Tag Archive for 'jungle'

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.

You better Belize it

Two and a half weeks ago we flew back to Mexico, landing in Cancun international airport with all of the other tourists getting away from the cold white north for a few weeks. This means we exited the international terminal amid tens of English speaking Mexicans all hawking rides to somewhere for very un-Mexican prices. Maybe we could have maneuvered their scheming to a simple bus fare to Playa del Carmen, but instead we eventually found our way past the gate to the domestic arrivals and domestic bus terminal. Another (reasonably priced) bus to Tulum, and a taxi back to the Casa Amor del Sol, and we were reunited with our trusty steeds. After a little bike-grooming in the hotel room, we set off for Chetumal to meet Mark, who was flying in from Wisconsin a few days later. There aren’t a whole lot of pictures from our time biking in the Yucatan, because there isn’t much to see. Flat, straight road flanked by low jungle. Sun with occasional rain showers. We wild camped twice in some nice spots, and spent the third night in a mosquito filled room in Bacalar. One of the evenings in the bush, A picked up some brown stains on his hands that he couldn’t wash off. Little did we know that the stains were black poisonwood sap, and a few days later both of us broke out in a nasty itchy, burny rash which is just now clearing up. (This guy’s flickr gallery has info from wikipedia pasted in it) Won’t do that again.

We met up with Mark at the Water Taxi dock in Chetumal and hopped on a boat to the popular island of Caye Caulker (pronounced Key Caulker) where we hung around and ate Caribbean food and went SCUBA diving. Caye Caulker is a supposedly chill place, but there are so many people trying to make a dollar off of the tourists that it’s really difficult to feel relaxed there. Also, the prices are the same as the US, so we’ve spent a lot more money than usual in a week. The diving was amazing – we did 5 dives, including the great Blue Hole. Other divers we’d met in Mexico told us it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, but it is really quite incredible to go from a reef into a shear sinkhole in the ocean floor. 100 feet underwater, we saw enormous stalactites in the wall of the hole, as well as some reef sharks lurking earily beneath us. On another dive that day our divemaster speared an invasive lionfish which was then snatched up by a hungry barracuda. Lots of neat critters floating around out there. We stuck around on the island an extra day so that we could go snorkeling with “the fish whisperer,” and it was well worth it. Juni took us out on his hand built (without power tools) wooden sailboat to the Hol Chan marine reserve, and then we followed him and his school of fish around a very shallow coral reef. He’s figured out how to make squeaking sounds with his hands that the fish hear and come racing over to him and follow him around. A ray he knows lets him pick it up off the bottom and swims over tourists, repeatedly. A giant grouper (3ish feet long) swims around him and lets him hug it and stroke it’s underbelly — he’s got pictures of him playing with the same fish 25 years ago. He calls it spiritual snorkeling and really loves those fish. Lots of people offer snorkeling tours, but no one gets to pet the rays except the lucky few who go with Juni.

We bundled our bikes into a water taxi once again and headed for Belize City, where we only hung out long enough to find some groceries and a map. We biked away from the ocean and headed for the town of San Ignacio, where we knew we could find a guide to take us into the Achtun Tunichil Muknal cave, which is a site of ancient Mayan sacrifice. We reached the entrance to the cave after a 45 minute hike through the jungle. A river runs into and through the cave’s lower chambers, so we needed to swim into it and then hike a mile in ankle- to chest- deep water through beautiful rock formations before we climbed up into the dry chamber. There, we were required to wear socks so that the formations and the 1300-year-old pottery and human remains would not be damaged by shoes or oily feet. The experience of seeing the full skeleton of a young woman sacrifice, calcified and preserved at the back of the cave was one we will not forget.

From San Ignacio, we turned back toward the coast and rode the Hummingbird Highway, which was a spectacular road through hills, small Mayan villages, miles of citrus groves, and a national park surrounding the other Belizian Blue Hole, which is a cenote in the jungle. Our plan was to camp at a “lodge” some tourists had told us about nearby, but when we arrived, the snooty proprietor offered us nothing more than a couple of single beds in a dormitory for $34US per person. When we explained that was more than we could afford, he turned us and our biking, tenting selves away. Thinking we would need to quick set up a campsite in between some orange trees up the road, which would also have to provide us with dinner since we hadn’t bought groceries, we headed back toward the main road. As luck would have it, there we met Carlos, who had just finished guiding a backpacker through the jungle for the day, and invited us to stay at his house with his wife. The catch was we had to bike 8km back the way we’d come to his village. When we arrived, exhausted, it was dark, and we had to follow Carlos, with his borrowed bike up a very dark dirt road and then an even darker cow path to his thatched house on the hill. His wife, Melissa, offered us delicious chicken stew and handmade tortillas by candlelight (no electricity), and then Carlos took a wooden bed frame down from the rafters of his living room, where we were able to spread out our sleeping bag for the night. We drifted off, grateful for and amazed by Carlos and Melissa, who live in a dirt-floor thatched wood hut, harvest jungle trees for a living, cook delicious subsistence farmed food, and speak four languages (English, Spanish, Maya and Kek Chi (another Maya tongue)). The experience was a little disconcerting because it felt so different from the experiences we had in Mexico. Carlos was generous, but it was clear that he was expecting something from us. And while he is a trustworthy guy, the stories he told about the northern Hummingbird Highway were not ones to make us feel comfortable there.

The next morning we did finally visit and swim in the deliciously cool inland Blue Hole, and spotted some birds we wished we could identify before ending the day in the orange processing town of Pomona where we ate delicious beans and rice with beef and chicken from a friendly in-home eatery near our very nice hotel. Today we headed over to the coast, where we sit on the beach once again in the small Garifuna fishing village of Hopkins. We have been amazed by how many cultures call Belize home. There are the Mayans and the Garifuna, as well as sizable communities of Mennonites (called money-nites by our ATM guide due to their enterprising approach to farming the land), Chinese, Taiwanese, and refugees from Guatemala and Honduras. Sometimes this seems to result in bitterness or frustration between groups, but it also means that our five days in this tiny country, we’ve ridden through an incredible patchwork quilt of communities, customs, and languages. A couple more days and we’ll be off to Guatemala. We are looking forward to heading up into some more mountains, since the jungle inflicts all manner of itching. We’ve come into contact with everything from spiky and poisonous plants to midges, mosquitoes, bees, ticks, you name it. Our whole bodies itch. We know the hills in Guatemala will kill our legs, but at least our skin will get a break.

On a side note, you may have noticed that the right sidebar now has a little more detailed information on where we’ve been. I hope that I can get that linked to maps and stats, but progress on the internet is slow when bike touring.