Monthly Archive for October, 2012

We take a deep breath and we get real high…

Kilometers since last post: 212 biking, 13.4 in a station wagon taxi, 291 in buses, and about 65 hiking (without bikes).

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The last time we spoke, we had just arrived in Caraz, the city at the northern end of the “Alley of Huaylas,” the road that runs down the valley on the west side of the Cordillera Blanca. The range is known for being the highest in the tropics with 50 peaks over 6,000m. They are gorgeous, rugged, and covered in glaciers. After spending a day visiting a colorful market in Carhuaz, we set out for the major city in the region, Huaraz. As we biked south and snowy peaks emerged like popcorn on the horizon to our left, we realized that bikes are not exactly the best way to see the Cordillera Blanca. So, once in Huaraz, we booked a trek with a great agency, Huascarán (name of the national park that covers the range, as well as the highest peak in the park,) that would take us up some valleys, near some glacier lakes, over a pass, through some meadows, and over to the other side of the cordillera. It’s the most famous hike in the park, called the Santa Cruz – Llanganuco trek.

Trekking with a company in Peru is definitely out of the ordinary for us. We’re fairly used to fending for ourselves. We always keep food on hand for camping, know how to set up our tent in a few minutes, and are very used to carrying everything we own. Hiking with Huascaran, it’s different. We packed all of our clothing and things we wouldn’t need during the day into a huge duffel bag, and took day packs with water, an extra layer, and rain gear. Our team then handled the heavy stuff, and we were free to walk the trail virtually unencumbered. Our team consisted of Roger, the guide, who led us up and down the trail and explained things we saw including plants, the river and its changes, mountains, and pretty much anything we wanted to know. Cristian was our cook, and prepared excellent, piping hot meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Oh, and usually a snack, including much appreciated hot drinks, when we got into camp, too. Our arriero or helper/burrow driver, Julian, was a good-natured, hard working local who broke down camp after we left for our walk, packed all our stuff onto the backs of the three burrows and one horse, drove them to the next campsite, and got it set up before we arrived. Pitched the tent for us! It was all quite deluxe, delicious, and while cold, made quite pleasant by the dry spaces and proper equipment that came with us. We were lucky to have a small group as well. Our only other fellow hikers were an awesome couple from Australia, Mike and Natalia, on a 6 month hiatus from doctoring. We got on like a house on fire!

The first and second day we hiked up the Santa Cruz river into a huge valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks. We then took a side trip up to the base camp for folks who climb Alpamayo, one of the most photogenic peaks in the area. From there, a short climb took us to a lake with a glacier sliding down into the far end of it. At that point we were at 4,200m (ft) and it was raining, with 2.5 hours to hike to the campsite. Cold. And our feet hurt. But when we arrived there was popcorn, hot cocoa, hot soup, hearty dinner, and dry tents. The next day we climbed over the pass at 4,750m (ft) and across the continental divide into the amazon watershed where it is markedly greener and moister. Also, it was snowing! The first (and maybe the only) snowfall of our trip. After the pass we walked through alpine meadows, and on day 4 reached a small town where we caught a bus back to Huaraz. We decided it had been a great way to spend money and time.

After a few days letting our sore calves recuperate and getting our clothes cleaned, we continued our ascent by bicycle. The rainy season has begun in earnest now, so every afternoon around 14:00 it clouds up, and at some point it unloads wetness. Huaraz is at 3,000m, so it’s already plenty cold and oxygen-poor, but from there we needed to go around the end of the park and climb over a pass at 4,600m (ft). This is hard work. We climbed for 3 days, stopping early to avoid the cold rain, and reached Conococha (4,100m) with some difficulty. Aran is more effected by the altitude than Andrew, but we were both plenty tired when we rolled up to by far the highest point we’ve biked. From there we called it and hopped on a bus over the pass to La Unión, and caught another bus to avoid a road rumored to be dangerous and rough dirt. They’ve paved the road, at least one lane wide, but it’s still a lot of up and down to Huánuco, at 2,000m (ft) the lowest we’ve been in a while. However, that put us at the bottom of yet another climb which we’ve been chugging up for the last three days. This makes 13 biking days in a row that have been all climbing, and before that it was flat on the horrible Panam highway. It’s time for something different, so we caught a bus for Cerro de Pasco today (4,400m, (ft) the highest city of it’s size in the world). Tomorrow we’ll go down to an altiplano and roll along nearly flat for a few days before descending to Huancayo, and another bus to Cuzco to meet Kieran, Aran’s brother, who’s coming to visit us and Machu Picchu.

Here’s a series of photos showing the afternoon clouds while we sat around at the toll booth.

So what’s it like biking through the mountains of Peru, you ask? Well, the roads themselves are better for biking than many we’ve seen, with a maximum grade of less than 10%, usually around 6 or 7% (that’s 60 or 70m of rise over each kilometer). The dirt roads can get pretty rocky, but nothing as bad as we saw in Ecuador. The drivers, however, are the worst of the whole trip. At least 95% of them are: 1) male, and 2) assholes. OK, maybe they’re not assholes in the rest of their lives. In fact, we’ve talked to some who are perfectly pleasant, even while driving. But as far as behavior on the roads goes, Peruvians behind the wheel are obnoxious maniacs who can’t help but honk the horn at anything that moves and MUST be first in every situation. The behaviors get worse for drivers of mototaxis, taxis, large straight trucks (tractor trailer drivers are generally the most courteous group of drivers we’ve encountered throughout Latin America (true, the worst are in Peru)), and max out in aggressiveness with local and rural bus drivers, and drivers of small 4-door Japanese pickup trucks. BUT, the traffic here is just considered a fact of life. While some passengers and folks by the roadside complain, no one seems to think that it could be any other way. The culture, too, is different than we’re used to. The people in the highlands are a little insular, and while some places are full of folks who say hello, others are not. Even with other Peruanos, there isn’t the same sense of respect that we assume in North America. When a crowded bus stops and people try to get off, people getting on are in just as big a hurry, and climb through and around the people getting off without “excuse me” or anything. We’re standing in a pharmacy, waiting to be served, and someone walks in and starts talking to the clerk who’s already helping someone else while we are clearly in line, and we never get a turn. It’s hard to get used to the fact that it’s not disrespectful here, people don’t mean to be rude, that’s just how the culture works. So, it’s different. It’s different everywhere you go, and that’s a pretty good reason to keep going.

However, we can’t do that indefinitely either. So, we’ve picked a date, and booked some plane tickets for the end of our bike tour! We’ll be in Lancaster from 16th of December until after Christmas, and then NYC for a while. Uncertain plans await, but we do have plane tickets to Bogotá on the 24th of February. We like the idea of returning there to find jobs (gulp) or something. We’ll see what happens, and so will you!

The website is back!

After a run in with some undesirable elements, the blog is back in action. Please check out the last post, Of culture shock, friends, and dirt roads, if you haven’t seen it. In other news, we just returned from four days trekking through the Cordillera Blanca, and will share beautiful snow-capped peaks in the next post. 2012-10-20


Of culture shock, friends, and dirt roads

Kilometers with bikes since last post: 272 biking
Kilometers withOUT bikes: about 14000 in a 4 planes, 1336 in 4 buses, and maybe a hundred in taxis.

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Don’t worry, we haven’t spent much of our long lapse biking. We’ll write this post in three parts: one about our trip from Trujillo to Colorado, one about our awesome stay in Lima, and one about our return to bike touring.

Part I: Well, we won’t dwell too much on this part, because this is, after all, a blog about our bike travels through Latin America, but we’ll say this much: Flying back to the US was initially indescribably overwhelming. Did we have the proverbial meltdown in the cereal isle? Yes we did. Denver, Colorado is just so sprawling and clean and fancy. Our two-night stay in the Crowne Plaza especially blew our minds. We slept in a king-sized bed with eight pillows and bedside lamps and our bathroom had hot water in the sink and a bathmat and a toilet seat. Plush. We slept so much. From the hotel, we moved to Aran’s cousin Mike’s and his wife Brigid’s beautiful house. Hanging out with friends and family was very good for our souls. We miss being around people who’ve known us a while. Aran’s friend Olivia was a beautiful, happy bride. She and Nick provided their friends and family with lots of fun things to do, including a tour of the construction of the next Mars satellite at Lockheed, where they both work. After the wedding, we took a short jaunt up to Ft. Collins to visit friends Sara and Spencer. We cooked and walked and laughed a lot. Good stuff.

Part II: Back in Lima, we definitely did not hurry away. Instead, we spent a terrific week with our friends Ana and Javi. How we came know these two is a marvel of bike touring. Way back in Colombia, we stumbled right into the home of Ana’s sister Laura in Barichara. One of those lucky moments out of which an excellent friendship is born. Only this time, three were, since Laura put us in touch with her sister Dea in Bogotá, whom we visited when we were there. And it so happened that their big sister Ana was visiting from Lima, Peru, so for several months we’ve had a standing invitation to her and her husband’s beautiful home. For a week we hung out visiting city parks and other sights, eating amazing food, planning a bit for the next leg of our trip, and feeling generally pretty lucky.

Part III: Here’s where we slip back into our adventure like a pair of comfy jeans. We took a night bus back to Trujillo, expecting to spend one day fixing up our bikes with some spare parts we’d brought back from the USA, and then to be on our way. However, upon arriving, we learned that just a week earlier, a 31-year-old woman from Belgium who was bike touring with her husband on their honeymoon was run over and killed by a truck driver on the Panamerican highway. Lucho asked us to participate in a bike demonstration through the streets of Trujillo, broadcasting the tragic story and raising awareness about bikers’ rights. We agreed, of course, empathizing an enormous, indeed an uncomfortable amount with the Belgian couple. A last visit to the market in Trujillo (one of our favorites so far) for supplies for the upcoming stretch on a remote road away from the coast, and we were on our way.

We grumbled and swore through 80km of the Peruvian Panam, and finally turned east for what we knew would be a tricky but beautiful several days of dirt road through mountains and canyons toward the Cordillera Blanca. It was all of these things, but with crappier road and more stunning views than we had imagined. Luckily, the loose rocks, gravel, washboard, and sand in the road gave us plenty of excuses to take breaks and ogle our surroundings. We spent the better part of five days along the Rio Santa, camping once next to a rice field, once by the river, and once next to a miners’ “campamento.” Our last night we made it to the town of Huallanca that had an hospedaje. There, we paid too much for a room with two saggy single beds where dogs barked all night outside our window. The next day we set off up the dirt road once more, not particularly well-rested.

While it was the most remote leg of our trip so far, we weren’t completely out of reach of civilization. The area was a fascinating combination of a vast expanse of natural beauty and the uses people make of such surroundings. As we wound our way along river after river, we passed from agricultural areas to scattered mines to huge hydropower projects. In the Cañon del Pato which we rode through on our last day, we were amazed to find that Duke Energy had succeeded in diverting the river through the mountain in order to power a generator at the base of the canyon. Andrew says this is not something he’s seen in the US. We’re not sure how much energy or what kind of resources they used for this enormous undertaking, but it seems that they now have a clean source of energy that will last as long as the river does, and probably powers most of the coast of Peru north of Lima. Riding the Cañon del Pato (Duck Canyon) was pretty neat. Again, the road was not ideal – one lane of rough dirt with the sheer mountain wall rising to our right and a sharp drop off to the river below on our right, but the views were breathtaking, and we got to ride through 35 tunnels carved into the mountain.

Can’t say we were sorry, though, when we finally reached the pavement in the mid-afternoon. Exhausted though we were, we decided to push on for 25km more to the small city of Caraz, where we knew we could find a comfortable bed and a badly needed hot shower. We found an AMAZING room (ok maybe it seems more amazing for all the roughing it we’ve been doing) in the friendly Hotel San Marco, and are taking the day off to rest our weary bones and take advantage of the delicious bakeries in town. We’ve been able to get on the internet and chat with our beautiful niece Emma and answer some emails. Yes, we love biking away from civilization. Also, returning to it. We are considering another hiatus in the form of a 4-day trek through the Cordillera Blanca before we head farther east toward Cusco. Stay tuned.