San Luis to Barranca
The next morning I awoke in the cold, a single shaft of sunlight streaming through the hole in the wall, a bright orange spot on the faded green wall. Outside a rooster crowed, one of the only roosters on this entire trip to properly crow at sunrise and not 3 in the morning.
I slowly got moving and dressed in my cold, damp and muddy BMW pants and boots, then creaked open the door and stepped out to see a blue sky. Fatigue had made me sleep deeply and the color of the sky was like a big smile after the solid rain the day before. I putzed with the bike some, until I began to wonder if Ward had gone out early to find coffee. I said his name as I looked up at his room, and a moment later he opened the door. I felt bad for having awoken him and said I was going to find coffee.
The sun in the morning was a nice, if not brief, change. I thought back about the previous day and smiled. It was what I came here for, challenge, incredible sights and scenes I'll never forget. The shock had added pressure to the day, and it would have been nice to have been freer physically and mentally, but I wouldn't have traded a moment of the experience or the day for anything.
I stepped through the tiny door in the metal gate, seeing the town for the first time in the light of day. Around were mist-covered mountainsides, with rough, dirt filled streets pointing their direction.
Only a few souls were out, and I headed for the corner where the night before many men had stood watching us arrive in the dark. At the corner I stood for a moment, watching the brightly dressed indigenous ladies here and there, wearing their tall hats and carrying bundles. Normally shy, they had no problem looking me in the eye with a bit of suspicion.
A block away and desperate for coffee, I saw a lone street vendor and wandered over. She was cooking a fritter of egg and something green on her portable cart, yammering off words to me in a high pitched voice. I said “café?” but she rambled on without answering. Seeing no open restaurants at the early hour, I simply stood and watched. She was eating her freshly fried fritter, then broke it in half and handed the piece to me. It was warm and delicious so I indicated two with my fingers. She hopped up and uncovered a basket filled with cold ones, handing me two in exchange for two soles, about thirty cents each.
She smiled and talked away, very friendly and I nodded my head, feigning understanding. At a point, she looked directly at me and said “Eres bueno o malo?”
I thought at first she meant was I feeling good or feeling bad, but she was holding a knife and a potato. The question was meant for my heart and I understood. I responded “bueno” and she smiled again, but it was an interesting moment...
I sat on the end of the bench behind her and watched as she made small plates for the locals, mainly peeled potatoes mixed with aji, a blend of crushed coriander and hot peppers and poured breakfast drinks heavily laden with several shots of liquor, a twinkle and smile in her eye. Above and across the street, a woman called from a window and the old woman twittered something to me to watch her cart as she carried a mug of booze and a plate of potatoes drenched in the hot aji sauce into the building.
Making "aji" by crushing cilantro and peppers into a mush with a 30 lb stone
A couple of old men came and stood while she was gone, eyeing me courteously from the side of their vision. She returned to mix up drinks and peel more potatoes, serving them and then sitting next to me on the bench.
It was an interesting time of observing life. Ward showed up and we sat with her, buying a couple more cold fritters and a drink of tea and a green juice with a shot of booze in it. She laughed and feigned falling asleep after a swig of the juice. She chatted away as she peeled potatoes and smiled, taking her knife and drawing it across her throat as she talked to us. Again, a warning or a joke. We never figured out what was up, but it beat sitting in McDonald’s for breakfast.
After finding some instant coffee in a local restaurant, chilled in the cold air of the place, we discussed how no one had heat or fires in their shops or abodes. Despite the forest around, no one used fireplaces or stoves for warmth. The only smoke seen was from wood fired cooking.
Our options for leaving were limited, as I needed to avoid another bad road with my suspension and neither of us relished the idea of another 8 hour day in the rain and mud. The options were the road from San Luis back west over the mountains, or another long one heading directly south. We assumed the western road would be dirt again and made the decision to head the long way south since it was probably dirt, but maybe less tricky since it was probably at a lower elevation.
Back at the hostel, the old man had come out to look at the bikes and we asked about the roads. He said the road west was “concreto”, hard to believe, but it made our ears perk up. We rolled out and headed back for the road entrance we’d seen the night before in the dark, passing women, chasing dogs and dodging as much mud as possible on the quickly drying roads.
Reaching the road entrance, it was a relief to see tarmac but neither of us held much enthusiasm for it lasting. Sure enough, a mile or two in we hit construction and dirt, but in another couple of miles the pavement began. The road wound it’s way up and up, through switchbacks and drizzle, but we couldn’t deny the joy of being on pavement. As the drizzle became rain, the bike wallowed through the turns and felt at times as if would slide away, but I was happy to be on a smooth surface.
The climb continued as the rain stayed strong, until finally nearing the top of the pass at 15,600 feet, we entered a long tunnel. I have no idea the length but it took a while and being out of the rain felt good. It was down to 37 and the chill was strong from the dampness. As we neared the end, the exit loomed ahead, pure, bright and glowing white. It was a strange sensation seeing a wall of white until we popped out into a sky filled with snow. It was a bit surreal.
The change for one side of the mountain to the other was a dramatic one. In the distance and far above me I could see shafts of light illuminating the snowcapped peaks in gaps of cloud and was stunned. There were massive peaks above me, a good three thousand feet or so I guessed. What a sight to see despite the stinging sleet and snow mixture pelting my face in the open shield. I finally pulled over to take in the brief, humbling glimpse of the massive power above. The wind and precipitation drove me back to the bike to catch Ward on the descending switchbacks.
Though blanketed in clouds and fog, it was easy to tell this road was another Stelvio Pass transit and I really wished I could ride it in good weather. Nonetheless it was a stunning ride.
It felt good to be heading down and back to familiar areas with gas and food, but I suggest you ride the road if ever in the region. Amazing road. At the stop to enter the park, we dismounted to rest and warm up, talking to a couple of Colombianos returning from Dakar on the their motos. From there we made the town of Carhuaz and assessed our energy level for the day. We were both still tired from the previous day but decided to push on for the coastal town of Barranca which lay either 1:15, 1:35, or 2:34 depending on which GPS app you believe. I went with Google’s 2:34 based on accuracy from the past and found out it was "optimistic" :D
Heading for the coast and some warmth, I was surprised to find the temperature dropping and rains continuing. The road enters a high plateau at 13,500 and continues for a long period, the winds blasting across the barren high plains. It was raining heavily as the bikes leaned into the wind and pushed southwest. It became bitter, with the temp about 40 mixed with the wind and water. I lost sight of Smurfward behind me as I settled into my groove and shrugged my helmet down into my shoulders to stop the cold trickles running down my back.
It seemed as if the plateau would never end and the community ahead would never arrive, until finally I spotted a lonely Repsol station on the edge of the only town. I pulled in and waited for the blue man, but my gloves were soaked and I was getting a chill. I left the bike along the roadside as a signal and went in where the attendant disappeared to make coffee. The lone stranger inside was a cop, sitting on a couch absorbed in Kung Fu Panda on the television. After a while, I heard the buzz of Ward’s aftermarket exhaust and he came in, soaked to the bone. I suggested he change clothes and get warmed up. We briefly debated trying to find a place for the night in the nearby town, but there were none listed. After he got warmed up a bit, another rider came in to get warm. His name was Luis, and he was heading from Santiago, Chile to Alaska on a KLR. After a bit of time, a bag of Peanut M&M’s and some coffee, riding the rest of the way to Barranca didn’t seem so bad. Ward reconfigured the blue suit a bit and we were on the way.
It was dark soon after and hit just about the time we entered heavy fog and rain on the downhill switchbacks for the valley below. Straining in the rain and fog, it seemed like hours and hours before feeling some relief from the chill and fog. Slowly the temps warmed and I’d stop and wait on the roadside in the night for a sign of his headlight. At a small town, we took a butt break and peeled out of the rain gear for the final hour into the coastal town.
It was about nine when we rolled into Barranca and spotted a bright sign for a hospedaje. We’d passed it in our stupor then made a decision to ride back since it had gated parking. Ward did a u-turn and sped off while I waited for the cabs to pass. Making the easy turn, I dropped the big Beemer when my foot slid on sand, laying it over across the lane and blocking traffic. I didn’t realize how tired I was until then. In the headlights and dust cloud, suddenly I was engulfed by many hands, picking the bike up for me. It was a surprise and I realized people had jumped out of cars and off the sidewalks to help. It was a great surprise.
A couple of blocks down, the gate was opening and I pulled inside behind Ward, to see several motos parked in front of their rooms. Again, Colombianos headed north from the Dakar. The room was decent and the owner, a bit liquored up, told us he wanted to give us a beer by the poole for free.
After dumping the gear in the room, we sat by the pool amidst the blasting thump of music speakers and were treated like mini-celebrities by the owner and his father and brother who were celebrating a birthday. Ward was asked to star in video with the brother giving a thumbs up to the place for a FaceBook video.
As I lay in bed and retraced our path, I realized we’d ridden for 6 days straight, averaging about 9 or 10 hours a day with some heavy work involved at times. I didn’t realize the fatigue that had finally caught up. I barely remember dropping the bike and I guess the constant concentration for days in rain and darkness had caught up. I went to sleep to the thoughts of yet another motorcycle issue and the ambiguities that lay still ahead.