A long time coming...

0 degrees fahrenheit. No heat, no lights, solid block of drinking water, exploded beer, frozen ketchup and it's only 8pm. After all that, we still had each other and we still had our determination to realize our vision. Despite the circulating perceptions that this maniacal way of life would inevitably lead to a divorce, we are pleased to say that you were wrong! We are as happy as ever and every frozen bone was well worth it! After 4 years of living together in our 21ft RV, we managed to pay off our debts, Kirsten complete graduate school, Seth become a certified arborist, both work multiple jobs and manage to save up enough money to travel. So here we go. We hope that you can come along for the ride.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cusco to La Paz

After 4 days of Cusco, we´d had enough. Tangled amongst the masses of tourists, constantly targets for the sale of this or that, we ready to leave. Not even the sheets of rain falling early in the morning could keep us off our bikes. After another painfully long (and expensive) visit to the post office, we were headed out of town, our least favorite and most dangerous part of cycling in Peru. Dodging buses, kombis and moto-taxis in dry weather is a feat by itself...add thick fog and a steady rain and we were soon drenched and covered head to toe with slimy mud. We pedaled on though and soon found ourselves cruising smoothly away from town back into our favored rural country. We had one final climb before the much heralded altiplano of eastern Peru, where the mammoth climbs become a thing of the past. Paso La Raya was a long, slow slog, the grade just flat enough to convince our brains we weren´t climbing, but steep enough that our legs knew for sure we were. After what seemed like forever, we finally crested our 10th and final climb over 4000 meters in Peru. The downhill we always anticipate with such long climbs was painfully absent and we were instead faced with an endless ribbon of flatness laid out before us, the 3800+ meter altiplano. Few hills, good wind (sometimes with us, sometimes against us) and steady progress meant we would likely make our goal of Puno before the 2:00 Friday closing of the Bolivian Consulate, our chance to get our visa cheaper and without the hassle typical of South American border crossings. We pushed on clicking off 100+km the first two days, passing small friendly villages and many local cyclists traveling to and from their fields, pick axes and shovels slung over their shoulders. Often they were cute little old ladies in their wide, thick skirts peddling feverishly on their one speed cruisers, offering friendly well wishes as we casually came up alongside them, us wondering why we needed 27 gears when someone older than my grandmother (no offense Grandma!) only needs one.

Day 3 was our toughest push and as we searched for our ideal campsite outside the town-on-steroids pueblo of Juliaca, we came up empty. With 135km behind us and a stiff headwind grinding our already aching thighs to the bone, we opted to push the final 10km into town and find a comfy bed for the night. What chaos we rode into. Juliaca turned into one of the most frenzied and frightening city experiences we´ve yet known. Mototaxis, cyclotaxis and all manners of motorized traffic josteled and jived for their spot on the road, leaving the weary cycle tourist lost somewhere in the middle. With no map and dwindling daylight we fought our way to the center of town and after several attempts, finally found an acceptable room for the night.

We were off at the crack of dawn, determined to beat the traffic and make the final 40km into Puno in time for a fat breakfast. As it turned out, this stretch would prove to be one of the most frightening rides yet in South America. The road was without a shoulder, poorly paved and littered with bus and kombi traffic, all intent on breaking the land speed record for most overloaded vehicle. As they passed us, while passing eachother, we were constantly being pushed off the road, mere inches from the speeding hulks as they exerted their dominance, usually waiting until the split second before they passed us to announce their presence (duh...) with a deafening 10 second blast of their horn.
Puno, on the banks of the famed Lake Titicaca, proved to be a much more laidback town. We immediately sought out the Bolivian Consulate, no easy task in a town with no street signs! We found the non discript doorway though and as we stashed our bikes and prepared the small mountain of paperwork required to receive the visa, we were approached by a friendly American woman leaving the consulate who kindly informed us that they had no stickers available and that our mad dash of a ride from Cusco had been for nothing. Go figure. We settled in for a day and a half off and soon hooked up with Japhy, who we hadn´t seen since Huancayo and his friend Natalie. At our hostel the next day, Japhy introduced us to Ted, another cyclist they had met while wandering through town. What a character! Ted is from the Netherlands and is on his third tour through South America. Ted is also 70 and has logged over 300,000km worldwide since his 45th birthday! We were inspired and entertained by the many crazy tales he had to offer from his bike travels throughout the world, our hotel owner seemingly less than entertained as we all laughed hysterically as Ted acted out his adventures on the floor of the hotel lobby.

We left Puno at the crack of dawn again, facing the same madness of buses and overloaded kombis we enjoyed on the way into town. At least it was flat. As we cycled into the afternoon a car passed with curious license plates...those look familiar, I thought. A few minutes later another...Colorado!! Despite my waves and shouts and obvious enthusiasm, they kept on trucking. Though we missed the chance to chat with our fellow statespeople, we were filled with a momentary twinge of homesickness and an overwhelming longing for a Rio margarita that always comes with thoughts of home these days.

We made the border early the next day. We had opted for the more direct, flatter and decidely sketchier border crossing at Desaquadero. We were quickly stamped out of Peru, but the fun was just beginning. We crossed the bridge into Bolivia and entered immigration, expecting, and finding, the usual fat and shady looking men who held our entrance fate in their chubby little hands. As we began filling out the mountain of paperwork and handing over the equally mountainous stack of $20 US bills (touché, they make Americans jump through the same hoops we make them jump through upon entering the US) I overheard one of the other immigration officials announcing to someone on his phone that 2 Americans on bicycles would be passing through to La Paz. Likely not informing the welcome squad of our arrival, our senses were immediately hightened. After 45 minutes or so of entertaining the fat mans demands, we were finally stamped into Bolivia, no less than 5 times each, and allowed to proceed.

With just the miles to La Paz under our belt, Bolivia looks pretty much the same. The people are slightly more reserved, but we have mostly received an abundance of the smiles and waves we grew accustomed to in Peru. A short climb up Paso Lloco Lloco, our first Bolivian 4000 meter crossing, was our only challenge until we reached the outskirts of La Paz, a 20+km maze of sprawl and suburb. La Paz proper is at the bottom of a massive hill, from the top of which you can grasp exactly how big the city is. It is laid out before you in an almost incomprehensible mass of brick and concrete that seems to stretch on as far as you can see. As we bumped and ground down the poorly paved road amid a sea of cars screaming passed us, all we could think of was having to climb back out. It was nearly enough to stop us in our tracks. We pushed on though and found ourselves in the middle of absolute madness. With heavy bikes on steep cobblestone streets packed curb to curb with buses, we were fighting for survival, mere minnows in a sea of behmouth whales and man eating sharks. After what seemed like hours, we finally found a place to stay and settled down for some much needed rest.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Huancayo to Cusco

As we continued our descent or ascent (depending on the face of the mountains) towards Cusco and ultimately our departure from Peru, each stretch of road seemed intent on defining itself as our biggest challenge yet. The peaks seemed to get grander, the climbs longer and the roads rougher. Our ride to Ayacucho was no exception. As we headed out of the bustling city of Huancayo on a dreary, drizzling morning, we were flagged down by Epiphanio, a middle-aged Peruano. He invited us into his house, which was a humble, mud-brick walled adobe with a dirt floor and inadequate roofing. They (huge family and neighbors) offered larger than hoped bowls of Mondongo soup, which contained various internal organs of some unknown mammal. We were too afraid to find out what it was and casually stuck to the corn kernels and broth that accompanied the mystery organs. We shared stories and laughed off their only half-joking request to take their young 2-yr old daughter back to the states with us before hitting the road.

Quickly after, we met Michel and Lise, a Quebecois couple that have been traversing the continent for more than a year now. Onward and upward the climbing began and continued for 30 kilometers or so before we reached the top of the pass, where a sweet, long rolling downhill began. We could see the ribbons of the road laid out before us, the real life map of the exhilerating descent that awaited us. The road soon joined Rio Cachi, meandering by with its starkly, un-Peru like emerald grace.

A bit later (next day) we had finally cracked pass number three and began what we hoped would be another unforgettable cruise. Just past the top, we came across another pueblito, this the most colorful, decorated and artistic town we have yet encountered. Every house was electrified in oranges, greens, yellows or reds with a diverse array of marvelous murals depicting the life of the indigenous highland Peruanos. As we sat on the edge of town, admiring it as a whole on the mountainside, an entire school house of children screamed a rambunctious hello in unison from below, with outstretched arms in big waves.

On our last climb before the grungy city of Huancavelica, we were hit with an intense storm that shook the sky in vibrant pounds of thunder. At the mercy of the weather and in a painfully vulnerable spot as the lightning was electrifying the sky, we continued on under rain and hail until we reached the crest of the peak. We quickly bundled up in hats, mittens and layered shirts for the picturesque descent into the valley. Cold and wet, we opted for a hotel and hot shower before heading out the next morning for Chonta Pass.
As soon as we left Huancavelica, the road turned to dirt and was rough in parts, but the climb was gradual and we made decent progress. We quickly found ourselves isolated and surrounded by a dizzying landscape of huge craggy peaks in a myriad of colors. Large herds of alpacas and llamas appeared at every turn as we entered the high Andean breeding grounds. It seemed they out-numbered everything else in the landscape, creating a virtual forest of furry nomads as far as we could see. The road continued steadily upward and by mid-day we were riding at 14,000 ft, without feeling the effects. As another storm brewed, we found a magnificent camp among our fuzzy friends and rested peacefully over 15,000 feet.The following morning we began with the switchbacks that led us to 4853 meters, about 16,000 feet. We quickly took pictures, bundled up and spit out the coca leaves we had been munching on throughout the climb. The descent took an entire day, skipping our tires over protruding rocks and avoiding stubborn potholes. Our arrival on pavement was well-appreciated as we continued our final 140 kilometers to the city of Ayacucho. It turned out to be a very pleasant city, which we explored for two days, as we gave our legs a rest and our bellies a filling.

The following stretch was the most highly anticipated and approached with an unnerving curiosity, the road (if you can call it that) from Ayacucho to Abancay. We had heard stories galore about this stretch, its difficulties and tribulations. The road was dirt/rock for the 400 km and passed over 4 large mountian passes. Many cyclists bypass this section, opting for the 18 hour bus ride instead. Seeing as that sounded about as miserable as hell, we decided to hit tire to road and at least give it a go. We rode steady for 2 days, riding about 65, hard kilometers per day over extremely rocky, bone-crushing roads. It was indeed a test of our patience and endurance. It would take us multiple days to put it in the bag, days which we didn´t have the luxury of enjoying. Although we could have continued on, we were on a strict time schedule and flagged a bus for the remaining passes to get us quickly to Cusco.

Arriving in Cusco was like landing in another century or country for that matter. Gringos nearly out-number the native Peruanos and we stand out like a dollar sign was flashing on our foreheads. We quickly made plans to get to Machu Picchu as quickly and painlessly as possible. Opting for the less expensive route (although there are very few inexpensive ways to get there unless you want to forge documents and walk the railroad tracks for dozens of miles) we took a bus for 3.50 soles, just over $1 to the town of Urubamba, switched to a combi (minivan) for 30 cents to the town of Ollaytantambo to catch to the train with the hyper-inflated rates. The train, which is called PeruRail is actually owned by a Chilean company and conveniently for them is the only way to get to MP short of walking. We grudgingly dealt with the sky-high prices in Aguas Calientes, the town below MP, for a day and a half. We found a decently priced hotel and left it about 3:50 am for the hike to the ruins. We hiked up the hundreds of stairs in darkness, lit by our headlamp as birds were slowly awaking to the day and the mist and sweat fogged up our glasses on the 1 hour-15 minute climb. Amazingly, we were the first to arrive, just as the rain was beginning to fall. We found shelter, ate a little breakfast and felt relieved that we didn´t look like the remaining hikers that were arriving soaked to the bone. We were able to experience a little bit of solitude as we were the first to enter the ruins in the mysterious fog, before the hordes of foot traffic arrived in the following hours. We hiked up Wayna Picchu the overlooking mountain and caught a few brief glimpses of the ruins below as the fog would come and go (mostly come). We were hiking down by 10:30 as hundreds were still filing uphill to get their peek. We have arrived back in Cusco and will head south to Puno and cross the Bolivian border within the week. We are on the fast track schedule to arrive in Santiago, Chile by the last week of January.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Monumental Ride

Our latest adventure was monumental in a number of ways. First, we rode our longest single-day ride yet: 160km / 100 miles. Second, it was my (Kirsten) first ride over 14,000ft and finally, we have decided to move to Santiago, Chile for an English teaching job at Craighouse international school. Woo Hoo for all three!

We left the dusty, sand-fly ridden city of Huanuco, with our cycling friend Japhy, for the high mountains and central Peruvian altiplano. We climbed slowly and steadily over 100 kilometers, taking in the breathtaking scenery of the green hillsides and the rushing river that guided us up to where the air is thin and the alpacas roam free.
But by far, the best part of the trip was meeting the incredibly generous Peruanos that greeted us with smiles, curousity, questions and gifts galore. About 60km up the canyon, we met our first overwhelming welcome in the small town of Huariaca. Three cyclists, loaded down with gear is a sight not to be taken lightly in a small mtn town. The minute we stopped, we were surrounded by dozens of curious onlookers, old and young. Some were confident enough to ask a lot of questions, some were drunk enough to slur out some responses and others were just too shy to spit out a word, but their eyes remained transfixed on us and the seemingly-foreign machines we were riding. By the time we left, we had to find innovative ways to strap on the steak dinner, juice, toilet paper, shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant they offered to sustain our trip.

As the ominous clouds appeared over the horizon, we decided to hit rubber to road before the rain fell. We made it a few kilometers before we took shelter under the eave of a house on the side of the road. There, we met a number of neighbors and conversed with them at length while we waited out the rain. Amazingly, early the next morning after we had climbed 20km from our riverside campsite, we ran into Denise again, a woman that we had met during the rain rendezvous. She wanted us to wait a few minutes and came back with two heaping bags of bread that she had just baked. She was further up the canyon, selling her bread to the small towns that dot the roadside. She insisted that when we return, we stay with her at her house.

With gracious smiles, we grinded out some more climbing until we reached the pueblo, 30 de Agosto. During a water break, a few kids yelled out ¨hola gringos¨from their school courtyard. We returned with a ¨hola Peruanos¨which they thought was hilarious and pretty soon, dozens of children were filing up the hillside to get a closer look at us. Their teachers joined us too as we celebrated Japhy´s 13,000th km on the road. We took one great big picture together, shook eachother´s hands and shared our curiousities with one another. By the time we got to Cerro de Pasco (4333m/14,298ft) we were smitten with the incredible friendliness of the people we had met. We stopped to catch our breath and use a little internet. One of us hung out with the bikes, while the other two were connecting with the outer world. Every time we switched, the crowd grew bigger and so did the things in our arms. We met extremely generous adults that took it upon themselves to make us feel welcome and playful kids with curiousity and questions. It seemed that the adults were trying to out-do eachother with gifts. First, it was bread, soda, then fresh, hot apple juice, yogurt, candy, cake and crackers. It was absolutely amazing. They had fun taking pictures of us with their cell phones. One woman, I remember, being so cute had gold caps on her front teeth, but they were cut out in the shape of hearts!

By this time, we had hit the altiplano, the highland landscape that leveled out into a more or less flat, wind-swept, grassy plain. We continued to receive warm welcomes and friendly smiles as we traversed across the land. The fourth day brought us to the begining of our downhill to Huancayo. We rode steadily all day, clocking in 160km as the landscape changed all around us. By 5:oo, we rode into town, found a comfy bed, a huge $2 meal and crashed.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The High Life

Here are some photos of my most recent ride. Four days from Huaraz to Huánuco through some of the most desolate, lonely and yet breathtaking land I have encountered. The riding was difficult and exhausting but rewarded me with mountain vistas I have only dreamed about.

Mount Huascaran towers over Huaraz as I roll out of town. It was cloudy every day riding into town and for all the time I was in Huaraz and as a result this was the first good look I got at the highest peak in Peru as I rode off amid glorious sunny skies.

The approach to Huascaran National Park. If you look closely, to the left of the road, there are several small woven huts. They were consistently scattered throughout the valleys as I rode, the humble abodes of sheep and alpaca herders. Though their homes were modest, their landscape was not and I felt privileged to be passing through their homeland.

These were perhaps the most picturesque outhouses I have ever seen, however they seemed out of place as this was a barren road with no traffic and few people.

Puya raimondii. This unique plant is the largest of the bromeliads and is endemic to the Andes of Bolivia and Peru. They have flowers that reach upwards of 10 meters (33ft) and only flower at around 100-150 yrs of age. I came across a large group of them on my second day riding through Huascaran National Park.

My first nights campsite in the shadow of 5418 m (17,775ft) Nevado Huarapasca. I woke to frozen water bottles and a thick layer of frost on everything.
Me celebrating reaching the top of Huarapasca Pass at 4884 meters (16,023 ft). This is the highest I´ve ever been! It was frigid cold and I was racing against a vicious hail storm that caught up with me a ways down the road. The air was thin and forced me to stop every few hundred meters to rest before riding again.

Riding towards the base of Nevado Cajap. Every turn brought another extraordinary view of another unbelievable mountain. I got several views of this peak from all different angles as the road wound its´ way around to the backside.

I finally reached the turnoff for Postoruri Glacier, the only reason anyone travels this road. It was the first landmark on my map and the only way I knew where I was (or that I was making any progress). Beyond here, it was a day and a half before I saw another car. The only people I saw were solitary sheepherders that I would see high up on the mountainside spinning wool and watching their crew. Then their dogs would attack me.

Nevado Tuco reflects her beauty in a small alpine pond.

My second nights campsite overlooking Yanashallash Pass. It was a long night. At about 4700 meters (15,450ft), it was not an ideal spot for camping, but I arrived here late in the day under dark, ominous clouds that were showering me with large hailstones as I put up my tent. The altitude left me throwing up with a pounding headache and no sleep. The view kept me inspired though and it rivaled any other place I have been for its beauty and solitude.

From here it was another 2 days riding through less picturesque landscapes to Huánuco. The dogs were the most aggressive I have ever encountered, several grabbing hold of my panniers and pulling me off my bike (they got swift kicks to the head) and there was a hostility among some of the people I haven´t seen in Peru. I had trash thrown at me several times, a first for me, and often felt unwelcome passing through small rural villages as people would glare at me, eye my bike up and down and spout a growly ¨Gringo¨. The road into Huánuco was 60km of winding downhill on a dirt road that left me feeling as though I had spent the last several hours strapped to a jackhammer. I had a glorious reunion with Kirsten the next morning.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mountain Mania

With a heavy heart, I left our new friends at the Casa de Ciclistas and Kirsten behind, bound for Huaraz nestled deep within the mountains of the Cordillera Blanca. I rode off with Japhy, a Nepali-American that has been riding for 11 months from Los Angeles, CA. We had a short stint on the PanAmerican, battling the customary traffic and gruelling headwinds that made progress a significant struggle. The high point of this stretch was early on the second morning outside the small town of Choa when we encountered the Toyodas, a Japanese family that had been riding for 7 months from Ushuai, Argentina bound for Quito, Ecuador. Tsuyoshi and Midor, along with their 12 year old daughter Akane had bottomless smiles and their enthusiasm was truly inspiring. Soon after we were thrilled to leave the PanAm behind for good for a meticulously maintained private dirt road. We quickly found ourselves surrounded by desolate moonscapes of huge rocky peaks conspicuously lacking in vegetation. We followed the road past a small shanty town where, despite what we had been told, there was no way to cross the mighty Santa River to the enviable paved road visible on the other side. We were told we had to follow the road we were on for another 28km before we could cross, so on we went on one of the finer dirt roads either of us could remember riding. By the time we reached the bridge, we had passed most of the paved section and enjoyed a mere 8km to the small village of Chuquicara where the pavement ended abruptly in a pile of rocks that in other worlds would be considered just that, a pile of rocks. Here though, to our dismay, it is the main road and our path for the next 75km or so. As is so often the case here, the desire to put a road between point A and point B is overcome by the ability to adequately put it there and we were caught in the middle. No worries though because we were surrounded by a landscape that would give Ansel Adams the willies. Towering mountain vistas painted in palettes of pastels slashed deeply by the thundering chocolate brown snake of the Santa River offered a constant distraction and resulted in painfully slow progress as we stopped every ten minutes to snap photos and stare in awe at the magnificence surrounding us. Fine camping was in abundance and we found ourselves at home for the night behind a giant boulder alongside the river.

Day 3 was by far the most challenging. Large, loose boulders mixed with sand and gravel made riding an unstable venture at best, us trying our hardest to defy gravity and remain upright while barely inching along. A light afternoon drizzle thickened to saturate an already troubled road adding masses of mud to our already overloaded bikes. At one point, hours from anywhere, an ancient man appeared on the road, hefting an enormous sack on his shoulders. As I approached, it became clear he was blind. He told me he had been walking for three hours from a village far off a side road. Incredible. On a road that would be a strenuous walk for most well-sighted persons, this man was doing it blind, by himself with a huge load, a weathered stick his only guide. We assisted him with several difficult sections before leaving him to try and find a ride.
We soon found ourselves in coal mine country. Dozens of mines littered both sides of the river
and wound deep into the mountainside in spooky, pitch dark, claustrophobia inducing tunnels. We explored as far as we dared (not very) before moving on. On the far side of the river, the miners were just getting our of work for the day. A line of pitch black men wove down the trail as they wandered slowly to the river to wash themselves. We soon ran into Segundo, a miner from Trujillo, on the road hefting an enormous chunk of coal to who-knows-where. Despite the undeniable difficulties of his job and the sacrifices he made to work while leaving his family for extended periods of time, he was incredibly friendly and spoke freely of life in the mines. When I took his picture, he asked if he could see it. I showed him and he was shocked at how dirty he was. Theirs is a hard life.

After a night in Yuramarca surrounded by the curious peering eyes of local youngsters, we were thrilled to encounter a somewhat nicer version of our road. Up a steep set of switchbacks and we were in the grandiose Cañon del Pato. Steep rock walls gave way to a nauseatingly raucous Santa River 500 or so feet below. The road wound through a series of 35 tunnels that offered hair raising stretches through the pitch black, the occasional blaring of a horn announcing our impending death by crushing if we didn´t scoot through to the other end. We had a couple close calls.
Halfway through one of the tunnels we found a small opening that led to an elaborate ledge system that hugged the canyon wall and offered a close up look at exactly where you would end up and how far it would be should you fall. It was an incredible spot and would have offered spectacular camping had we been there at the end of a day. As it was, it was lunchtime so we munched and marveled before heading off for Caraz and much awaited pavement.
Caraz was a beautiful, bustling mountain town filled with elaborately dressed indigenous women selling huge bundles of flowers of a thousand colors. Supposedly, the town is flanked by enormous snow capped mountains but they remained hidden behind low banks of thick clouds. The next morning we rolled through Yungay, a small mountain village that was completely destroyed in an avalanche in 1970 that killed 25,000 people. Only 92 survived. We visited a somber memorial that included remnants of a bus that was crushed, a church and beautiful rose gardens remembering those who perished. It was a crowded site and we got the feeling that most people there had a personal connection to the disaster.

A few hours more hours riding from Yungay found us in our mountain destination of Huaraz. Another town flanked by huge mountains, it is a mecca for mountaineers and trekkers(gringos...), offering the full gamut of outdoor activities from climbing and trekking to rafting and canyoning. Once again, thanks to low clouds, I have yet to catch a glimpse of a single mountain.
I am here for a few days of much needed rest before I make the next 4 day ride to the town of Huánuco where I will meet back up with Kirsten. More on what that lucky woman is up to on the next post!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

La Casa de Ciclistas

We´re writing our rules as we go. Rule #1: If they´re not on a bike, don´t take their advice to heart.

We broke rule #1. Our new buddy, Ricardo informed us that it was going to rain in Cajamarca (our destination) for the next four days. On account of his advice, we detoured to the beach town of Pacasmayo for two days, then took a supposedly 4 hour bus ride, which took 7 ½ hours to the mountain city of Cajamarca. It turns out that, yes, it is the rainy season, but it only showers briefly (half hour at most) in the afternoons. The suckers we are. Regardless of how we actually arrived at 9,000+ ft, it turned out to be a beautiful, colonial hub with manicured plazas (real green grass), stone sculptures depicting indigenous life and a rich cultural history which intertwines native Cajamarcans, the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors. We filled our days by strolling the cobblestone sidewalks, indulging in delectable street food and marveling at the intricate stonework of the cathedrals and engaging in conversations with delightfully friendly Peruanos.

One afternoon, we rode out of town to Los Baños del Inca, the thermal hotsprings (we soaked) where the Incan leader, Atahualpa relaxed with his troops. At this location in 1532, Pizarro arrived with 160 men, horses and cannons. The story goes that Atahualpa was lured into the plaza, given a bible, which he subsequently threw on the ground, at which point the massacre of 7,000 indigenous ensued. Atahualpa was captured, sentenced to burning at the stake, but was rewarded with a lesser punishment of strangulation after he agreed to be baptized. The Spanish stole 18,000kg of gold and silver, now estimated to be worth more than $60 million.

Our next destination lay back on the coast, the grand city of Trujillo, where we were eager to receive our ballots to vote in the U.S. election. The descent from Cajamarca was picturesque, bumpy and dusty. To be more precise: 60+km of bone-jarring, decapitating, spine-crushing, palm-pounding, jaw-grinding, head-wind hell of a road. As hard as it is to believe, the 110+km of pavement wasn´t much better. We were blessed with convoys (up to 10 at a time) of petrol trucks and cement rigs swishing by us at break-neck speeds, spewing exhaust and dust into every crevice and orifice of our bodies. We could have passed as Peruanos by the time our 176km were up. Despite the less than stellar road conditions, the landscape was dynamite. Most of the road crept along Río Chilete, which sat in a wide valley, diverting water for lush rice paddies terraced by boulders and protected by make-shift T-shirt scarecrows hanging from tall poles. We grimaced and fought against the fierce head wind as we eeked out the last few kilometers of our 90km day. Yet, for us, we knew it wasn´t over yet. We had to safely pass through the infamous town of Paiján on the pan-american highway. It is widely known to be dangerous for cyclists as MANY have been robbed in the recent past. After a huge plate of fried fish, rice, salad, lentils and soup, we scoped out our options. We ended up hitching on a bus, whose attendant handled our bikes with a tender care rarely seen in S.A. We passed through Paiján without incident, arriving in Trujillo just in time to find a hotel before dusk set in.

Since it was late, we decided we would call Lucho to tell him we would arrive at the Casa de Ciclistas the following day. ¨We can hook up tonight,¨he told us. Himself, his wife, kids, a German, Spanish, and U.S. cyclist were going out for pizza and we got the invite. At this point, we had only heard stories about how Lucho and his house were legendary. Yet, we really had no idea what to expect. Twenty-five years ago, Lucho, an avid cyclist himself, started hosting touring cyclists in his home as they were passing through Perú. It has since grown into an immense network and hub of cyclists, with over 100 cyclists visiting each month. According to the guest registry, Seth and I are #s 1038 and 1039. There is a repair workshop downstairs, bedrooms for tired cyclists and bike paraphenelia galore. This is where IT is at. Two wheels bringing the heart of the world together. When we arrived, there were already 5 cyclists staying here. We make 7. Lucho helps cyclists order much needed parts, tunes up bikes, organizes races and rides to raise awareness in Trujillo and Perú about cycling. Books abound with hundreds of stories, pictures, suggestions and anecdotes left by previous cyclists. The most legendary being Heniz Stucke, who has been traveling every inch of the globe by bike for over 46 years. Whew! There´s enough inspirational content here to fill the Grand Canyon. On top of cycling mania, we have been humbled by Lucho´s family: his wife Areceli, kids...Angela and Lance (yes, after Armstrong) and dog, Luna. Areceli invited us to her house to teach us how to make empanadas from scratch and share their life and love with open arms. They are a truly beautiful family in every way. We feel so blessed and inspired to be in the company of so many wonderful beings. We´ve fallen into the trap, as others before us. When you arrive here, you imagine it will be a short stay, but soon find out the energy is too electric to leave.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Peruano Passion

Welcome to Perú. And the desert. We left Macará early Tuesday, attempting to beat the grueling midday heat of lowland South America. The border crossing was at the Rio Macará, 3km out of town. A quick pit stop to fill up our fuel bottle found us tangled amongst a line of 10-15 cars blocking one lane of traffic in front of the station. Sorry, they said, no gas until 7:15 when the military comes to turn the pumps on. It was 7, so we chatted with the guys for a few minutes until one of them motioned for our bottle, went to the pump that they just told us was off, and filled it up with 25 cents worth of gas. Worked for us and we pedaled off, leaving the rest of the folks waiting for the military. Ecuador immigration was manned by an official looking fellow in full military garb who stamped us out of Ecuador without a word. As he worked, we could see guys in the background in their underwear swimming across the river with 10 or so giant jugs in tow. Gas is $1.50/gallon in Ecuador and $5.00/gallon in Perú, so they smuggle it across the border. Illegal to be sure, but no one turned around to see it, so it wasn´t ¨really¨ happening. On the Peruvian side, we were greeted cheerfully by a young guy in jeans and a t-shirt, a sign of the laid-back friendliness of Perú to come. We filled out the requisite paperwork and returned it as he asked us where we were headed. To Lima, we replied…and then where? Uh, Chile. All by bike? He seemed unsure. Yes, all by bike, we said – it really isn´t that far. Apparently unconvinced that we would make it with the customary 90 day visa, he stamped our passports for an extra 2 months.

Scattered amongst the masses of cars waiting to cross on the Peruvian side was a small army of farm animals, all in various stages of confinement. Piles of chickens tied by their feet in groups of 6 or 8 squawked loudly, clearly aware of the fate that awaited them. Similarly captivated turkeys, goats and pigs lay loudly voicing their disapproval as well. The vibe was different right away. Every person we passed had a huge smile, wave or friendly hello to offer. If they missed us as we rode by, they would run behind us and shout until we turned to return their gesture. For the first time in weeks, we cruised relative flatness and enjoyed a pace we haven´t known since Canada. As we stopped to munch on some bananas and crackers, a jeep flew by with a friendly honk and large, toothy grins from both occupants. Before we knew it, they were back to chat and welcome us to Perú. They were excited about our trip and told us to keep an eye out for the pilgrims we would meet on the road making an arduous trek to the mountain town of Ayabaca for an annual festival in 3 days. They would be hard to miss.

The first wave appeared on the horizon 10 minutes down the road and we would be passing them for the next 2 days. They walked in small groups carrying a wide assortment of necessities, knick-knacks and musical instruments. Several were dragging enormous wooden crosses, one end draped over their shoulder, the other with a small wheel attached that they pulled behind them.

The majority carried comfortable looking shoes while limping along in sandals or flip-flops in some kind of ¨Jesus suffered, so so should I¨ kind of sacrifice. Many had been walking for 4 days or more with at least 3 more to go, a journey of hundreds of miles. Our pain paled in comparison and we wished we could have gone to see the amazing spectacle that was sure to unfold when they arrived in Ayabaca. About 25km north of Tambogrande, our final destination for the day, we entered mango country. Mango trees for as far as we could see in any direction. That the trees were heavily laden with not-yet-quite-ripe fruits was a true heartbreaker. I was ready to stop and set up camp for the month or so until they would be ready for harvest. Tambogrande arrived in no time and the best part of town ended up being the gorgeous welcome tower at the entrance to town. ¨Smile, you´re in Tambogrande!¨ We did.

It wasn´t much of a town, but had all the necessities, including internet where we watched the second round of presidential debates (way to go Obama!) . It was also where we were introduced to our new favorite Peruano food, picarones – small blobs of fried dough smothered in sweet molasses syrup. Certainly not the healthiest food on earth, but too tasty to pass up.
Thursday brought us our most enjoyable day of riding yet in Perú, after two blissful evening of camping, with the blessing of a pair of ancient Peruano cowboys unfazed by the presence of two gringos on bikes in the middle of their desert pasture. We were passing through the Sechura Desert, a wide open expanse of not much, along a lonely, desolate stretch of highway.

Wildlife was plentiful, my favorites being the Vermiliion Flycatchers, their stunning electric red glowing against the brown, sandy backdrop, the gray and black Sechuruan foxes and the enormous Tumbesian Tegu lizards that scampered across the highway with the speed and grace of a water snake. After hours of nothingness, we passed through the micro-village of Quepon. As we rode by, two gringos on the side of the road shouted hello and we stopped to say hi. They were Peace Corps volunteers, one had been there for 2 years, the other one month. Dan and Mark were very friendly and soon we were back in Dan´s house chatting it up about American politics, Peruano life and travel and swapping books. Dan even hooked us up with a sweet little Perú map and wrote out an entire sheet of suggested destinations in northern Perú. We bid farewell just as the brutal afternoon sun was beginning to rear its´ ugly head.

A few more hours of riding and passing through other small towns found us in Motupe, our stopping point for the day. As Kirsten checked out our hostal, I met and chatted with Walton, a Peruano sitting out front who told me he worked at the local cerveceria (brewery) and instantly my beer radar was on full alert. After telling him that I had spent the better part of the afternoon dreaming about a cold beer, we agreed to meet up later for a drink. On the way back from dinner, we picked up a couple bombers (large bottles) and found Walton in front of the hostal again with two of his buddies, Walton (#2) and Jorge, both fellow workers and part of a group of 8 guys who travel around the country together working at the various breweries. The two beers disappeared quickly as we passed the bottles around the circle. Two more bottles quickly became four, then six then, well…it was a long night! Our group doubled as the rest of the group arrived and introduced themselves. They were an intensely generous and friendly bunch that treated eachother like family and as we drank, we planned our rendezvous in Lima (where they all live) when we arrive in a few weeks. They argued over who was going to host us! At one point, Kirs asked what time it was, mentioning that her watch was broken and Walton (#1) disappeared for a bit and returned with his watch that he gave to us! We are looking forward to a fun party in Lima!
Our 8th straight day of riding since Loja landed us in Layambeque, a smaller town in the shadow of Chiclayo on the northern Peruvian coast. We polished off the final 65km before lunch and pulled in time for some much anticipated ceviche and a day off (today, Saturday) to recoup, eat good and restock before heading south on Sunday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Goodbye Ecuador, Hello Peru!

The day we pulled into Cuenca three weeks ago, my stomach started cramping. It was both a curse and a blessing. The curse being that I was about to battle a 2-week long bout with giardia, the blessing was that we had access to fine hotel rooms with cable TV and private bathrooms. Day after slow day crept by as we watched more television in 2 weeks than we had the previous five years combined! We thank the heavens that brought us the European Champions League and Hollywood blockbusters in English. As restlessness got a hold of both of us, Seth rode solo the 200km south to Loja, a grueling uphill climb with stunning mountain vistas. I, of course took the bus and met him there where we were anxiously awaiting a mound of goodies (books and sour patch kids) that Seth's mom had sent us. (Thank you Susan!) We hurried off to the post office to get our hands on the feast only to be told that only one of two packages had arrived. 'You're kidding right?' we mumble to ourselves. They were sent on the same day and the first package had been there for two weeks now.

Seth gave the lady all of his info as she typed in her computer, then announced 'no, there's nothing here, but if you go over to the other counter maybe they can help you.' So, we walked to the next counter, which was in the same building. The lady there asked for the same info and painstakingly pecked and re-pecked each key into her keyboard. She sorely needed typing lessons. 'No. There's nothing, but let me ask someone else.' A third employee came to help, his knowledge far surpassing the two previous ladies. Yes, he was convinced it was there. They asked for the name of the sender as the keyboard pecker, slammed each key in slow succession. S...A....N...D....E...R...S. 'Oh, here it is.' Then she flipped through 3 books that contained all of the received packages that were hand written one-by-one. Then she needed to re-write the tracking number into the computer. She proceeded to instruct us, 'Sign here. Pay $1 at the next counter and photocopy this form and two copies of your passport and then come back.' Questioninly, we did and then were told we needed to go to the next building over to pick up our package. We waited in customs for awhile, before the unfriendly man looked for our box, slashed it open, had us fill out yet more forms and then fork over $11. The Ecuadorian postal service has to be one of the most antiquated on earth!

We left Loja, anxious to get the blood pumping again and that it did. We had another 200km of mtns to tackle before reaching the Peruvian border. Along the way, we met plenty of friendly folks, including Felipe, a cyclist from Mexico and Fani and Elizabeth, our first Peruvian friends. They were so smitten with us, they were nearly jumping out of their skin when we agreed to let them take pictures of us with their cell phones. They were a hoot! The last Ecuadorian days were hard, but I was getting stronger with each passing day and our last memories of Ecuador will be of coasting downhill to the border crossing. We have made it to Peru (yeah!) and will offer all of our amazing 1st day experiences in the next edition.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

S+K 1, Andes 0

Greetings! It´s been awhile since we´ve updated so we´ll catch you up with where we´ve been, and where we are. After a couple of days in Latacunga, we´d had enough of city life and were freezing, so we headed south towards Baños, riding for the first time in Ecuador on the Pan American. After 2 months of enduring the painfully unpredictable back roads here, the Pan Am was a godsend. We cruised at a pace we haven´t known since Canada and soon found ourselves in the small indigenous community of Salasaca, a weaving village with immaculate dressed residents and where every women we saw was spinning wool as she walked down the street. As we passed through, we happened upon a house owned by a man named Rudy, a master weaver and an incredibly friendly man. After an hour of visiting and hearing about his family´s history with the craft, we bought a couple beautiful pieces from him and bid farewell to our new friend.

With the hills on our side, we had covered the 25 or so remaining kms to Baños by late afternoon. A few days soaking in hot springs and exploring the seemingless endless hillsides of orchards of all different flavors (including avocados!), and any thirst we had (or not) for the excessively touristy Ecuadorian experience was quenched and we headed east for Puyo, where we planned to spend the next couple of weeks volunteering at another WWOOFer farm. The ride was spectacular, with countless waterfalls cascading down either side of the road and the mighty Rio Pastaza pounding by a dizzying 500 feet below us.

Puyo gave way to Centro de Semillas, the ¨organic farm¨ we would be staying at and an experience that failed miserably at living up to our expectations. We left early after six long days, cursing our host, convinced that this was our last volunteer stint for awhile. Facing a 4-5 day ride on some of the worst roads we had yet encountered, we opted for another bus ride back to the highlands and the comfort of smooth pavement on the PanAm. We left Riobamba this past Saturday, facing our most daunting ride yet, but satisfied riding in the shadow of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at close to 19,000ft, and our first good look at an Ecuadorian volcano. The next three days proved to be the most difficult we have faced yet. Our destination was Cuenca, the third largest city in Ecuador and a mere 250 km to the south, but we soon realized we were in for a long ride as the road rose far and high into the horizon. Again, though, our straining legs were appeased by more spectacular views of the mountainside around us. We were surrounded by sprawling hillsides with a seemingly endless patchwork of crops barely clinging to the impossibly steep slopes. I never imagined there could be so many shades of greens and browns. Scattered throughout the fields were weathered indigenous Quichua women, hunched over backbreaking loads of everything from cornstalks to enormous bags of potatoes that made our fully loaded bikes seem paltry in comparison.

Two days of near constant climbing found us in the small mountain town of Zhud. As we sat filling our water bottles, one, two and then a third biker rolled up from the opposite direction...the first group of bikers we´ve seen in Ecuador. Greg, JB and Matt, a trio Frenchman, had been riding for 11 months and had been all over the world. We left amid a group of curious school children that had gathered to hear our shared tales of life on the road.

Another dizzying afternoon of climbing led us to the town of El Tombo, a slight 10km outside of Cañar, our final destination for the day. We were exhausted and hoping our day was nearly over, but we soon found ourselves embroiled in drama. As we rolled into town, me in the lead and Kirs following a handful of meters behind, a man on a motorcycle pulled out after me, cutting Kirs off. She swerved to avoid him and we continued through town, the moto-man keeping pace and swerving between us, eyeing us suspiciously. By the far edge of town, we decided we weren´t comfortable leaving the presence of others on the crowded downtown streets and pulled to the side of the road. The man was now even with me and as I tried to stop, his still moving bike sandwiched me and my bike to the curb and he crashed hard into the back of me. One look at him as I pulled away and it was clear he was raging drunk and he was looking for trouble. As he waved his hands in my face, mumbling unintelligably, I pulled out my mace and took aim. Only Kirsten and a strong gust of wind in my face kept him from getting a painful dose. Tense moments followed as a crowd gathered, but we finally convinced him he was getting nothing from us and we shooed him on his way. After a brief wait to collect our thoughts and calm our nerves, we continued on our way only to see him a ways up the road waiting and beckoning us to come. Determined not to let this fool alter our plans and keep us from the refreshing showers we had been dreaming of, we turned around and paid a visit to the local police station and soon found ourselves with our own personal police escort the rest of the way to Cañar. Take that moto man!

Another half day of riding, our first glorious stretch of sustained descent since Riobamba and we rolled into Cuenca. Ready to enjoy a well deserved rest and city-style gorge, Kirsten promptly succumbed to the stomach cramps she had been battling throughout the day, a suspected bout of food poisoning, stopping our celebration in its tracks and rendering her painfully bedridden. We are here until she bounces back, hopefully by Friday or Saturday.

Thanks for all the well wishes and hellos...we love to hear from all of you and miss you bunches.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

Monday, September 1, 2008

Happens ¨enough¨

We left our beloved San Clemente on Friday morning, sad to be leaving but thirsty for the adventure ahead. We headed due east, bound for Latacunga and the central highlands. We were quickly re-aquainted with Ecuador proper and its´associated trash and random roadside smells. If at one point we thought the roads here were good, we have come to find most of them marginal at best. As we began the climb back into the coastal Chindul range, the road wavered, from rough, rocky washboard to something resembling smooth. Kirs likened it to getting worked by one of those shakemaster weight loss systems.

We spent the night camped in a banana plantation and experienced up close the associated after hours flurry of insect and who-knows-what-else screeches and flutters throughout the night. More climbing on Saturday found us in the mountain town of ¨103¨, a bustling center of commerce and curious people. We made several stops for fruit and a machete, and everytime I turned around, there was Kirs holding my bike, surrounded by an ever-growing crowd of enthusiastic and very friendly men. They had fun hearing about where we had been and where we were going and followed us through town until we left. By midday Sunday we had reached our final destination of Quevedo where we caught a bus for the four hour ride (4-5 days by bike, every inch of it up) to Latacunga in the central highlands.

We left late morning expecting to arrive mid-afternoon but our hopes were dashed an hour or so into the ride. As we wound up the thin, windy road amid dense jungle and raging waterfalls, our progress was brought to a grinding halt as we came upon a grossly overloaded semi that had cut a corner too tight (it had no business on a road like this!) and buried its rear axle in the three foot deep canal running along the road with its oversized load tipping at a precarious angle, diesel fuel cascading down the steep road into a large crowd of gathering people (some of whom were smoking!) and its body fully blocking the road. The crowd quickly grew agitated as they all realized they weren´t getting where they were going anytime soon. A conversation with a man who made the trip, when asked if this happened often , told us it happened ¨enough¨. With the road shut down and no way to turn around, we were stuck. No cell phone service meant that someone had to travel the entire distance up or down to notify someone of the situation (we arrived soon after it happened), they had to come see, then travel all the way back to commandeer the appropriate machine for the job, which then moved at 4 miles an hour...well, you get the picture. After 4 or so long hours of sitting around, a tractor finally showed up and a tense heavy-machinery duel ensued as the earth mover proceeded to lift the rear half of the trailer with chains. Thirty minutes later it was back straight again, still occupying three-quarters of the road with its massive girth.

Our driver, clearly in a hurry to get home, made sure we were the first through, honking and pushing our way through the masses of people frantically running back to their vehicles. Though the road was hellishly steep and thin and windy, with nauseatingly sheer drops, our driver made it clear that we would make up for lost time. Blind corners were met, not with cautious decceleration, but a series of loud honks, reminding any potential drivers on the other side that we are bigger so get out of the way. As we peaked at 12,000´or so, the guard-rail less drops became even more dramatic, accentuated by the charred skeletons of cars and buses visible deep within the valleys and ravines. Our four hour turned eight hour extravanganza left us in Latacunga well after dark, exhausted, hungry and in need of a soft bed...which we found.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Taken by Gypsies

San Clemente is a town that welcomes you without saying a word. Its´permanent residents are warm and inviting, a trait that magnifies with each passing day that we spend here. The smiles become wider and conversations deeper as we become regulars at street stalls selling bread, fruit and seafood. Cordial greetings have become interjected with first name reception and handshakes are thrust forward, indicating we have moved beyond the company of strangers. It is small enough that it is easy to meet people, yet large enough to be home to a town cross-dresser, a few reknowned drunks and eccentric personalities.

On a recent evening, Seth met a couple that invited us to their home (or at least he thought so) the following day for lunch. We walked in the direction where Seth thought they lived at the designated hour (only half-understanding the quick-tongued directions the night before). As we strolled over cobblestone, Seth spotted them up ahead. ¨Jesús!¨he shouted. No response. ¨Jesús! Jesús!¨he tried a second and third time, shocked as this hadn´t grabbed their attention and they were only 20 feet ahead of us. (Red Flag 1) Kirsten asked, ¨Is that them?¨ ¨Sure,¨ he responded confidently. He threw out a whistle to which they immediately turned around and greeted us. We exchanged pleasantries, they shoved two bananas into our hands and led us back to their home.

As we strolled, Marie pronounced her age, 50! She gave us a look. The one that says ¨I´m all that and more!¨ She raised her eyebrows, broke into a crooked smile and waved her hand up and down the side of her body with the flick of a wrist. She could have been taking lessons from Vanna White. Kirsten commented, ¨Yes, you look good for 50.¨ She was short, with a slight protrusion of her belly, demonstrating the memory of birthing 5 children. She definitely wasn´t hot to trot but, heck, every woman deserves a compliment, especially when you are invited to her house for lunch.

Jesús, the husband, pulled open the ubiquitous barbed wire fence for us to pass through, leading us to their house on stilts, hovering three feet above the sandy yard, where mere seedlings were struggling to take root. They promptly gave us the exterior ¨tour¨, pointing out the coleus, aloe vera & piña (which was obviously a bromeliad) (Red Flag 2) none of which were over two feet in height. They invited us up the creaky wood stairs into the brick house, whose mortar was haphazardly applied to the seams. Our hosts offered us plastic chairs under the hammock in the front living room, a space no more than 8x10 feet. Our eyes quickly found their way sideways and took inventory of the round table donned with a navy table cloth. It housed herbs in porcelain bowls, mortar and pestle, an antiquated bust of Jesus among other knick knacks, clearly the tools of alternative healing.

Jesús, missing the top row of teeth, which rarely inhbitied a smile or conversation, asked us if we wanted to listen to music. ¨Sure,¨we respond. He fiddles with a few stations, then leaves it turned off to busy himself with other capacities of entertaining his guests. ¨Where are you staying?¨Marie inquires, her fuschia lipstick drawing Kirsten´s attention as she has clearly invaded her American perception of personal space. Kirsten backs up her face, with a look of suprise and responds casually, ¨Oh, just up on mainstreet.¨ ¨How much do you pay?¨she quizzed us. ¨Well, why don´t you two move in here? We´ll cook all of your meals for you. I´m a good cook. You must pay $20/day in food (NOT!) Stay here. Yes? What do you think of our proposition? Yes?¨ (RED FLAG 3) A completely perplexed, ¨I don´t know,¨ was all Kirsten could mutter. This was obviously not a spur of the moment proposal. They were courting us. Luckily, we could find refuge in our English with eachother and came up with something close to a ¨Hell, no.¨ The air in the room suddenly felt heavier and we were spared when the conversation turned to children (or lack thereof) and our travel plans in Ecuador.

Within five minutes of our arrival, Marie slapped 2 thick decks in Kirsten´s hands. She turned the frayed cards over and peered through the worn out pictures to reveal: tarot. Marie wanted to read Kirsten´s future, for a price, of course. Ten dollars for a reading, but only 2 for you. ¨Friends,¨she suggested. ¨We don´t have any money,¨Seth interjected. ¨Sí? Sí? Come. Sit. Let me read your cards.¨ Kirsten managed to dig out a pathetic 20 cents, which Marie took from her assuredly and without shame and sat down underneatth the hand-scrawled letters on the wall that read, ¨God is Love.¨ As a virgen of tarot, Kirsten had no idea what to expect and with that, expected to be pulled along with every turn of the cards. The reading progressed with half questions. You have brothers.? ¨Yes, ¨ she hesistantly offers. ¨He is very concerned about you. You two, pointing to us, are in love.?¨ ¨Yes,¨ we gingerly respond. ¨He (Seth) looks after you, protects you.¨ She shuffles, Kirsten cuts the deck one, two, three times. Flip. ¨You will have a child in four years, a girl. Your father is worried about you, You are smart, strong, private person. You must work hard to make money. Be careful. Overall, good life.¨ Whew! We were relieved. Seth declined his offer politely. As we were ushered outside for the ¨picnic¨Seth pointed out the large calendar displaying the bare breasts of Augusts´finest, prominently hanging on the wall next to shrine upon shrine of gaudy christian knick knacks.

As the two hosts rambled in barely coherent Spanish, Jesús set about preparing a massive bowl of fish, he claimed were fresh, but we were quickly concluding that not all (or any) of what they said to us could be trusted. (Red Flag 4) Jesús, working over two boards, propped up by four vertical bamboo trunks, rinsed fish on the makeshift counter, alternatively telling us extravagant stories and sticking his nose into the belly of the fish to smell whether it could be salvageable for guests. He proceeded to tell us that he had caught the 8 inch fish, by spearfishing in the surf, though the creatures had no visible signs of pucture wounds. One type he told us was a pirrahna. Seth called him on it, insistent. He wasn´t going to be taken for a willing fool. Jesús backed down, like a dog with his tail between his legs and admitted his trickery as he threw the now empty plastic bag over the fence nonchalantly, where a pile of trash was accumulating. He had travelled all over the world, every country Seth could name. The men across the street: military, murderers. We cast sideways glances at each other, not sure what we´ve gotten ourselves into. They´re gypsies for sure. We asked ourselves if we would get out alive, and if so, when?

The shortage of propane in Ecuador, left Marie and Jesús emptyhanded. They constructed a small fire in a pit, put on a pot of water, threw in potatoes, whole fish and peeled bananas-all raw, all together. If that wasn´t enough to get our appetites fired up, Marie rigged up her own little grill and skillet in which she plopped a large, softball size chunk of lard. A sight that made our stomachs protest the upcoming feast.

As they fried and boiled, Seth asked curiously, ¨What is that hanging on the fence?¨ indicating the pod-like, semi-transparent object dangling by fishing line. ¨A woman´s heart,¨Jesús responded. Sure that we were misunderstanding their Spanish, ¨A woman´s heart?¨we ask in utter disbelief. ¨Yeah, she was murdered. We found it walking along the road…beach.¨ ¨By whom?¨we ask. ¨Who knows,¨he shrugs. We should point out here that though it resembled some internal organ from some kind of small animal-it was most definitely NOT a human heart! (Red Flag Number…by this time, we´ve heard so much BS that it´s not worth counting)

They chatted up about our astrological signs. Our certain compatibility-taurus and pisces, while ending each sentence with ¨¿me entiendes? ¿Sí o no?¨ The food was marginal, swallowable at best. Fried bananas with fish flippers and scales attached. Mmm. Makes you want to cry out for seconds. We excused ourselves by declaring that we had a party to attend (our half-truth), but not before Jesús gave us a rock, a memento to remember them by (not like we needed that!) and asking for our fake U.S. address. Perhaps, they were just a couple looking for a little compay, or more likely, we contend, a pair out to make a buck off of us. We left them disappointed, less the 20 cents worth of tarot.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Beach Bums...We could get used to this!

If we learned anything from our ride in Maine and Canada, it´s that coastline doesn´t necessarily equate to 0 elevation gain. In more likelihood, the coast is hilly and Ecuador does not stray from that generalization. The breezes blow strong enough near the ocean to impede adequate headway, but it is a welcome gift of nature as our wool t-shirts pool with sweat and we begin dripping from our nose, eyebrows and even elbows. The wind rushed onto our damp skin and it is the only relief from the heat. Fortunately, the sky is mostly overcast, protecting our, (or Kirsten´s) white, northerly skin from the intense equatorial rays.
A late start, albeit due to a scrumptious, home (for the time-being)-cooked breakfast and some watching of the Olympic opening ceremonies left us riding in the heat of the day from Pedernales. The worn out pavement, which exposed battered rocks below contributed to higher rolling resistance on our tires and we felt the day getting away from us as we climbed hill after sweaty hill. A well-intentioned stop at a roadside stand left me, Kirsten, with a sour taste in my mouth. As we were empty-handed on the banana front, we plotted a pit stop at the first sight of the delectable treats. The owner of the thatched roof stall was in his 40s, his shirtless frame showing off his bigger-than-beer-gut. As I took a moment to hop off my bike to inspect the varieties he had available (as there´s more than one) my eyes went to the ripe plantains hanging in a large, 2ft long bunch. ¨No¨ he shouted. ¨The guineos are over here.¨ Was he thinking that a gringa couldn´t possibly want anything other than a ´gringa banana´? The ones, that are almost exclusively the only ones sold in the states. ¨These ones¨he insists, now speaking to me as if I were a child. I couldn´t possibly know what to do with the others, eat them raw? I settled on my choice, four of each. The younger boy assists in pulling them from the bunches. ¨How much?¨I ask. ¨Fifty,¨the boy responds. ¨Fifty?¨I counter questioningly, aknowledging the fact that I know it´s the inflated gringo price. ¨Cents,¨the old man chimes in. ¨Well no s***t sherlock...centavos, ¨ I thought as I walked away deflated. I wanted to get as far away from this man with the sterotypical ¨Americans are yellow-banana-eating morons who can´t understand spanish, so why don´t you leave anyway sort of attitude.¨

The hours continued to creep up on us as did the hills and we were forced to stop in Jama, a seemingly run-down sprawl of a town. On the third attempt to land a bed for the night, we entered Rosa Azul, a gated two-story, concrete house with cheesy mural paintings on the plaster. After repeated knocks with no answer, we discussed our options and turned to leave when we noticed the scraggily old man sound asleep in the hammock. It took multiple shouts to arouse him from his siesta. He rubbed the scratchy face he had failed to shave, scooted into his sandals and jumped onto his rickety cruiser bike with a second wooden saddle on the top tube. ¨Off to find the lady¨he told us. Greta returned, sporting her shower cap. Her recently dyed hair crept from under the pink plastic and the skin near her ears was dyed a rusty black. Sure, she had room. Yes, we´ll take one.

40kms south gives rise to the Cancún at spring break crowd in Canoa. We sang the Bob Marley beats to ourselves, which were pouring out of the speakers at booths selling tacky jewelry. We sat down to eat pescado frito and encebollado, a brothy soup with chunks of fish, delicious yucca, onions and herbs, served with banana chips. It didn´t take long to decide that we would rather spend the night with Ecuadorians, rather than foreigners, so we buggered out of that town in a hurry. As we rolled into San Vicente, the coastline dominated the view, the city of Bahía de Caráquez looming across the bay. As S.V. was a tad drab and uninteresting, except for a stunning mosaic on the side of a church, we headed straight for the ferry that would shuttle us across the bay. We approached with visions of the Princess of Acadia, the grand ship we crossed the Bay of Fundy in, but when we arrived, it was a somewhat decrepit-looking vessel, with room for 20 people and some light cargo on the bow (2 heavily-laden bikes?). As our turn to load came around, we approached cautiously, fully aware of how fast our cargo would drop, unrecoverable, to the bottom of the harbor. I loaded mine first, and as Seth waited, hoping he could catch the next boat, with a wide open bow, the boatman waved him on, despite his skepticism about the lack of room (2 bikes on already). He seemed confident though, so Seth gingerly (or not) lifted his bike carefully across the void that was the open ocean onto the rocking and rolling deck, sure that his bike and himself would soon be sinking to the bottom. He insists that he was NOT going to let go! He shoved his bike on the deck with vague confidence that it would stay. We were comforted little when the boatman loosely looped a rope around the frame. As we pulled away from the dock, the lurch of the boat sent his bike reeling, the front wheel bucking wildly up off the deck and hanging precariously over the edge of the boat. He somehow managed to stay in his seat and watched as the man left his bike to the mercy of the waves and headed to the back, on the way, giving the driver a wink and sly smile, a clear suggestion at the hilarity of it all and the hysterics they would be in when the bike got launched into the depths of the ocean. It was a tense ride, to say the least. Fortunately, it was short and ourselves and the bikes were on dry land in no time, the driver and his buddy having a good laugh at making the gringos nervous as we rolled (or pushed) our bikes up the ramp.

Bahía proved to be a long night. After a relaxing evening at a cute, Australian-run hostal, we were bombarded by drunken enthusiasm, our bedroom window just a hundred feet from a raging all-nighter, complete with wall thumping techno music and even a loud (very loud) fireworks display at 3am. They were just turning their music off as we were dragging our weary, fatigued heads from bed and 6:30am. We left early, wanting to ride far from the town that never sleeps. Rolling away, we stopped to ask the cabbie for directions out of town as he was polishing off his fourth beer (perhaps he was at the neighbors last night, or maybe his daily routine?). He stumbled to his feet, unable to disguise his slobbering drunkeness. After listening to a few, short words of his grovelling, we thanked him kindly and continued on. We soon passed the first group of serious cyclists we have seen yet in Ecuador. They were congregating at the park to train for an upcoming road competition. They waved enthusiastically, so we stopped to say hi and get some more intelligible directions. The man we met had actually been to Colorado, as he had family in Grand Junction-small world indeed.

As we left the throes of the city, we passed through the most wretched, nauseating stretch of road yet. It took all of our strength to contain our breakfast and as we wondered what could possibly smell so rank, we passed the local dump, strategically placed uphill from town-brilliant. The road was hellishly steep, the kind of steep that stalls out trucks. I had to traverse across the road, back and forth, because it was too steep to simply go ¨up¨. Two hours into our ride, we had only made it a handful of kms, but we were fully and completely drenched in sweat. The rest of the first half of the ride would continue to be tough, sustained uphill battles. Though the landscape through this stretch was pretty trashy, lots of garbage and stinks, it was super friendly, with lots of musical horn toots, waves and one couple pulling over their car to say hi, offer their encouragement and let us know about the other times that they had passed us. The second half of the morning was a breeze, smooth downhills and fast straightaways. We rolled into San Clemente early in the afternoon. We were to pass through, but decided to stay over ceviche and fried fish. We were right on the beach, huge waves amid a small, cozy town of fisherman and Ecuadorians enjoying the beach for the weekend. We swam, walked on the beach, hunted for seashells, read a lot and cooked a delectable meal of rice, veggies, pineapple and fried bananas.

As we were cooking, in a beach-side thatched hut, we awoke its´owner from his ¨siesta¨ on a nearby bench. There was an inconspicuous, nearly empty bottle of local firewater made from distilled sugarcane on the sand, hinting at the cause of his ¨drowsiness ¨. As he roused from his stooper, we feared we had picked a bad spot, as we would now be subject to the slobber and stumbled speech of yet another enibriated Ecuadorian. To our pleasant suprise, Eugene, in all his drunken glory, was a hoot and we had a blast listening to him brag about knowing Denver, Colorado (where they make money-we finally realize he means The Mint), his lore and singing of The Rolling Stones and ¨The Boss¨. Fortunatley, he dropped the remaining bottle in the sand before polishing it off. Before he left, other men congregated here, intent on getting in some conversation with us. We chatted about local life in San Clemente, fishing and local archaeological sights. We had a blast and laughed a lot, despite our faltering spanish at such a late hour and our attempt at discerning the slurred spanish of our new compañeros.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Thursday, August 7, 2008


Welcome to El Carmen, a town uniquely Ecuadorian because it isn´t mentioned in the lonely planet. Kirsten´s bum knee had left us here for another day, another day to explore, meet and most importantly, eat! After two days here, we continued to be, I believe, the only gringos in town. It had a rough and tough look when we first rode through, but it quickly grew to our favorite, so far, Ecuadorian town. The people were friendly, the food delicious and cheap, and we could find just about anything (if only we had room on our bikes to liberate one of those poor chickens!). Stall after stall sold the same thing, whether it was fresh-squeezed juice or children´s underwear or a still squirming live catfish. It can be argued that Ecuador still lags behind in public infrastructure, indeed it does, but that doesn´t mean it doesn´t take priority in staying connected. Nearly everyone has a cellphone, even in the most remote regions where U.S. infrastructure would more than likely be insufficient (e.g. our old house in Boulder). Internet rooms (not cafes per se) are as plentiful as the mosquitoes down here, though it is frequently an attempt at a rip off destination. ¨You started at 2:00.¨ they say ¨No, it was 2:30...¨ we´d respond, followed by a deep, exhaustive exhale, resignation and finally, the ¨correct¨ change given in nickels and pennies...uggh. It puts our bargaining skills in spanish to the ultimate test.

We left town the next morning as dawn was breaking (or was that a window across the way...?), long after the first rooster´s crow (the one that woke us up), just as the city was coming to life. There was already a line 50 people deep in front of the bank, and people were already staking out their spot, propane tanks in tow, for the 12 or so hour wait for the truck to arrive. We headed west, stopping for fresh bread and pastries to energize us for the 90+km trek through Las Montañas de Chindu...all that separated us from the Pacific Ocean and the coastal town of Pedernales. As we turned off the main road, passing through yet another construction site, all eyes of the workers were on us, er, Kirsten, their tongues hanging out, drooling and whistling in their crude, utterly obnoxious, yet quintessentially machismo Ecuadorian man sort of way, me resisting all urges to pull my bike off the road and deck them all. I much prefer the shout ¨You´re a lucky man to be traveling with such a beautiful woman¨, acknowledging Kirsten as the beautiful woman she is and not just nice boobs and a butt.

The road was blissfully traffic free and we rode side by side past banana plantation after banana plantation (the banana you might be eating right now probably came from just this region), a virtual sea of giant green sails flapping in the wind. The banana tree is not a particularly attractive plant...many of the human-sized leaves dead or browning at the edges like the sickly dracaenas we tried to nurse back to health in college. As in most poor, rural areas, ingenuity prevails here where money or resources lag behind. Bamboo is plentiful, growing in huge, disproportianately tall groves, and is used for just about everything from houses and furniture to the ladders they use to climb each individual banana tree to cover the clusters in plastic (my heart sinks as I try to imagine why they need to do this...use your Monsanto delusioned imagination).

Though we had been told that the ride was pretty flat and all downhill to Pedernales, we were once again reminded of the age old cycling adage...never trust the advice of a car driving local! Mere hills in a car become nearly impassable mammoths of mountains on a bike, and as we continued to climb up, and up...and up, the road disintegrated from our lusciously well-paved expressway, to a slow, slogging, rut-filled pile of rocks, stretching our patience and indeed our already aching calf muscles to the near breaking point. Will power prevailed, however, coaxed on by the constant honks, waves and shouts of encouragement from the heavily overloaded-with-men pickups that slogged past, barely outpacing us. As we rode, we tried to imagine what the average Ecuadorian thinks of a couple of gringos cycling by on heavily laden bikes and we came up with 3 generalities...Indifference, some people don´t even look up from what they are doing when we pass by, Curiosity, we get some weird looks!, and Enthusiasm. Obviously, we prefer interacting with the latter and their gestures ranging from the above mentioned waves, fist pumping and pleasant musical beeps of the horn to genuine conversations with people that get a sparkle in their eye and large grins of excitement when they hear of our travels.

Without a bike computer or kilometer markers, we could only guess how far our uphill slogging had gotten us with little to distract us other than the familiar sounds of machete whacks, bird calls and growling, barking dogs, the latter of which we have learned to defend ourselves from by arming our bikes with long, pointed dog whipping sticks for the handful that are well-fed enough to chase us, nip at our heels and panniers and bare their gnashing teeth during their rabid display of incessant barking.

We had decided that making the coast was a must, as camping thus far has been a lesson in sketchiness and anyway, any potential camping spots (the rare of the rare flat areas) are well guarded by layer upon layer of the ubiquitous barbed wire, unbroken and unforgiving.
So we pushed on, sure that our much awaited ocean vista lay just around the next curve, just over the crest of the next hill. As our energy reserves teetered on E, we wound our way up the longest climb of the day, finding at the top, not our precious vista, but a kind woman making pure, fresh-squeezed mandarin juice. We stopped for a quaff and tentatively asked how many kms to Pedernales, sure she was going to confirm our fears that we were still hours away based on the endless layers of mountains that still panned out in front of us. Sure enough, to our delight, she informed us that we were less than an hours ride away, and it was almost all downhill! We hopped on our bikes, with renewed energy and enthusiasm (our bodies, caked in dirt, just dying for a swim) and rolled into town 40 minutes later, amid a sea of dust and coconut palms, thatched beach huts and most importantly...the Pacific! We quickly found ourselves a cozy, cheap place to stay, stashed our bikes and headed out for a swim in the bath-like ocean and gorged on fresh ceviche, corviche, corvina, ice cold brews and of course, bananas.

Monday, August 4, 2008


In Mindo, we were still trying to work out the imperfections in our frying of bananas and potatoes, staples in this part of the world. The hotel had some cabañas (thatched huts), an outdoor oven and hammocks outside, each covered in overgrown vines and unique flowers. Each time we brought the stove outside, they insisted that we cook in their kitchen. The owner made us fresh-squeezed lemonade, as we batted away the dogs, cats and chickens that congregated around us each time we cooked a meal.

After relaxing a bit, reading a lot and getting a vacation from our vacation, we headed for a larger town, in fact, as it turns out, a disgusting, dirty, over-populated metropolis. There were two routes to get there, yet only one that actually qualifies as a road. We took the one that didn´t. An hour into our dissection of the mountainous landscape, Luis Mendoza stopped with a hearty smile. We loaded our bikes into the back of his truck and happily jumped into his cab to de-sweat from the heat and talk with this man with a hefty belly and even heftier laugh. Luis was an awesome travelling companion. He´s 61, married, though he called her his woman, has 8 grandchildren, doesn´t smoke and loves to dance. Everytime he said something funny to us, he would do one of either two things. Stare directly at us, not the road mind you, and wear this large grin from ear to ear and puff his eyebrows up and down, moving his cap on his bald head inches at a time. Or, laugh so incredibly loud, raise his right hand up in the air and then slam it down onto Kirsten´s left leg to emphasize the character of the conversation. He was a riot, very genuine and friendly. He dropped us off a good distance from where we started, which turned out to be a good thing, because we had a long way to go on the dirt and rocks that almost qualified as a road.

We passed a number of rivers and small villages that afternoon and as luck would have it, we descended upon Sol Y Agua. The sign seemed to imply that it had cabañas to sleep in and perhaps we could pitch a tent there. It was definitely not a sleeping locale and it took us the two days that we spent there to actually figure the place out. It was a gated piece of land, with a small soccer field, cabañas with restaurant tables and a kitchen along a magnificent river. We pitched the tent, as Graciela, her husband and 2-yr old son, lived on the property. Apparently, they live there in exchange for upkeep of the property, feeding the poultry of all kinds and cooking (only on Sundays). It was Saturday when we arrived, so we didn´t want to miss what spectacle might ensue on Sunday, so we stuck around. Early that morning, we asked Graciela if she had any eggs that we could buy....and boy did she ever! She brought us across the road and uphill to the bird houses...chickens, ducks, geese, what we think were cornish hens and all of their eggs! There were well over 150 birds there. We bought a dozen of these tiny eggs, from the mystery birds and a couple from chickens. They were the best eggs we´ve ever had. Later that day, we ate the mystery bird with rice, lentils, veggie salad and of course bananas, when a large family came that afternoon to swim, eat and drink Pilsener, the Ecuadorian beer. It´s actually just called Pilsener believe it or not.

This morning we rode through the hazy mist to Santo Domingo, ughh. As soon as we rode in, we decided to ride out. It wasn´t worth navigating to find the post office and we´re quite sure it would have taken all day. So, we´re hanging out in El Carmen, resting up to make our early morning break tomorrow to the coastal town of Pedernales. We send love to all of you out there as we´re off to eat more bananas every way imaginable.