Tag Archive for 'border crossings'

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.

Border crossings and lots of new pals

Kilometers this post: 541

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We’ve crossed three borders since last we posted, and have lots of stories and impressions to share. We spent our last days in Guatemala back down in banana-growing country, riding through the south-eastern corner at a lower, hotter altitude. During our last few days, we had the good fortune to run into several bike tourists. At the same time! Luis from Mexico City is taking a year to ride South (see his blog at vapalsur.com), and we hope to meet up with him again down the road, since we got along like peanut butter and bananas. Barbara and Achim from Germany arrived on the scene as we were hanging out with Luis, and we all rode together for a very little while. Chatting with these folks in the shade, though, inspired some ongoing musings about how many bike tourists there are around us at any given point, and how many different ways there are to do a trip like this. Some riders stay on dirt roads 100% of the time, some stick to pavement. Some ride only mountains, others only flats, and still others take a bus any time there’s a climb. There are those who ride over 100km every day, and those who average more like 40km, and everything in between. We may still be in the process of trying out different styles to find one that fits, or maybe our style is simply to change it up a lot. In any case, we’ve been through a lot of phases.

El Salvador was our HOT phase. We stayed along the coast road almost the whole way through, which meant lots of mangoes collected by the side of the road, ocean views and swims, and plenty of breaks in the shade to escape the 100 degree afternoons. So many people, (bikers, backpackers, locals, friends of all kinds) had told us to avoid El Salvador altogether, but we’re very glad we didn’t. The people we met were enthusiastic and friendly, and never shy to say exactly what they wanted to us. This made for some pretty fun interactions. One guy asked us how to report a crime in the US. Another told us a story about how he almost got a ticket for peeing against a building in the US but got off with a warning when he explained that he didn’t know because in El Salvador, cops don’t pay attention to that! A woman munching a delicious corn fritter-like thing broke off pieces and handed them to us when we asked what it was she was eating. When we were eating a (giant) watermelon in the shade, a man pulled over in his car and handed us a book that turned out to be about the philosophy of the gnostics and said it was “for our journey.” We left that one behind. But still, it was given with such kindness. Of course, some of the young dudes who felt they could say whatever they wanted to Aran grew extremely tiresome, but they were generally quickly forgotten.

Seven days of riding later we were at the Honduran border, which was the most hectic we’ve experienced, but we hit it early in the day, so we weren’t too tired to deal with the crowds, lines, money changers, folks who wanted to fill out our forms for us, etc. We then had our hottest and longest day yet, making our way along the Bay of Fonseca to Choluteca, where there is a terrific French-Canadian named Simon, who is a former bike tourist working for an NGO, and has opened his house to cyclists passing through. We overlapped at Simon’s house with Sarah and Geoff from England, who are great fun, and we spent an extra day resting in Choluteca, swapping notes and stories, cooking, patching tubes and planning our next leg. We headed out of Choluteca, ready and eager for Nicaragua, but needed to make one last stop at a store for some sun block. It was one of those lucky stops. While Aran was inside the store, Andrew struck up a conversation with a Honduran who was very curious about our bikes and our trip. We told him we were heading to the northern border crossing, and he told us he had a vacation home along our road, and explained exactly how to find his house. We had gotten a late start and it was a long climb, so when we arrived at Ramón’s house it was late enough to call it a day, and of course he was thrilled to invite us to camp! We spent an excellent evening walking around to look at the sunset, drinking some wine, and talking and talking until bedtime. It felt great to speak so much Spanish at once, when so many of our recent interactions had been a bit short and superficial. In the morning, after playing on his swingset, Ramón sent us on our way with a good breakfast and a recommendation for a bakery to try down the road.

If the Honduran border was overwhelming, the Nicaraguan border was the opposite. The border officials were relaxed and patient, and glad to have some people to talk to. There were no truckers, no lines of impatient people, and only one very helpful guy who took us to someone who could change our money at a reasonable rate. We are enjoying the hills of Nicaragua, as well as the approachable, relaxed culture. No one is working this week because of Semana Santa (holy week), which means tons of people are sitting on their porches or down by the rivers in large (often drunk) gatherings, so we get lots of loud, collective hellos. One of these groups, a family, yelled to us to come join them by the river. We did, of course. We swam with the kids, and the adults offered us a fermented corn drink that tasted a lot like salad dressing and burned a little. As we were getting back on our bikes, the police pulled up and piled out of a pickup truck with billy-clubs and submachine guns and told us we needed to be careful of people who wanted to rob us. They were far more intimidating than anyone else we’ve met so far. Don’t worry, friends and family, we are not cavalier. We are careful to read people’s faces and sometimes we do indeed move along quickly to avoid something uncomfortable. It is just that, those aren’t the fun stories, and they take up far less of our time. So we don’t dwell on them. We are now in the charming northern city of Estelí, where everything is closed because it is Easter. Tomorrow we’ll go a bit further north to a cloud forest called Miraflor with 200 kinds of orchid and more than 200 species of birds. Then we’ll return to the heat of the Pacific coast once again.

Roadkill highlights: