seem to walk about smiling, maybe they know something we don´t? We have dinner with the other 3 guests and its off to bed in our candle-lit room where I have to duck to avoid the low timber beams. The toilet like all those on the island requires to be flushed with a scoop of rainwater from a barrel. There´s a great little beach we walk to the following morning at the far end of the island but the water´s too cold for a dip. We eventually arrive back at the square at about 12.30pm only to find our quiet, peaceful island overrun with noisy tourists.
La Paz and the ´Road of Death´ Woooo!

We arrived in La Paz at nightfall though we had taken the sensible precaution of booking a hotel with parking before we left Potosi. Coming into the city, we were greated with a roadblock of a procession with people dancing around in costume and about 20,000 minibusses. We got round this lot, as well as the usual dead dogs with varying degrees of fatal injuries, and into La Paz. I was a little nervous of being here as I remember reading about various kidnappings that had occured in the recent past involving these minibusses, however we eventually found our way to the centre after asking some of the very helpful minibus drivers.

The hotel we´d booked was located within the touristy streets in the old part of town and involved several clutch burning moments thanks to the steepness of the hills. On arrival at the hotel, we went up the flight of stairs to an open courtyard where the hotel was situated and enquired where the parking was. we listened to the manager explain that we could park our bikes either in the courtyard or bizzarely (he opened a narrow door at this point) within the sauna. After slowly explaing to the idiot that there was no way on earth we would get the bikes up a flight of stairs let alone in the bloody sauna, we went back outside and bumped into A&K who it turned out, had a hotel with parking. 30 minutes later, we were parked up and unloaded in our hotel room.

We spent a couple of days floating around La Paz visiting the markets, buying alpaca gifts for relatives and I even bought a Charanga to satisfy my guitar urges. These are a little like a mandolin and I can fit it on the back of my bike. The guy who made it also gave lessons so I got myself an hours tuition to get the ball rolling.

A&k had moved on to Cocacabana but bumped into Ian from Summerset on a GS1200 traveling south and had directed him to our hotel so we enjoyed a couple of evenings with him. One was at ´Vienna´, a restaurant tipped as one of the best in La Paz. We turned up and were greated by waiters in full regalia, while the restaurant even had tablecloths and a piano player. The food was ok, nothing that great, but the piano player was the highlight. I´ve never heard such crap playing, my mate mark, who´s a very good jazz pianist would have been kicking her off like a shot!

Ian from Summerset on the GS 1200 Adv

We decided to tackle the famous Death Road to Corioco on our own bikes as the only other way is to take a $45 mountain bike tour. Its called the Death Road due to its precarious location, ie stuck on the side of some very steep mountains and due to the volume off traffic that used to fall off it. The government decided to clean up its act and build a new, slightly safer road and as of 3 or 4 months ago, the new road opened- it only took 15 years.

We checked out of our hotel as we planned to do the Death Road and be in Peru in time for tea. After bidding Ian fairwell (he´d done the road the day before and given me some very useful GPS waypoints), we set off out of town. Finding the very obscure turn-off to the old road (thanks to Ians waypoints), the road decended into the valley in a series of sharp, hairpin bends. The scary thing about the road is that there aren´t really any crash barriers as you´d expect a road of this nature to have and the steep drop to the side. However, when we went down it, it was very cloudy and visibility was limited so there were very few opportunities to cak oneself.

The so-called ´Road of Death´

- I just couldn´t see what the fuss was about

And as depicted by the brochures

(a slight Photoshop job I feel!)

Finding ourselves in Coroico at the end of the old road, we decide this is as good a place as any to hole up for the night as its quite a long way to Peru from here. The town has a pretty square and we find a decent bar run by a german who´s happy to dish out free drink as the boss is away.

The following morning, we don´t get a hot shower thanks to a power-cut affecting the whole town, we get on to the new road back to La Paz (unfortunately we can´t go round it). This road turns out to be a highlight and I´m soon in biker nirvana. It´s a clear day and the new road is just great, good tarmac, hairpins and generally stunning views- ace!

Somehow we get through La Paz with minimal pain and emerge on the other side. We head to Tiwanaku (?), an archialogical site of great improtance, the heart of the Inca empire- but it was shite and left early. We get to the border with Peru somewhat late in the day and find out Peru is 1 hour behind Bolivia. The Bolivian side is a bit of a worry as those Aduana things we didn´t get when entering Bolivia were actually the import documents for the bikes and we could be in real trouble. We roll up to a bit of a shack with the usual barrier across the road which is the border post. The official stamps our passports without any difficulty and then asks for a $10 bribe. Hang on, shouldn´t you have done that ´before´ stamping our passports? Anyway, he then lowers his request to 10 Bolivianos (about 60pence) all the while laughing with his mate at our ´no entiendo´s´. I show him both my empty wallets and explain that we got rid of all our Boliviano´s at that shit archelogical site which cleaned us out so no one would be getting any bribe money. And with that, he waved us on. Oh, and he forgot to arrest us for not getting the bikes signed in to his country. Phew!

Potosi and the chain gang

After a few days in Uyuni where we enjoyed the delights of Minuteman Pizza on more times than I care to mention, we decided to head towards Potosi, the highest city in the world at 4100m. A&K had somehow booked a train to take their bike to Orruro rather than take the road to Potosi as basically, it had been relentlessly raining gatos and perros for several days now. So it was with some trepidation that we set off on the by now very muddy road to Potosi. And we got a mile away before Michelle´s chain decided to cause a few problems. It was making clanking and grinding noises so it was back to check in to the hostal again. It turned out the chain is reaching the end of its life and had a bit of a tight spot and we´d adjusted it on the loose section. We set it up the best we could without it falling off and prepared for leaving the following morning.

We eventually managed to get away about 11 the following morning, but not before another quick visit to Minuteman (did I say Minuteman does great breakfasts too?) and got onto the stretch of mud that is the road to Potosi. After a bit of slipping and sliding on the first section, the road seemed to dry up on the hill and apart from a few more muddy sections and a couple of easy river crossings, the road was actually very enjoyable all the way to Potosi. We started feeling a little ´Che´ driving through the beautiful landscape, though some kids who shouted ´gringo´and kicked a football at our bikes when we went through a village soon put paid to that.

Yet another ´hardcore´river crossing

The ´road´ to Potosi

We eventually made it to Potosi about 6.30pm and found the hotel with parking we´d been told about, Victoria Maria. The ´parking´ meant getting the bikes into a lobby and down a few external steps to a yard at the rear where they were building an extension- well, at least it was secure.

"The gas you that are smelling is arsenic" said our guide, as we covered our mouths with our clothing and tried not to gag. Today, we have decided to visit the famous mine at Cero Rico, deep within the conical shaped mountain that dominates the towns skyline. The mine started as a result of a silver-rush in the 1500´s, apparently a llama herder watched in wonder as silver ran out from beneath his fire when he was caught out on the mountian one night- or so the story goes. Anyway, that event started a rush and the town was born around the mine which became the richest silver producer in the world at that time and the spanish took over during the colonal times.

Over three centuries, it is estimated that around 8 or 9 million (depending on your source) people died working in this mine. Then came a slump in the production as the silver supply dried up and the town went into a decline. The mine is still operational though and produces tin and zinc amongst several other minerals although a slump in the tin price in the mid 1980s meant that the mine was to be closed. The miners to this day run the mine as a co-operative and effectively own the mine themselves. There are apparently around 14000 miners working in Cero Rico where a miner can start at the ripe old age of about 14, pushing 1 tonne trolleys around for around 50 Bolivianos a day (about 3 GBPs a day if you´re interested) and after say 5 years of that, you can become an co-owner, but for that you need quite a bit of cash to help buy equipment as the government doesn´t provide any. There are no lights in the tunnels either other than the weak yellow beams coming from the miners helmets. Air is pumped in under compression, however at this altitude, its still very hard to breathe.

As a stupid tourist, we can help by coming on these tours as they are led by people who have family connections in the mine (our guide´s father died in it 11 years ago) and a percentage of the money from the tours goes to support the miners. Before entering the mine, we are also taken to the miners market where you are requested to buy gifts for the miners such as coco leaves, fizzy drinks and obviously, dynamite and 95% proof alcohol. You are then take to get your miners outfit. If, like me and you have size 12 feet, you might be out of luck. I found a largish pair of wellies to complement my yellow waterproof jacket and trousers but found out later that they had holes in the soles, nice for walking around in deep mud puddles then. You are also given a miners helmet and light with a heavy battery pack tied to your waist with what looked like a bicycle inner tube.

Guess who´s been to the dynamite shop!

The guide then leads you into the mine, where the first section is very wet and muddy (great) though it starts to dry up the deeper you go. We pass through tunnels that are supported by wooded beams, the majority of which seems to be broked in half. While we are in the tunnels, you will often hear the shout of ´rapido´coming from around the corner. At this point, you as a stupid tourist, will have about 3 seconds to get off the track, leap out the way and secure yourself to the wall while about 4 miners race past you with a trolly weighing nearly a tonne. If they slow down, its because its time to either hand over your ´gift´like coca leaves, or have them grabbed off you as they go past.

A REAL job!

Crawling through the tunnels is actually pretty hard work for a tourist(though not a patch on what the miners have to do) especially if you´re tall. We´re only in here for a couple of hours, but in the good old days, the colonial slaves would be in here for at least a week at a time. We were also taken to meet the Devil, an effigy where the miners leave offerings of coca leaves, cigarettes and that 95% proof stuff as I doubt anyone else would (or could) drink it without going blind.

A rather ´excited´ little Devil

The average life span of a miner is around 45 years old, and its not surprising given the main cause of death is silicosis (you can see the fibres sticking out from the stone) while arsenic gas can´t be too great for them either. All in all, it was an incredibly humbling experience but we were relieved to be out of there. I take my helmet off to these guys as they have such a hard life down there and I promise I will never moan about having a tough day at the office again!

Salar de Uyuni

After arriving in Uyuni, which was originally set up around the junction of the railways from Chile and Argentina during the mining boom, we eventually found a place with secure-ish parking for the bikes at Hostal Marith for 25BS each. The follwing day, we went on a jeep tour of the Salar De Uyuni, largest salt lake in the world. After finding out that it was going to be partly underwater, there was no danger we were going to take our bikes out on that. The jeep picked us up from our hostal and we were first taken to the train graveyard, a collection of rusting old steam trains on the the outskirts of town. Not that exciting and there wern´t even any numbers for me to record in my spotters book.

An old chuff chuff

ollowing that, we were dragged into a village where they make things out of salt and you as a tourist are meant to buy salty-based stuff so I bought a hakki sak. The jeep then headed into the Salar, first stopping on the dry salt with the driver explaining in spanish a bit about the Salar. Thankfully Andreas speaks good spanish so at least we could get a translation. The jeep briefely stopped at the old salt hotel, which is no longer in use due to, well basically they were pumping guests sewage on to the salar so it was shut down. Then we headed out into Salar towards the Isle de Pescar, so called because it marginally appears like a fish when reflected on the horizon though its covered in cactii so maybe Cactus Island might have been more appropriate. The island first appears as a dot on the horizon and the driver tells us that its 80kms away. We looked at that dot grow bigger for a long time. The views were amazing though, as the salt was only under about 2" of water, its like a mirror of the sky so you feel like you´re actually flying through it. Once in the island, we were given (well I thought it was) a fairly foul lunch of cold llama steak and rice, after which we were free to wander the island, which contains a 1203 year old cactus. Its about 12m high so I guess they grow at 1cm per year then...

Salar de Uyuni fun

Friday, January 19, 2007

Bolivia, Bolivia, have ye any roads?

Last night we filled up the bikes and the spare 10L plastic canisters I'd bought in anticipation of the lack of fuel during the first stretch of Bolivia. Naturally the spare cannisters turned out not to be exactly fuel-proof and started leaking over my back seat. This meant we had to carry them inside our panniers which required a bit of reorganising the luggage to fit them in. We had planned to get away sharp the next morning however my bike decided to throw a fuel leak of its own and meant I had to quickly pull off my luggage and the tank. It turned out to be coming from the tank's overflow but there was nothing I could really do so we just got packed up and left SPDA. We took the road heading towards the Bolivian border and got to the turn off which was a dirt track. We stopped for some photos and to re-check the luggage when we noticed a rather large oil leak coming from Michelles KLR. After a quick look, we found the source of the problem. As we were putting the bike back together in the dark last night, we must have forgotten to tighten the cam chain tensioner and oil was now pouring out-oops. So much for that early start then.

After very little Zen and the second bit of Motorcycle Maintenance that morning, we resumed our route towards the border which turned out to be a few buildings in the middle of nowhere. All the jeep tours stop here and after bumping into our dutch friends from the hostel again and getting our passports stamped, we were now in Bolivia! The border guard mentioned something about an aduana, whatever that is and a fee for the national park which we had to cross to go north. The first stop was Lagua Verde, a lake in the south of the park. We set off on the track around the south of the lake which is when I started to feel the effects of altitude sickness, something I had heard would be a problem but hadn´t experienced to date. I had stomach cramps, headache and nausia in addition to being out of breath. We made it round the lake which was a rather stunning green as the name suggests and back to the park office. Michelle mentioned my ailments to a guard who gave us a bag of coca leaves which seemed to help when chewed though its a bit of an aquired taste.

The ride north, once we'd actually found the right track, was quite stunning. We rode through huge wide valleys, up and down hills and past lagunas filled with pink flamingoes though the bastards never sit still long enough for me to get a decent photo of them. The weather was interesting too, as lightening storms were clearly visible in the distance although somehow we managed to stay dry. Later in the day, we were coming down a hillside where we could see Lago Colorado, a place where were had been told we could camp by the german couple we'd met who'd been all over Bolivia.

At the bottom of the hill, the track split up in to dozens of tracks and ran westwards along the southern side of the lake. We were heading for the west side of the lake which was quite some distance away and the tracks were proving to be harder than we thought, we were only managing 10mph in first with both feet on the ground. Michelle´s bike went over a few times but luckily nothing too serious, it was just really hard work as our bikes are just so heavy. Deep sand and gravel tracks were the order of the day, which have been carved by the tour jeeps, though there is no particular route, they just criss-cross over a huge area. Bolivia, it should be rememberd, has approximately only 5% paved roads. Somehow, about 8pm, we made it to where the jeeps were heading, a ramshackle collection of single storey buildings on the west side of the lake and lo and behold, we bumped into Andreas and Kristina, our German pals on the Africa Twin. There was a huge sense of relief when we discovered there was a hostal of sorts and we could share their dorm. The place was run by a group of women all dressed in the traditional Bolivian outfit of colourful fabrics and for reasons only known to them, bowler hats several sizes too small. It turned out that dinner was included, so rather than having to get our stove out, we were presented with tasty soup and spag bol- landing on our feet again!

That night though, I found I woke around 2 or 3am with the feeling that I was suffocating. I felt I could hardly breathe and it turned out I wasn´t alone. Andreas was also suffering altitude sickness but after a couple of strong American painkillers, I managed to get back to sleep.

The following day, after a quite frankly poor breakfast of powdered nescafe and dry bread, the four of us set off for Villa Arica, a small town about halfway to Uyuni. And it took 2.5hours to cover just 24 miles as we could only travel in first gear with both feet on the ground. Christ it was hard work as it was our favorite mix of deep sand and gravel and for the first time, I saw Andreas drop his bike, something that anoyingly doesn´t happen as often as we drop ours! The scenery was great again though and we stopped fro lunch by a remote rocky outcrop which turned out to be covered in loo roll as the jeeps seem to stop here for breaks. We asked one of the drivers the route which seemed to correspond to track on my GPS so we headed onwards.

At some point in the afternoon, it started to sleat and hail so I stopped to pull out my thermal jacket lining and winter gloves but got soaked in the process as there was no shelter anywhere. My tee-shirt got wet as did my jacket and lining while my hands became so cold I couldn´t do up my helmet strap. Cold and wet, I proceeded to follow the track. I won´t bore you with the details but this was the second time in my life I´ve come close to getting hypothermia on a bike. The last time was when me and my mate James took an ill-prepared trip up the Alps and our non-waterproof gear got totally soaked at 2500m. This time, we had rain, sleat, hail, thunder and rather close fork lightening at 4700m- turned out nice again eh?

At the top of one of the hills, I was shivering waiting for Michelle who was behind me when a jeep full of warm tourists stopped next to me. The tourists jumped out and started taking photos of me and giving me the thumbs up. One was standing in front of me when Michelle caught up so I just revved the bike and rode straight at him and he had to jump out the way. I wasn´t really in the mood you understand.

Somehow, the track eventually ran alongside the ´main road´which we had to cross a gap in a dilapidated stone wall to get to. It was pretty good compacted gravel and the sign said only 25kms to Villa Alota- I was off like a shot. I somehow managed to get there about 20 minutes before the others and got some accommodation sorted out with a much needed hot shower.

The next moring, I found out the old woman who ran the hostal had some gas (sorry, I´m starting to sound American) for sale. So my morning started with a quick suck on a clear plastic pipe to syphon 15L of questionable quality fuel from one dirty container to a couple of smaller dirty containers. We paid 25BS per 5 Litres each, a bit higher than the gas stations but then there aren´t too many of those to choose from up here. So after a bit of breakfast at the hostal, we headed off for a fairly uneventful, if somewhat corregated ride to Uyuni.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Party like its 2007
San Pedro de Atacama

We arrived in SPDA (as I like to call it) on New Years eve and checked into a hostel. This town is a base for the many tour companies entering Bolivia and going up to the Sala de Uyuni. Its a small town with about 5,000 inhabitants with narrow dirt streets with dozens of resaurants, tour companies and tourist shops. Like all these places, there is a square with a nice little church though this one is lined with pepper trees, so something to go with the salt lakes then.

All the restaurants were doing a set meal for New Years eve so we booked up at one but it was so warm in there we ended up back at the hostel before midnight which we toasted with one or our bottles of pisco sour. We did however wander into the streets to watch the locals,all dressed up in their sunday best, setting fire to effigies of what looked like back packers on street corners.

On New Years day, we booked up a 4 day jeep tour to the Uyuni salt lake and then rode south to Laguna Miscanti, which sits at about 4,200m. On the way, the corrugations on the dirt road vibrated Michelle's chain off so we had to spend a bit of time sorting that out though I was a bit surprised none of the busses going passed had stopped to ask if she needed any help before I found her. I had seen an overland bike and a landrover parked by a canyon before I turned back to look for Michelle but by the time we came passed again, they had set off. I caught up with the biker as the landy was driving a bit slower and we stopped to chat. The biker turned out to be Martina, a german woman who Michelle had emailed months ago about buying her DR650, a small world indeed. She has beed travelling around the Americas for the last 5 years, while her boyfriend in the landy was half german, half scottish and had been travelling around the world for the last 9 years, the first 4 on a bike and the rest in the landy which was kitted out to sleep in. As I previously mentioned, plans can change on a daily basis while travelling, as we looked at the grimaces on their faces after telling them of our plan to do a jeep tour of the Uyuni, we knew that we would be changing our plan. I was buzzing with enthusiasm after speaking with these guys as they had so much good information and were so positive about doing it, we pretty much had no choice.

Martina (DR650) and her boyfriend (Landrover)

The next couple of days were spent doing some bike maintenance. I got round to replacing my fork seals while we did Michelle's valve clearances. That turned out to be not so simple as it needed smaller shims, which aren't too available in these parts. We ended up geeting the old ones ground down in Calama and worked till 11pm getting the KLR put back together. There was a big cheer from our new dutch friends at the hostel as it fired up first time and sounded great. We finished so late that we will put off heading into bolivia until saturday and will spend a day just catching up on diarys and laundry as I expect it will be some time till we see one again.

What's for Desert?

We were now pretty much in the the Atacama desert, the dryest place on earth where there are places where there have been no recorded rainfall. That´s dry. It's also strange that this is also by the sea but there you have it. We were warned that there wouldn't be an abundance of fuel stops on the way north so I got myself a 5L water bottle to carry a bit more gas. I think this is how it's going to be for the next good while, although it will be a lot worse in Bolivia. The first day ended in Bahia Inglasia at a rather expensive campsite. The scenery on the way hadn't been too exiting really however the next day as we headed towards Charal and into the Pan de Azur national park area, it was just great. The road runs between the mountains and the sea and the rock formations are just amazing. The white sandy beaches stretch on for miles so we decided to stop on one for lunch. It was totally deserted though the water was just a little too cold to go in past the 'Ohh zone'. Somehow, no one was around to collect the entrance fee at the national part, something of a rarity for Chile so we went on until we found a campsite. It cost 5,000pesos but that didn't stop them trying to charge 7,000. In the end, having a cold shower turned out to cost me 500pesos. I believe its quite different for the locals though as they are encouraged to go to the parks. We saw this in Argentina too where we had to pay 15GBPs whereas the locals were charged 3GBPs. Trust me, its just the same with empanandas too.

Yeah, not too bad

After the national park, the road turned inland and for the next 500kms or so, we had rather dull desert scenery to look at. We did see the 'big hand' just before the shithole that is Antogafasta and took the obligatory photos. I'm not too sure it was altogether necessary for someone to spray red graffitti on it though.

We passed a couple of dogs on the road, one of which was spaniel, and both looked in good health. The trouble was, there was nothing and no one around for miles and we assumed that someone had recently dumped them there. I've had spaniels for the last 20 years so that made me feel pretty sad as there was not a lot we could do

Starry night in Vicuna

Taking the road east of La Serena, we followed the road through the Elqui valley where the big crop there is the Pisco grapes for the pisco sour, something I am getting a bit of a taste for. We set up camp on the outskirts of town at campsite with wonder of wonders, a swimming pool. We had just ordered lunch in the square when this guy in a stained shirt and tie carrying a briefcase came over and started talking to me about the bikes. It turned out he had a bike and had done some trip to Brazil but now had bambinos, something Michelle and I get asked about quite a lot here. Anyway, this was all well and good but he was getting a bit irritating and I smiled and said 'ok, ciao'. Our food had arrived by this point and normally, most people would see this as a good time to leave. Not this guy though. He got out photos of his kids and then plopped his briefcase down on our table and actually got out a bible. He seemed to be asking us to stay at his place for free. Er, no thanks mate.

The main moon

That night, we had booked our selves on a trip to the Mamalluca Observatory which has been specifically built for the general public. This area has some of the clearest night skys in the world thanks to no light pollution, high altitiude and cloudless skys. We boarded the minibus about 10.30pm for the 20 minute ride up to the observatory. There were maybe 20 or so people in this group but once we arrived at the observatory, the car park was alive with hundreds of people, magic. We were herded towards a observatory building and were waiting in line for abour 30minutes when there was some movement in the line. When we got to the front, it turned out that this was the spanish-only session, well thanks for telling us. We ended up in a group of english speaking folk, including an incredibly loud, posh english couple who appeared to know everything about everything. Our guide eventually arrived and got some order going. Before entering the observatory, we were first taken to a 30cm telescope outside around which this chap gave us a look at the moon which was very bright. This is a bad thing as it makes the rest of the sky quite difficult to see. Anyway, this guy was brillient there wasn't much he didn't know about the night sky. It was facinating listening to him and hearing about old and new stars, supernovae, constellations, meteors and planets. We even saw Saturn including its rings through this telescope, amazing. Looking at what appears to be say one star in the Southern Cross with the telescope, it suddenly became clear that there were hundreds of stars there, you just can't see them with the naked eye. Throughout the evening, the constellations moved slowly accross the sky revealing new ones as they came over the top of the mountains. We got back to the campsite at qbout 2am after a fantastic night.

La Serena, Xmas on the beach

We arrived in La Serena, a town set back from the sea but with a bit of a strip along the front and following Colin and Gills fine example, we decided we were going to treat ourselves to a hotel room. We ended up in Marserena, with a pool and balcony where we could watch the sunsets for a few days over Xmas.

The Wickerman? Here? In La Serena?

We had a little kitchenette in the room so we stocked up on some good food and a lot of booze to see us through the festive period. This was my first 'warm' Xmas and although it felt odd playing frisbee on the beach on Xmas, it was also most enjoyable. We had a few days relaxing doing not very much and although it sounds hard to believe, it felt like being on holiday.

Happy Christmas!

I used the time to tinker with the bike and having had no luck in getting someone to look at it in Mendoza, I decided to have a crack at doing valve clearences for the first time. Following my vague BMW manual, I acually managed to do it and found it relatively easy. One of our mottos on this trip is if something sounds hard or might be difficult, our normal approach at home might be to give it a miss or get someone else to do it. Well here that dosen't realy work as sometimes there isn't someone to do things for you and you have no choice but to do it yourself which is really no bad thing. The BM is actually quite easy to work on as we found out later doing Michelles clearences but it still doesn't excuse the expensive parts though. However, on leaving La Serena, I found I had a pretty hefty oil leak but after removing the cylinder head by the roadside, I found it was just a missaligned seal and after about 30 minutes, I had it sorted and back to normal. Got a few strange looks from the locals though.

The scenery decides to change once again and now in Chile, the landscape is almost totally cultivated with fruit and vegetables as far as the eye can see. Deciding that the main road was just a little too busy, we took the turn off to Concon to take the coast road for a bit of a change of scenery. And with an early stop in Valpariso in our sights, thats when michelle's KLR decided to break in half... It transpired that one of the subframe bolts from her 'overweight-solutions' add-on kit had dissapeared and the remaining poor bolt had no choice but to shear off. Luckily it happened while we were travelling slowly on a much quieter road and Michelle was able just to pull over when the back end subsided by several inches. We managed to piece the KLR back together temporarily and thanks to a guy working in a house nearby who took the removed luggage in his van, we followed him to a friend of his who just happened to be a welder. Even though it was approaching siesta time and it was a baking hot, they managed to remove the sheared bolt and re-weld the tank mount in a couple of hours all for 3GBPs. So with many 'muchos gracias's' all round, we resumed our coastal route to Valpariso. This area is so much like the 'costa del sol' or the south of France it hurts. The coast is just teaming with developments, high rises and holiday appartments from Vina del Mar to Valpariso that it's very hard to see where one town ends and the other begins.

Obviously a popular man then

We made it into Valpariso and after a quick visit to the tourist office in the 'mugger friendly' area of town, I managed to find a decent hotel up the hill in the old part of town. The hotel doesn't have moto parking so we have to use the underground carpark but thats ok, we're please to be in a decent place and the view from the kitchen on the top floor just has to be seen to be believed. This whole area is built on a steeply sloping hillside and all the multicoloured houses are so tightly packed that it seems a miracle that the whole lot doesn't come sliding down the hillside. To get around here, there are a load of old ascentors or funiculars, in addition to the plethora of hidden stairways that snake between the houses. We had a very enjoyable evening wandering aound this area, taking way too many photographs as the place is just so photogenic. After being warned not to walk in the area around the bus station at night, I felt slightly apprehensive about the town however we had absolutely no problem here at all. The views from up here are just great at night, and as well as being able to watch the comings and goings in the plazas down below, we could see right along the coast.

Valpariso by night

The following day, we took the bus to Santiago which is only about 1.5hours away. Normally, when you arrive in a new city, its a good idea to go to the tourist office to pick up a free map and find out what there is to see. After we'd arrived at the bus station, we tried the information desk but to no avail, they had no maps. We carried on walking toward the downtown area, along a wide street which seemed to have nothing but tool shops, impressive though they were. We did end up with a rather good meal though in a restaurant within the very lively old fish market where you are pestered by all the restaurant doormen to within an inch of your patience.

We also got a bit of art culture, not because we needed any but because we both needed the loo. Finally, we wandered through a pretty nice park surrounding an old castle which required you to sign in with your national ID number. As I naturally didn't have one of those, a made-up number seemed to satisfy the security guard.

Back in Valpariso the following day, we treked up the hill to the poet, Neruda's house. I didn't know anything about this guy, much to michelle's amazement but he really sounded a bit of a character and I loved his poem about the building of his house. The place is built on about three levels with incredible views over Valpariso from just about every room. I particularly liked the bar (where only Neruda himself was allowed to make the cocktails) and the plan for the hellipad on the roof which was intended as a launchpad to the heavens. Kind of makes you wonder what kind of cocktails he was making.

While we were getting some lunch there, we got talking to an English couple who lived in Canada and were doing a 6 month tour of South America. They were staying in Vina del Mar near Valpariso and as it was Xmas, they had treated themselves to a decent place to stay with a balcony on the sea front, a great idea. Our original plan that day was to try and do some Xmas shopping, but one of the great things about travelling is your plans change on a daily basis. They invited us back to check out their fancy pad which was on the 9th floor of an appartment block facing the beach. We were going to go to the big mall from there to do our shopping but Colin and Gill invited us to stay for lunch. Colin and I went for a wander along the beach while the girls sorted out lunch. We were then treated to a fantastic dinner on their balcony and plied with wine and Pisco Sour, it really doesn't get much better than this!

Our hosts for the day- Colin & Gill.

Thanks guys!