Monthly Archive for September, 2012

Take me home, country roads…

Kilometers this post: 311 biking, 0.05 bikes falling down the mountain, 216 in a pickup, 124 in a bus.


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Once again, we find ourselves with a place to be and a time to be there. The importance of family and friends in the US wins again, and we are flying from Lima to Colorado so we can be at Aran’s best childhood friend’s wedding. Faced with the question of how to get to Trujillo (a city north of Lima, where we knew we could leave the bikes for our week in the US), we were quite sure that after visiting the ruins of Kuélap, the plan would be to bus back down the canyon we’d ridden through. We thought we’d get off at the crossroads, and ride the rest of the way to the coast, and then deal with a few hundred kilometers of the good ol’ Panamericana and be in Trujillo.

But, on our last night in Chacha (as locals affectionately call it), Aran was reading one of her favorite bike blogs written by a French couple with a similar touring style and pace to ours. She discovered that they had ventured south through the mountains and had had an excellent adventure. The next morning, we also discovered that the right bus at the right time back the way we’d come didn’t exist. So suddenly, we found ourselves planning for a week on dirt roads that would take us south through the mountains instead of backtracking on the pavement. We thought, if we ran out of time, we could hop in a bus or the back of someone’s truck later to make sure we arrived on the coast in time. The decision to ride the unpaved back roads was an unusual one for us, since our experiences with dirt roads so far have been often frustrating, but knowing the mountainscapes would be unforgettable, and feeling a deep trust in the reasonable gradients of Peruvian roads, we plunged southward.

A very, very good decision. The first day, getting a late start, we bumped along a mercifully hard-packed dirt road up the Utcabamba river canyon (which we had followed for several days into Chachapoyas) into the little town of Tingo, where we called it after only 38km thanks to the encouragement of an extremely friendly puppy dog. We took an early evening walk, ate a typically delightful Peruvian dinner, and went to bed, wondering how soon our dirt road would deteriorate into loose sand and large rocks.

But the next day wasn’t bad either. 50 more kms of incredible mountain-river scenery later, we rolled into the mountain town of Leymebamba, where we knew there was an awesome museum displaying some mummies found in an archeological dig in the area. We checked into an hospedaje (all $10 of it) in time to take our first mototaxi ride 4km up the road to the museum. It was one of the best laid-out and most impressive we can remember. We saw incredible examples of pre-Incan weaving and pottery, and learned about an Incan method of recording history that involves knotting different colored string together in different patterns. But of course, the highlight was the chamber full of 219 mummies, some still wrapped in their burial cloths, some not. The archeology scene in Peru is really exciting. We have never visited a place where there seems to be an active buzz about current findings. There are an enormous number of excavation projects happening that involve both teams of foreign historians and the work of locals.

The next morning, we got an early start because we had about 1500m of climbing to do in order to reach a pass at 3,680m of elevation. The hoped was to arrive with daylight enough to descend down the other side where we could camp at a lower, less chilly altitude. But it was not to be. First of all, the views were stunning and required that we stop to take many a photo on the way up. Also, while the dirt road continued to be supremely ride-able, it was still dirt, and therefore slower, and near the top work crews were repairing the surface, leaving loose, wet, and slow. So, when we reached the top it was after 5:00. Luckily, we discovered a seemingly abandoned, very sturdy concrete “house” (four walls and a roof, no more) just below the pass, and promptly moved in for the night. Our bikes and tent installed, we also took a walk up to the pass itself where we watched a spectacular sunset over the Cordillera Negra.

It was a rough night. While it would have been a LOT rougher with the tent outside, Aran tossed and turned with the first hints of a cold, and in the morning, neither of us felt very well rested. Still, we got ourselves together without too much dawdling, anxious to see the first rays of sun come over the spectacular mountains. Thick fog and a cold drizzle. That’s what the morning offered us. And we headed down the mountain, eager now for the warmth below if not the views above. Luckily, we only had to descend 20 minutes before we came out of the cloud and caught some of both. So excited, Aran decided a great idea would be to perch our bikes at the edge of the road to take a picture of them with the mountains behind. Tip: don’t do that. Not worth the risk that 10 horrible seconds later, a startlingly powerful gust of wind will have blown your bikes over the edge of the road, and the things will have rolled and tumbled down 150ft of sheer hillside, and collapsed in a mangled heap with bags and belongings strewn all over the damn place.

Yeah. That happened. And after sharing a terrified hug with thoughts that our tour might be over there and then, Andrew scrambled and slid down the cliff/hill to assess the damage, while Aran flagged down some incredibly kind and concerned Peruvians, who promised they’d be right back with help and rope. They were back soon with some locals who knew exactly how to handle mountainsides. In the meantime, Andrew had gathered bottles of bug spray and sunblock, our stove, sunglasses, one (not two) of our gps’s, clothes, food, etc, etc. The Peruvian super-dudes climbed down the mountainside in their sandals, slung bikes and bags over their backs, and had everything up on the roadside in under an hour. Almost crying with relief, we babbled our thank-yous in our Spanish that had also been severely damaged by the fall.

The bikes were not rideable, nor the bags attachable. Aran’s brake lever was broken, and Andrew’s cables had been stretched so hard that they had snapped a yoke piece clear off, and we couldn’t find it. The plastic mounts on a couple of our paniers had cracked or torn off completely. Luckily, a couple of Spaniards in a pick-up truck had stopped to marvel at the scene. When they saw the condition of the bikes, they offered us a ride down the mountain, which we gratefully accepted, sad though we were to be deprived of our hard-earned descent down to the river 2,600m below. When we reached the tiny town at the bottom, the Spaniards and their driver insisted that we continue to ride in the pick-up until Cajamarca, the next large-ish city, where there would be bike shops equipped with what we needed to repair the bikes. Reluctant to miss out on another 3 days of our adventure that had been going so well, we accepted again for lack of better options, and spent the rest of the day in the truck, regretting the speed with which we passed through the incredible mountains.

In Cajamarca, we collapsed, bewildered, into a tiny and overpriced hotel room, and decided that while the bikes and bags were reparable, it was a task for the next morning. We spent the next two days roaming the city for the parts we needed for temporary fixes. We found a brake lever for little-a and a yoke for big-A, visited a hardware store with a helpful, drill-equipped fella who helped us put holes in our panniers so we could re-attach their hooks, and spent lots of time in an internet cafe, ordering replacement parts (handlebars, decent levers, etc.) to be shipped to Colorado, where we’ll be soon. We got to know Cajamarca pretty well through our wanderings, and managed to enjoy our surroundings quite a lot.

Finally, off we went with our bikes and our spirits in better shape than we would have guessed in the hours that followed the spill. 3 days of biking later, and here we are, safe and sound in Trujillo. We did end up taking one more bus for the final 100k, along the coast, because compared to the incredible peace and beauty of the highlands, the obnoxious traffic and exhausting coastal wind of the PanAm was just too depressing. In 5 days, we fly to Colorado, where there will be friends to hug and replacement parts arriving in the mail. (thank you, Sara and Spencer!!) In the first days of October, we will return triumphant to Trujillo, and set off to ride some more Peruvian mountain roads.

Let’s go to Peru!

Kilometers this post: 613 biking, 707 busing, and 67 in pickup trucks.


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We have once again covered a lot of ground since our last post, once again through a variety of conveyances. First, we said goodbye to our lovely hosts in Tumbaco at the Casa de Ciclistas where we’d been waiting for our replacement air mattress for a week and a half, making it 3 weeks since we’d ridden our bikes. We then attempted to climb 1900m over a 4000m mountain pass to the east of Quito in order to drop down into the Amazon basin. Tried, but by the second day of steep cold climbing with intermittent rain, we decided to jump in a pickup and get a ride over the pass. On the other side, we rolled down a beautiful valley, camped on an enormous covered basketball/soccer court while it rained, climbed over another (much lower) pass, and were eventually rewarded with a view of the jungle that stretched out before us to the horizon, no more mountains in site. Our Tumbaco host Santiago had told us it would be like looking out over the ocean. And it was! Except for all the trees. For the next few days we rode in the hot, humid weather on the Troncal Amazonica, a recently paved thoroughfare that hugs the mountains and travels the length of the Ecuadorian amazon region.

We spent our second anniversary in Tena, the rafting capitol of Ecuador. Rather than getting our act together to book a rafting trip, we decided to do something different and went for, you guessed it, a nice relaxing bike ride (without bags) to see some little river towns along the Napo river. Our anniversary ramble yielded an oil well (one reason Ecuador is so prosperous), a monkey, a snake, some sweet insects, and some really big leaves. While we sat over dinner of pizza and beer discussing our next moves, we decided it would be time to leave Ecuador soon, as we’d been there over a month, and had seen a lot of it in the car with Aran’s parents. But rather than hop on a bus just yet, we continued on bike through Puyo and rode back up into the mountains via the beautiful Ruta de las Cascadas. After our long day’s climb in which we saw more waterfalls in one day than ever before, we arrived in the touristy but beautiful town of Baños nestled in a verdant valley, surrounded by impressive mountain peaks. Baños is also home to the crowded thermal baths it is named for. After a quick dip in the warm brown water with lots of screaming kiddos, we did get on a bus.

We rode the buses for two days straight to get to Loja, where the Panamerican highway turns west and heads toward the coast and Peru. But we decided to take the less traffic-y, less hot, more scenic route directly south to the border. Here, we took our last ride in Ecuador to the weird little village of Vilcabamba, where supposedly the life expectancy is 110. This “fact” has attracted a lot of new age hippie ex-pats to the town, giving the place a decidedly strange feel. We spent an afternoon on the town square watching the odd mix of blond, tie-dye clad gringos, Ecuatorian tourists, and locals making a living off of the aforementioned mill around, ordered hummus and spaghetti with pesto for dinner, and retired to our hostal. The section of road after Vilcabamba to the border is well known by bike tourists to be horribly muddy and steep. Knowing it would take us roughly 6 days to cover less than 200km, we took a pair of buses the whole way south to the border. We took the bikes off the bus in the rain, standing in a street that was nothing but 3 inches of mud – and while we would have loved to ogle the scenery by bike, we didn’t feel bad at all about our decision. The officials in the sleepy border town explained to us that it had rained relentlessly the 3 days prior, making the already usually sticky road a veritable mud pit. On the Peru side of town, we decided to spend the night in the sketchiest hotel in a while, saving our muddy ride to the city of San Ignacio for the next day. We knew it would be muddy, due to the three unusually rainy days, but did not realize that they are in the process of paving the road. This meant, again, more mud than usual. After a few hours slogging through the mud to make 10km, a truck driver picked us up and took us the other 35km to town, driving in one long power-skid that lasted approximately 2.5 hours, fishtailing all the way.

Since San Ignacio, we’ve stuck to biking. Some much better gravel/dirt road eventually gave way to pavement that took us down a river valley, and we found ourselves below 500m again, and in an area where the government has apparently created programs to teach and support rice farming. Neither of us had seen rice paddies before. Andrew, who likes above all things to cool his feet when it is hot, observes that they are very squishy. They also make for spectacularly green views. We took a dirt road “short-cut” (shorter in distance, if not time) that crossed the impressive Rio Marañon. We rode through some desert landscape with cactus-filled, dusty plateaus that reminded us of the southwest, and paused in the city of Bagua Grande for Andrew to have a touch of tummy trouble (quickly righted). Then, we biked up another absolutely gorges river valley along the Utcubamba to the colonial city of Chachapoyas. Here, we are paused to catch our breath. Yesterday, we visited the pre-Inca ruins of Kuélap, a remarkable structure in a spectacular location, well fortified and commanding views of mountains and valleys in all directions. These ruins knocked our socks off, and made us pretty eager for Machu Picchu. We’ve also taken care of some laundry, grocery shopping, internetting, and planning for for our next leg. As of yesterday, we were sure we’d take a bus back along the way we came to the crossroads south of the border, and then bike the rest of the way east toward the coast. As of today, when we found out the buses are totally inconvenient, we’re planning to ride over the mountains to Cajamarca traveling a long dirt road over some high passes.

We are thoroughly enjoying Peru. The cultural change from Ecuador to our tenth (and possibly our final) country was immediate and drastic. North of the border there is clearly more money. In some places, houses and stores look positively North American, and not just in the big cities. There is poverty, yes, but also a large middle class. Here in Peru the standard of living is much lower. There are many more stick and mud huts, fewer hotels and luxuries. Most meager stores sell only staples (eggs, beans, rice, water, cans of tuna, a few onions). No one here owns a car, but that’s understandable when gas is $5/gal and salaries are a fraction of those in the USA. In Ecuador gas goes for a criminal $1.50/gal, and diesel for less, so the roads are full of smoking hulks blowing dirty exhaust in bikers faces, while the Peruvian trucks are all new, shiny, well kept, and mostly Scandinavian or Japanese. Of course, outnumbering the trucks by far are the abundant little mototaxis, which seem to be how most people get around. But we are really feeling comfortable in the culture here, perhaps more than in Ecuador. Peruvians seem more interested in what we’re about, and we’ve been asked many more times if we like Peru, how long we’ve been here, what we’ve seen, etc. than we were asked about Ecuador. In fact, we’ve probably already talked to more Peruvians than Ecuadorians. So we’re looking forward to spending a good long time here on our way to Machu Picchu.