Day 3 The next morning I woke up with more stomach pain. Despite the pain I managed to climb the Cordillera Blanca to the Túnel Punta Olímpica, which is the longest tunnel in Peru and the highest tunnel in the world at an altitude of 4,680 meters above sea level. At that point, Galim and I were both feeling pretty loopy from the soroche, but we decided to park our bikes on the side of the road to take in the views for a few minutes. I didn’t have enough energy to take my camera out of my bag so I just waddled around the top of the mountain with a big goofy grin on my face while Galim snapped some pictures on his cell phone. Driving through the tunnel was like riding through a huge, dark freezer with someone dumping buckets of water on our heads every few seconds. I could feel my whole body tensing up and freezing from the outside in. My stomach pain continued to grow until we finally made our way out of the tunnel and down the mountain where the sun was starting to poke out from behind the clouds. We stopped at the first roadside restaurant to warm up. At that point I was wearing about every layer of clothing that I own including my fleece, turbo down jacket and wool socks. I sat there by the fire like a pop sickle, paralyzed from the cold while the local ladies walked around casually in there knee length skirts and sandals with no socks. After drinking a few cups of hot tea and witnessing the beheading of several soup-bound chicken, we got back on the bikes and continued making our way toward the city of Carhuaz and eventually Huaraz. Somewhere between Huaraz and Tortugas I had meltdown #2, where I sprawled out again on the side of the road in desperation and lack of oxygen. Galim offered to take me on the back of his bike to the nearest town to rest, but I insisted on driving on my own. I was determined to get back to Tortugas THAT day WITH my bike. We rolled up to Tortugas at about 4pm. My youngest host sister and her cousin were swimming close to shore. They and the lady who sells artisan crafts next to the house yelled my name and cheered as I parked and shut off my bike. I was so happy to be home and more importantly to have accomplished everything that I had set out to do.
Being in the mountains of Peru was like being in another world. I spent the next several days bedbound with all sorts of aches and pains, but even despite all the suffering, I couldn’t stop thinking about those scenes that I had witnessed on my trip. Just as I have learned so much here and have grown to love the ocean town of Tortugas and its people, I am eager to learn more about life in the mountains. At this point I feel like I am ready to embark on my next big adventure(although I’m still not completely sure what that will be). I can’t say I will be prepared because there is always more to do and more to learn, but I feel like I am ready to take on whatever challenges that may come my way. I just have to trust myself, trust my bike, and ask for help when I need it. Look out South America! Here come Helen and Shirley!
Day 1 started out with a 5:30am departure from Tortugas. We passed through Chimbote and several smaller cities as we made our way to the desert and then to what I would consider to be like the Grand Canyon of Peru. El cañón del pato is a 25 mile stretch of road which passes through 35 tunnels, a handful of bridges and countless jawdropping views of the Rio Santa, which separates the Cordillera Blanca and the Cordillera Negra mountain ranges. I felt like I was on a ride at Disney World the whole time, except the walls weren’t made of plastic and it lasted quite a bit longer than 30 seconds. The further inland we went, the higher we climbed, so I decided to take some of my soroche(altitude sickness) medicine. We arrived in the city of Caraz around noon and had a light lunch. My stomach started hurting almost immediately, so we decided to hang out at a nearby cafe to rest up a little. Our goal for the day was to make it to the Laguna de Llanganuco and to camp out there for the night, so even though I wasn’t feeling 100%, we decided to push on. The higher we climbed, the more stunning the views got, but unfortunately, all I could think about was the growing pain in my stomach. Eventually, it got to a point where I felt like there was knife rotating inside of me and I yelled to Galim to pull over. “What’s wrong?” he said calmly. “Take my bike! I can’t do this anymore!!!” I yelled in desperation. As soon as Galim had a hand on my bike, I collapsed onto the nearest log and began moaning in pain. Within the next few minutes, an indigenous man walked by with his herd of sheep and a bus drove past which seemed to be full of European tourists. The amount of pain that I was experiencing was indescribable, but I knew that I had to get myself together before someone decided to send the national guard to carry me out of there on a helicopter. I figured it might cause some distress for my friends and family back home if something like that appeared on the evening news. After a few minutes, I had calmed down significantly. We had the option of looking for help and lodging with a local family, but I knew we were only a matter of a few miles from the lake. “I can make it.” I said. So we got back on the bikes and eventually made our way to the Laguna de Llanganuco. By that time, it was about 4pm. It had started raining and the temperature was dropping quickly. We pitched our tents next to the lake and changed out of our wet riding clothes. After a few hours, Galim’s tent had pretty much flooded with water, so he went to find shelter with the national park attendants. At that point, I was relatively warm and dry in my tent so I decided to stick it out there for the night.
Day 2 I woke up around 6am. The rain had stopped several hours earlier and the park was completely silent. I unzipped my tent and was left speechless by the image of the Laguna de Llanganuco surrounded by luscious green vegetation and framed from behind with snow capped mountains. After taking a few pictures, we packed up our wet gear and hit the (now wet and muddy)road again. As we continued climbing in altitude toward the town of Yanama, I was well distracted from the lack of oxygen by more amazing views of crystal clear lakes and rivers, and snow capped mountains. The town of Yanama was very picturesque with its marble ordained plaza and local church which was decorated with mosaic. The most culture shocky thing that Galim and I came across was a sign that said “Prohibido ingresar con animales” (No entering with animals) with a picture of a donkey on it. Good thing we opted to take our motorcycles and leave the donkeys back home! From Yanama, we made our way down the winding roads through the valleys and countless indigenous towns until finally arriving in the quiet town of Chacas. By that time, it was late afternoon and we knew that the rain would be arriving any minute. After a snack and a good chat with a local bread smith, we decided it would be best to stay the night in Chacas and head back to Tortugas in the morning. Luckily, the first hostel that we went to was cheap and let us drive our motorcycles right into the lobby, where they would be safe for the night.
I was coming up on my 3 month anniversary here and for all I knew, Peru was made up of pure city and sand dunes. I had come accustomed to long motorcycle rides on the beach and falling asleep to the sound of waves crashing up against the shore. For someone who had spent most of her life surrounded by lakes, I was actually starting to feel quite at home in this small town on the ocean. Whenever I talked to my friends and family back in the states, they would always point out how happy I sounded. And I sure was! Buuut….sometimes….(ok, maybe a lot of the time) my curiosity gets the best of me and something inside of me was telling me that it was time to travel inland. I could feel those sandy peaks taunting me every time I rode past them on my way to or from Casma. “What could be on the other side?” I asked myself. “What are the people like and what kind of customs do they practice?” And most importantly, “What kind of food is over there?” Finally, when I felt like the time was right, I rounded up my Peruvian motorcycle gang(so far only consisting of me and one other person) and we hit the road for mountains of Ancash! The trip was pretty spontaneous, but my riding buddy, Galim and I had made a plan to fit as much beautiful Peruvian landscape into one and a half days as possible. It turns out our plan wasn’t actually possible and we ended up having to stay an extra night because I was dying from exhaustion and lack of oxygen, but even still, we saw a lot in those two and a half days!