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Peru from a saddle: by horse and by bike

In one year I developed Rosacea, had fluid leak into my left eye internally and developed a one in a million nerve issue which shut down the muscles in my right shoulder. For six months I couldn’t see straight, couldn’t lift my arm above my head and looked like hell boy anytime I got warm or ate anything. So I called my friend Carl one day, once I was slowly on the mend, and said it was time to plan an escape from it all. I said I wanted something positive after all these issues and he agreed. An hour later we had booked two tickets to Peru online. We decided, if Machu Picchu, one of the Seven Wonders of the World couldn’t cheer us up, nothing would.

Now usually you plan a trip like this in advance, so you have time to get the right shots and insurance coverage. We booked our flights for the following week, so we skipped out on all the inoculations. This turned out to be a bad gamble on my part. I did however go to take out insurance, at which point I was told no insurance company would cover me since Peru had been put on a “do not visit” travel advisory. The government had just issued it that week due to a political uprising. This was news to me. Though so be it, I wasn’t about to let a little thing like health insurance or an uprising stand in my way.

I opted for the cheap flight, so I saw about five airports on my amazing race of transfers down to Cusco Peru. The one thing I managed to get my hands on were altitude pills, which turned out to be a life saver. This was going to be an active vacation, and the air in Cusco was even thinner then my budget.

The first thing you will notice about Cusco is that everything smells like diesel, and I’m not talking about the cologne. All the vehicles there drive without any care for pedestrians or the environment. Clouds of blue smoke fill the narrow cobble stone streets and small shops along side it, and that alpaca scarf you bring back for your niece will affect her health the same as a pack of cigarettes.

Next you will notice that every picture you have ever seen of Cusco will inevitably have been taken in the Plaza de Armas, which truly is beautiful. It’s as though a reverse bomb of goodness as gone off in that plaza and in concentric circles the further you move away from that area the dodgier things become. You will be called Amigo until you choose not to buy something, at which point you are referred to as Gringo.

And the final thing you will notice is that nobody in Cusco, or Peru for that matter owns a toilet seat, much less toilet paper. They have toilet bowls mind you, only they don’t flush. I’ve done the squat over a hole before but oddly that is easier then squatting over a bowl, because with the bowl you need to hold yourself up half way. This is a feat of strength that requires Arnold Schwarzenegger thigh muscles. And when you go to wash your hands, you may get dripping cold water… that is if you’re lucky. So be sure to pack hand sanitizer.

Gas-powered pony

Gas-powered pony

We started our adventure by renting two horses so we could ride out to some local Incan ruins. My horse was this tiny almost pony sized half dead creature with a gastrointestinal disorder. He used gas it seemed, as a method to propel us up the steeper of the hills. At one in the ruins my friend and I found a small cave network and went exploring until we were caught by a local park ranger and escorted off the site. As it turned out, the cave was considered a very holy place and we were trespassing. Fair enough, seems we should have brushed up on our Spanish before coming as well.

Our next adventure was taking a tour bus down to Lake Titicaca. We were shown pictures of all the amazing historical sites we would be seeing along the way, which seemed fantastic. However little did we know we were on the market tour in a bus without air conditioning. The stops that did have areas of historical interest, such as ruins and churches, we ended up being rushed through. However the stops that were really all about dragging tourists through endless markets, we had to wait around forever while people tried to sell us arts and crafts. After the third market I told the guide that there are really only so many blankets a man can buy. He backed away, either because he knew I was right, or because the lack of air conditioning on the bus had flared up my Rosacea and I now resembled El Diablo. In either case we eventually made it to a boat transfer and out onto Lake Titicaca.

We visited the floating islands, which admittedly were very cool. If you haven’t heard of them, they are islands made out of river reeds. As well their homes and boats were also made of the same materials. It was a very National Geographic moment, yet still somewhat touristy. They try and push you to buy their crafts; they charge you to take a picture rowing their reed boat. This along with the solar panels and TVs in their thatched reed homes indicate they aren’t as traditional as they would have you believe.

After our time on Lake Titicaca we made our way back to Cusco, where we intended on heading to our final and most impressive destination, Machu Picchu.

Both my friend and I were fed up with tour buses at this point so we discussed renting vehicles and traveling out there on our own. We managed to find a place that rented motorcycles and offered motorbike tours. My friend and I both had our motorcycle licenses but I had very little actual riding experience. I had managed to crash once, and that was in a parking lot, involving me and a cement barrier. So you can imagine I was hesitant to hit the Andes Mountain trails without medical insurance and one shoulder that still didn’t work right.

In the end we spoke to the owner of the bike tour place and he said if we would pay extra to have a private guide, he would assure that we take it easy, do a calm route and ride at lower speeds. So reassured by that and urged on by my love of Ewan McGregor’s Long Way Round motorcycle travel series, I reluctantly agreed.

As it turned out they never asked for my licence! All they asked for was my visa card, and my blood type. That was the first sign that this was a bad idea.

We were riding Honda Falcon 400cc dual sport bikes. Our guide, who was supposed to keep us safe, did his best to get us killed. He took this “tour” as personal training for the Moto GP and just left us behind racing to catch up. One minute we are taking mountain switch back corners at 3 times the posted speed limit, always aware of the 1000 foot drop and lack of guard rail. Then suddenly without warning he would ride off the side of the road straight down a narrow dirt trail, my friend and I would pull in the clutch, the brake and follow behind him trying to survive. I had hoped for an easy motorcycle tour, what I got was the Dakar Rally.

The only peaceful part of that ride was a quick stop in a local hot spring, which I later discovered was a nesting ground for parasites. Two different species managed to hitch a ride out of Peru in me. The Doctor never explained how exactly, but there are only so many points of entry into the country known as Rick and apparently my border control is lacking.

In the final leg of the rally I made a pact with God in my helmet to never ride again should I survive this ordeal. He kept up his end of the bargain. We managed to catch the train which takes us the final bit of the journey as you aren’t allowed to ride all the way to the site. The train was very cool, right out of an Indiana Jones film.

We slept in a town that translates to “Hot Water” in English, though shockingly there was no hot water in the hostel. We got up early and hiked Machu Picchu Mountain in order to get that picture post card view of the ruins. Unfortunately morning fog as thick as pea soup put an end to that plan. Finally as we hiked back down the fog parted and we got a glimpse of the most amazing site I have ever seen. Machu Picchu! Even when you are there it is surreal. It is as though you are walking through a dream of some long forgotten place. I highly recommend everyone add it to their life list of must see destinations.

I had a few days left in Peru, though once the ebola kicked in I have only memories of bathrooms. I spent those final days working out a toilet seat exporting business and praying to make it back to my home country.

Now, weeks later and several antibiotics later, free of parasites and with the diesel washed out of my hair I can put this trip in perspective. Sitting here writing this, slowly rebuilding the lining of my stomach, I can honestly say Peru was an adventure worth having, just make sure you get the inoculations, and don’t forget the hand sanitizer.

To follow Rick’s Travel Video’s, check out “Rick Langrehr” on You Tube.

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