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Old 11-24-2010, 02:32 PM   #1
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Salt, Silver and Stone on the Altiplano

Peru, Bolivia & Chile- 2010

There are certain things one should aspire to doing and a few must-see places to visit in your lifetime: a personal Bucket List if you will, your own Seven Wonders of the World and Life To-do list.

After crossing much of Asia by land in 2008, the temptation to repeat a journey like this became increasingly compelling. South America beckoned, we packed our bags.

The most tantalising attraction in South America just has to be the remnants of the Incas, with Machu Picchu as the prime destination. At its peak, the Inca Empire stretched all the way from southern Colombia to Santiago in Chile, a total length of some 4000km, and centrally controlled from Cuzco in the Sacred Valley on the Altiplano.

Also of interest in this region are the salt lakes of Bolivia and the surrounding Atacama desert in Chile. In order to maximise our exposure to this “new world” the logical route turned out to be a loop towards the Tropic of Capricorn from the city where we could organise our transport: Lima.

Although Lima is only about 12 degrees south of the Equator, its average temperature is 5 to 10 degrees lower than the climate of our native Pretoria (at nearly 26 degrees south) or Sao Paulo in Brazil at the same latitude. This is caused by the Humboldt current flowing along the western coastline.

The terrain in this area can be classified into three distinct regions: the Coastal desert, the high Altiplano straddling the Andes and the tropical Amazon basin dropping off to the east. Since the Amazon Basin would entail a completely different (tropical) climate, we planned our trip around the former two regions: both cool, but with elevations at opposite extremes.

Adios, amigos!

Most flights to and from Lima seem to take off and land around midnight. After some delay our taxi pitched and dropped us off at the Red Psycho Llama in the Miraflores district. Here is the rooftop bar. The remainder of the décor is quite subdued.

Since it was weekend, so we had a day to check out the scenery. Miraflores is a well-to-to area, popular with tourists and quite Western in its vibe. Not at all representative of the way most Peruvians live.

Miraflores is centered around Parque Kennedy, a popular recreational area.

Further afield, the street markets are a better way to see how the local people live and trade.

The cops here are not impressed being photographed. Check out that rear tyre, officer.

The shopkeepers are much happier to see some visitors. Woollen garments and weaving are major industries and make ideal gifts for the tourist trade.

We took the long walk up to central Lima see the 14 wonderful fountains on the Circuito Magica del Agua (Magical Water Tour), the largest fountain complex in the world.

There is even a spectacular laser show every hour. [click for video]

At an entry fee of 4 Soles, it's a bargain. So far, so good. Tomorrow it's time to get our wheels.

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Old 11-25-2010, 03:28 AM   #2
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This looks like it could be interesting. Anything to do with the Andes & South America in general & I'm hooked.
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Old 11-25-2010, 07:09 AM   #3
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Thanks for the colorful intro! Let's go

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Old 11-27-2010, 05:48 AM   #4
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I´m sure it will be a beautiful trip. What sort of bike you will be riding on? Planned itinerary? How long you plan to stay on the road? I loved the pictures of Lima, I lived there back in the 80´s and just loved Peru.
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Old 12-01-2010, 03:42 PM   #5
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Bikes and Beaches

You have to learn from your mistakes. Number one on that list was to get better bikes this time around and number two was to complete all arrangements in advance so that we could get moving as soon as possible after our arrival.

Exporting a bike is not a cheap option and creates the problem of logistic support. The only Japanese bikes readily available are from Honda, who have good representation in South America as well as helpful dealers who can communicate with the gringos. This is Desert Sport Racing, all of two blocks away from our hotel. It’s easy to miss from street level when those steel shutters are down- we walked right past it the first time.

Once the shop is open, things look a whole lot better.

Although called an XR250 (serious off-road model) the Honda Tornado is actually more like a XL250 (city poser) but with pretty useful suspension, an 11.5 litre tank, about 250km range, 23 HP at sea level and a top speed of more than 100 km/h. Disk brake up front, drum brake rear, monoshock, lightweight (134 kg), affordable. Perfect!

Except for this:

Our dealer, Roberto Belmonte, has gotten us some smaller jets for the high altitude riding. Hopefully this will make the engines run better, but it can’t create oxygen where the air is thin.

We set about installing power sockets, handguards and the GPS mounts. It's a good opportunity to find out where everything is, even though the mechanics are a bit taciturn, especially when it comes to the procedure of changing those jets.

We made contact with Neil “Bluebull” Des Sertoes a month before our arrival, and got picked up by his driver for lunch with him and Diederik halfway through the bike preparation. Neil was still on crutches, recovering from a painful broken foot. Thanks, Neil and DD! (sorry no pics)

After some minor mods, we are ready to roll the next day.

We hit the traffic and head for the outer ring road that is the Pan-American Highway (Carratera Panamericana).

For some dumb reason I go for the Norte lane instead of Sur.

A lengthy sightseeing tour of the outskirts of Lima is the result before we manage to turn around and get back on the Panamericana.

Due to the Humboldt current flowing up from Antarctica, most of the western side of Peru and Chile is coastal desert with virtually zero rainfall and a coastal fog (garza) which blankets Lima and its surroundings for most of the year:

On the altiplano itself, most of the rainfall is between November and February. We chose to avoid this. June through August is winter, and very cold at altitude; it also happens to be the peak season. We chose to avoid this too, and hit the sweet spot between September and October.

Although there is plenty of coastal fog, it’s dry alright. The coastal desert actually consists of pebbles as well as sand and sandstone layers:

On the inland side it looks like this:

Closer in it looks like that...

And along the coast it looks like this:

Although many Americans seem to enjoy riding down the Panamericana (we even passed a couple of Harleys along the way), I could not find much detail about the coastal road. Likewise, there was rather little to read about the inland roads from Lima up the Andes, particularly the unsealed ones. Hopefully this report will fill some of the gaps. We certainly got to see a lot of both the coastal and inland roads.

There seems to be a toll gate at each provincial boundary. Fortunately, bikes are simply waved through- no charge.

These three wheel buggies are taxis. They have two-stroke engines and a paper-thin chassis to keep the weight down. The drivers are "assertive".

50 km outside the Lima city limits, the dual carriageway becomes a single road carrying the bustling traffic through Cañete and Chincha Alta before entering the town of Pisco, home of the sour cocktail (pisco, lemon juice, egg white, syrup and bitters) with the same name.

The Pisco (alcohol distilled from sweet grapes) is readily available along the way.

It’s pretty busy and there is a lot of construction work underway in Pisco.

We pick our way through the detours to the smell of the sea.

The destination for the day is the village of Paracas, 20 km south along the bay road, from where the peninsular reserve and the Islas Ballestas can be visited. We pass the fishmeal factories along the coast and pull into the Brisas dela Bahia hostal on the main drag as the sun sets over the Pacific ocean.

The locals put up a show feeding the pelicans with scraps of fish in exchange for some reward of their own as we make our way to the harbour.

It’s a 2-hour cruise by motor-boat to get to the Islas Ballestas, where thousands of birds and seals breed and make guano. Wars have been fought over this shit (1865-1866, 1879) which has a higher concentration of nitrates along the Peruvian coast because of the dry climate.

Pelicans, seagulls, terns, penguins and sea lions are crowding the rockfaces. The smell is quite powerful.

The seals are doing what seals do best.

We see the first of many geoglyphs from the boat, known as the Candelabra of the Andes. The shape has been dug out two feet deep and is surrounded by a stone outline. It is nearly 240m long, and its axis is aligned from north to south.

Back in Paracas we are welcomed into the Reserve for a small fee and even get offered a rusty Honda 200 as trade-in for our slightly newer bikes!

We head for the La Catedral lookout point. We certainly seem to have missed the peak tourist season.

Due to the absence of rain along the coast, there is no vegetation.

Even the coastline looks pretty deserted, apart from a few seabirds.

Flamingos feed in the coastal lagoon, but because the local fishmeal factories previously pumped their untreated waste directly into the bay, most of the floor of the Bay of Paracas is biologically dead. This is why you have to go 20 km out to the Islas to really see the local fauna.

We are able to get quite close to the flamingos before they take off.

By the time we reach Ica, the bikes are “run in” and we set about locating the local Honda dealer for their first service.

We get helped promptly after offloading our luggage, but I have to restrain the overeager mechanic from tightening our brand new chains.

We have been battling to prevent the bikes from toppling over in the soft sand. I ask the dealer for a welding shop to where we can fit a plate and we get shepherded to this facility:

Forty Soles later:

By the time the welding is done, it’s dark outside and getting cooler.

Even at their lowest setting, the headlights don’t illuminate much of the road ahead. We manage to get some 20 km further before pulling a few hundred metres off the road to strike camp.

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Old 12-09-2010, 10:51 PM   #6
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Lines and Canyons

The sand makes a very comfortable bed, and we sleep soundly. Everything looks quite deserted in the morning light.

It’s not long before the coffee water is boiling and breakfast is prepared.

There is power galore at Mission Control.

Not long after rejoining the highway we unexpectedly reach the Nazca lines, in the middle of some roadworks.

Despite having been made sometime between 900 BC and 600 AD, these huge geometric patterns were only discovered from the air in 1927. It's easy to see why.

The Panamerican highway bisects the poor lizard. We pull off and try to recognize the shapes, but the perspective is completely lost at ground level, even though most are more than 50 metres in size.

There is a mirador (lookout post) a few hundred meters down the road. After a few minutes of queuing it is our turn to clamber up the 10m of scaffolding, from where two of the figures can be clearly distinguished.

Here is the Tree. [click for video]

Some of the souvenirs on sale below.

We are skirting the foot of the Andes here, about 50 km from the ocean.

We pass the turnoff to Cuzco and continue our way south before rejoining the coastline en route to Camana.

We run into the first of many political rallies on this trip. There is a lot of public interest.

But not everywhere.

Further south, the terrain becomes more sandy. Retaining walls keep the shifting sand off the road. We have to push hard to make Camana by nightfall.

After some asking, we find the Hostal Premier Grande off the main road. Despite the grand name, it's rather ordinary but clean inside. It has been a scenic and productive day’s riding, more than 500 km in all, despite a fresh breeze for much of the afternoon.

While the glue is drying on some repairs for my old helmet, we go looking for breakfast around the corner. The smell of fresh bread lures us across the road to these friendly ladies…

..and there are strawberries from the lush valleys surrounding the town. [click for video]

The fruit juice, though, is a bit fermented.

Out of town, the road climbs rapidly onto a plateau towards Tambillo and the sea fades from our mirrors.

It’s a fertile area and there are lots of cows grazing nearby; roadside restaurants vie for our attention.

It;s great to see some dairy products again , and we tuck into the yoghurt.

A patchwork of green fields appears over the escapment in the middle of the bleached sand.

The road punches through the Morro Siguas mountains…

..before descending to the Rio Vitor in the valley below.

Across the bridge the climb to Arequipa begins.

It gets higher, more rocky and more barren.

There are obvious signs of mining activity along the road. This is Mino Cerro Verde (a bit of a misnomer up here unless we're too early to see the greenery).

It gets lush again as we cross the Vitor river once more just before entering Arequipa. We get directions to the old town centre at the filling station and manage to spot the church tower.

It does not take long after starting our circuit of the Plaza de Armas before we get offered to be taken to suitable accommodation.

After two misses (no enclosed parking for the bikes), we end up at the Baviera Hostal. As a bonus, there’s the Cuzco Coffee shop just one block down the road.

Arequipa is known as The White City, due to many of its beautiful buildings made of light-colored volcanic rock called sillar. Here are some examples.

Our hostal is not spectacular, but there is a large courtyard and garage where it is possible to do some basic maintenance the next day: checking the cables, lubricating the chains, tightening all the bolts. There are no nasty surprises.

After a lengthy translation effort we manage to buy some washing powder.

Withe the laundry strung up to dry, we set off for the Colca Canyon.

It's possible to do a circuit via Huambo, but we decide to go via more popular route through Chivay and back.

Arequipa is at 8000ft AMSL. We soon climb higher and higher but by 13 000 ft there is almost no power, so we pull off to remove the air filters.

The effect is like dropping a few thousand feet in altitude and the bikes are rideable again. When we level out at the Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca it’s possible to do 100 km/h on the flat open stretches- impressive!

Vicunas are protected camelids (related to llamas), and most of them seem to survive in reserves like this one.

We pass lush farmlands with plenty of wetland and grazing llamas.

Cormorants are sunning themselves in the ponds.

The final breathtaking climb to the volcano lookout at 16 000 ft takes us past the last remaining snow deposits before the descent down to the canyon.

Chivay appears in view as the road plunges dramatically by some 5000 ft.

The town is popular for its hot springs.

A couple of young entrepreneurs are wowing the tourists as we enter the town to go looking for breakfast and fuel. Aren’t they sweet?

There is a S35 charge to enter the Colca Canyon from Chivay.

The terraced scenery in the canyon valley is impressive. It must have taken decades (centuries?) to develop these.

There is another tunnel as we climb up to Cruz del Condor lookout.

By 3 pm it’s time to head back home, a good 200 km away. We make it as the sun's last rays bath the surrounding hillsides in orange light. It’s cool and dark by the time we've navigated the traffic to reach the hotel.

1NiteOwl screwed with this post 12-26-2010 at 12:41 PM Reason: Add video links
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Old 12-10-2010, 12:43 AM   #7
yunwei cao-China
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Thanks for sharing your photos,Very nice,thank you
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Old 12-18-2010, 09:28 AM   #8
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Chile, not chilly

We could easily have stayed on longer in Arequipa, but that would have made the return trip too tight- there is no knowing how slow the going on the inland gravel roads will be.

Before leaving, there are a few chores to do: the zip on my jacket’s camera pocket does not close anymore and the charger cord for our intercoms has broken off somewhere inside the plug. We get directed to the market area opposite the town square where I buy a cheap soldering iron when I can’t locate a workshop. It heats up for about one minute before succumbing to an open circuit too.

The zip mission is more productive. Instead of getting a new zip fitted, this tailor whips out a pair of pliers to tighten the jaws of the zip runner in 5 seconds flat. Never too old to learn something useful!

Along the way to Chivay we passed two heavily laden bikes in the opposite direction. By chance we walk past their hotel as they are packing their BMW 650GS and Honda 400 Falcon and find out that they are from Brazil. Little did we know that our paths would cross again later.

Back at the hotel we pack up our own kit and backtrack to the intersection with the Panamerican highway. Today’s destination is the Chilean border between Tacna and Arica.

There are more tunnels.

We cross more rivers and more desert.

The scenery is pretty similar to the previous days, except for a number of people who are walking with bedrolls and bottled water parallel to the road in both directions once it straightens out. We stop to ask the purpose of this, but there’s a communication breakdown. Here are four “desert pilgrims”.

We make it to Tacna, Peru’s southernmost town, before dark.

The border is another 20 km further south, but although there is an airport along the way, the only decent accommodation seems to be around the Plaza de Armas and we book into the Plaza Hotel, where we are allowed to park the bikes in the passage opposite Reception.

There is an impressive park on the plaza island. A commemorative plaque serves as reminder of the War of the Pacific (1879~1884) between Chile and the Peru-Bolivia alliance for control of the saltpetre-rich territory.

En route to the border are these mat-huts smack in the middle of the barren emptiness.

How people survive here is not obvious, but the chickens are clearly part of the answer.

The border looms into view soon after. There are welcome signs galore.

Despite the rigorous paperwork for body and bike, and X-raying of our luggage, the Chilean officials are helpful and efficient. After relinquishing our two apples (no plants, fruit or nuts allowed across the border!), we are free to continue on our way.

With a coastline of some 4800km, it’s just as well we are not heading for Santiago.

After lunch in Arica I spot an auto-electrician shop on the outskirts of town. They let me use theirlarge soldering irons, which stay hot longer than my el cheapo model from Arequipa and I manage to fix our intercom charger at last.

The Atacama desert extends along the northern quarter of Chile, up to the base of the Altiplano demarcating the border with Bolivia.

A climb of about 3000 feet gets us to the interior desert plateau, where the roads straighten out into the distance.

There are some patches of green in between…

…as well as the grey fog from the Pacific.

Unexpectantly, we are treated to the sight of the Presencias Tutelares (Guardian Spirits) next to the road. Pink Floyd could use these statues for their next album!

Too late we discover that the distances between towns in Chile is significantly more than in Peru and we are forced to start scanning the sides of the road for a suitable campsite.

We manage to find some bushes that screen us from the road, but there is hardly any traffic and quite a few thorns. We take our time to clear the ground before inflating our mattresses.

By next morning it becomes clear that the thorn bushes around us have actually been planted to prevent further desertification, and we happen to be at the scene of one of the skirmishes between Chilean and Peruvian armed forces, the Batalla de Dolores.

More interesting for us is the first geoglyph site in Chile, the Geoglifos ex Aura.

There are a sun, a bird and a snake on the hill nearby, as well as a stylised man further away. [click for video]

We are 1 km from Huara when my bike splutters to a stop and I grab mrs Owl’s duffelbag handle for a tow. The town has clearly seen better days.

Although it’s a large village with eateries alongside the main road, there are no filling stations.

After some asking around, we are directed to the local general dealer, opposite the parade ground where a cadet troupe is marching. An ancient pump is inserted into a 44 gallon drum to produce two priceless carafes of fuel.

We fill up and also buy some bottled water from the missus in the equally dusty shop.

The school teachers work hard to keep their charges in line as we rejoin the main road.

Shortly afterwards, we pass the first mining ghost town. Many of these are scattered around the Atacama, taken over by technology. This one is now a World Heritage site, but threatened by decay and earthquakes.

The town clock is frozen (rusted?) in time, looking out over the once bustling street.

Graveyards dot the road. Some are large, others quite small. Here is an expansive example:

The smaller ones are typically roadside crosses. They appear at regular intervals where people have lost loved ones. This one is particularly elaborate, complete with an irrigation system for the little garden, a dolls house and toys.

In Africa this would have been cleaned out long ago; here, it is sacrosanct.

As we cross the provincial borders, there is a customs check each time, but no fuel. It’s positively hot here!

It's a 260 km stretch to the next filling station and we have to slow down to maximise the tank range. Maria Elena is another old mining town that has seen better days, 16 km off our route. I make it to the pumps with millilitres to spare.

From here, it’s a 90 km sweep up the hills towards Calama.

A huge mine dump guards the town entrance. It's surprisingly modern-looking.

The only hotel with accommodation on offer is also the grandest. Unfortunately, parking is a block away. A sparse breakfast is included in the $75 room rate, but the rooms live up to their billing.

It’s time for another oil change and we find a crowded shop on the way out. The workshop and showroom share the same floorspace, but I make the mistake of not fixing the price up front and end up getting charged $75 after a vain attempt to swap the jets as well.

People here are as big on solar heaters as they are on the national flag.

Unfortunately the only filling stations seem to be at the town entrance and we have to double back before being able to set off for San Pedro de Atacama, the turning point of our trip near the Tropic of Capricorn.

San Pedro is an oasis town in a depression at the foot of the Andes. Life here is sustained by the Rio San Pedro, which has fed the town for centuries. Its water is rich in potassium and lithium, which are deposited in the nearby Salar de Atacama where the water evaporates, leaving a distinctive saltcrust behind.

It’s pretty touristy, with roughly one tourist per inhabitant who live very comfortably as a result.

There is plenty of accommodation on offer and once we have figured out that vehicles are not allowed in the central streets, we quickly find a place to stay. After unpacking and freshening up, the timing is perfect for a visit to the Valle de la Luna nearby.

We join the other tourists up the ridge to watch the sun set over the valley.

The view from the top is well worth the slog up to the vantage point. I have not been there, but I guess it’s quite similar to Death Valley or Yosemite in North America.

San Pedro is a cosy town with a mild climate. A large church dating back to 1641 overlooks the hotel and main square. Restaurants, tour operators and money changers line the narrow streets crowded by tourists. It’s an ideal staging point for the many sights that are just a day trip away, as well as the south-west circuit of Bolivia.

We walk to town to blow our Pesos on a pizza and bump into our Brazilian biker colleagues, Fernando and Paulo, again. They also came down the coast from Arequipa, but via Iquique. They had reached Peru via Bolivia and were returning via Argentina down the Paso de Jama road- the same route we would take. Over some large beers, they talk us out of a planned two day stay in La Paz and recommend Lake Titicaca instead.

The nights get pretty cool, but the days are warm and pleasant and always clear, as it never rains.

I set up an open-air workshop in the parking area of our Hostal Tambillo to change the bike’s jets. It turns out to be quite a mission to get the carburettors out.

By lunch-time both bikes have had their jets swapped to smaller versions. The engines run smoother, but the power loss remains.

As a test run, we decide to take a look at the Salar de Atacama south of the town. We pass a convoy transporting satellite dishes for the Alma Observatory.

The observatory is just off our route to Toconao. The clear air makes this an ideal location for stargazing, as the Incas and their forebears must have done centuries ago.

Toconao itself is little to write home about. The real attraction lies west of it, down 25 km or so of gravel.

There are plenty of flamingos among the brown salt crusts (discoloured by dust deposited from the surrounding area). [click for video]

A smooth salt road leads us out of the centre of the Salar back to Tocanao.

Next stop: Bolivia!

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Old 12-19-2010, 09:58 AM   #9
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Great Trip

Fantastic idea about buying the bikes there. Could you give a rough idea as the price of the bikes and the hassle in registering them? Do you plan on selling them at the end of the trip? Good luck and cheers!
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Old 12-19-2010, 11:31 AM   #10
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Great Report and very informative. I hope to visit these countries someday. What made your decision to purchase bikes in Peru instead of shipping yours from Africa?
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Old 12-19-2010, 01:14 PM   #11
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Originally Posted by VASCOdaGAMA View Post
Fantastic idea about buying the bikes there. Could you give a rough idea as the price of the bikes and the hassle in registering them? Do you plan on selling them at the end of the trip?
Originally Posted by Kodanja View Post
What made your decision to purchase bikes in Peru instead of shipping yours from Africa?
Hi Vasco, Kodanja: we arranged to buy these bikes in Peru because of three factors:

1. Cheaper than exporting ours from South Africa. We considered bringing them back with us at the end of the trip (third point of Vasco's question) and the shipping quotes were close to the actual resale value. We paid just under $5000 each, including all paperwork and plates. You will have to wait till the last post to find out what happened to them!

2. Local spares and support= easier logistics. Even the cops ride these bikes in South America.

3. Wet weight is nearly 60% of an Africa Twin. Much easier to handle.

The lack of power at altitude was a big negative factor as you will see in the next post, but for these sort of trips speed is not a very important consideration. For me, reliability is paramount.

Our overall impression of these bikes though, is very positive. They are well made, economical, and the suspension is superb.

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Old 12-19-2010, 02:41 PM   #12
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Great Report

I enjoyed your report and ALL the photos were very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
Living in North America, we don't get to see much of your part of the world. A few of my friends have traveled there, but only had a few photos to share by email with me.
I've done a lot of adventure touring around my area (35k miles over several years) on my little Honda CB250 Adventure bike. It's a 20 hp twin and does fine for keeping up with traffic, but not so good on suspension. It only has 4" of travel (~100 mm) so must be slow and avoid holes in the roads or the fork seals will begin leaking. The DR650 has more of everything, including fuel usage, but is great for long distance travels.
Again, thanks for sharing your journey.

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Old 12-20-2010, 07:59 PM   #13
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Great report!!!
I would like to do this trip and have been researching buying in S.A.
You seem to have had no problem crossing the Peru ,Chile border with the Peruvian registered bikes being a foriegner.
Many posts say this is not possible?

What is the secret? or proper procedure?

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Old 12-20-2010, 08:41 PM   #14
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Salt, Sliver and Stone

Excellent adventure and report! The photo's are stunning you have a real eye for it. Incredible that you hit 16,000 ft elevation with those bikes? Thanks for sharing with us!

My XR650R Build:
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Old 12-20-2010, 10:09 PM   #15
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Ohhhhhh WOW! Thanks for sharing.
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