Archive for June, 2012

Into Perú: Rough roads and history

June 19th, 2012 by Ian

I’ve left Ecuador behind in what again feels like a whirlwind few weeks and made my way into Peru. There is almost too much to write about the past while so here’s a snippet of my experiences as the England vs. Ukraine football match continues to distract on the telly.

I knew the road out of Vilcabamba was going to be a tough ride. First of all the little yellow line on my map which identified as “Secondary route – paved” changed to “Other road – unpaved/track” just after the village of Vilcabamba in a remote region of southern Ecuador. After a nice surprise and 32km of unexpected new pavement I was finally left with changeable dirt, mud, stony washed out path for the next 4 days. In 6 years they hope to have this section of road to the Peruvian border completely paved which seems disastrously slow as the route is just 101km in length. I now see why.

This route clings to the mountainside side for the most part as it follows a meandering river that skirts the boundaries of both countries. Heavy rains seem to cause dense rock falls too which either wrecks current work or makes future that little bit harder. To widen this thing must be a mammoth task and the ever present heavy machinery was the only worry I had in those 4 days as it swung back and forth dumping parts of the mountain into large earth pits on the lower slopes. The construction traffic, pummelling rain that turned any remaining soil into mud and some steep grades slowed me down so much that at one point I could see an entire morning’s cycling revealed behind me a short distance back down the valley.

Zumba was my last stop in Ecuador before the ride to what I’m sure has to be one of quietest border crossings in the Americas. Zumba is an interesting place for its geography and little more. It may have about 5,000 people living in and around it but is an absolute eternity from anywhere else significant. Its 10 hours by bus to Loja, the next noteworthy town. People have absolutely no reason to go there as it’s so far and too expensive so they stay in Zumba. Any money that is earned in Zumba is conversely spent in Zumba. In short, it’s isolated and I wondered hanging around there for an afternoon if anybody ever leaves and for what reason? Family? Government stuff? Bringing crops to market? The children in a small pueblito (village) close to there were amazed when I showed them video of sprawling Quito, their capital city and I bet it would be a long, long time until any of them made it there, if ever.

Peru has been an interesting experience so far and quite different from Ecuador. It’s starkly obvious how much poorer it is. There are very few private vehicles, just moto-taxis taking people from place to place and the level and standard of housing is far lower with dried mud blocks and galvanised roof being most common in the rural areas. So far, I haven’t warmed to it in the same way as northerly neighbours but it does still have over a month to grow on me. A most common happening is the incessant shouting of ‘gringo’ which isn’t particularly endearing unless coming from children with a smile on their face (I’ve had the opposite so far; adults with no smile and a certain level of hostility) and the furious honking of car and truck horns on the road just as they pass. It’s early days yet and what lies around the corner is bound to impress. The Cordillera Blanca, the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, will be reached within 4 days and I’ll switch foggy, green mountain passes for soaring snow-capped peaks. This was always to be a highlight and from what I hear from other travellers, it’s going to be immense.

I’m also staying at the famous Casa de Ciclista in Trujillo until my departure tomorrow. Lucho Ramirez has been hosting passing cyclists since 1985 and has seen close to 2000 enter and exit through his doors. Some are short distance cyclists, others traversing the continent and some moving around the world. Reading the comments and anecdotes in the gigantic guestbook only serves as further inspiration for my journey and shows me that a giant family with one thing in common exists out there in past, present and future. I’m very much looking forward to signing it and becoming part of a unique history in these parts.

Total miles/km: 12,172mi/19,589km

Current location: Trujillo, Perú

The Valley of Longevity

June 6th, 2012 by Ian

After 8 days of solid riding through the mountains of Ecuador, I’m pretty tired and looking to put the feet up. Vilcabamba seems like the perfect place then for more than just one reason.

A few decades ago, some French and US scientists came down to southern Ecuador to study the people of the Vilcabamba valley as it was reported that more than just a handful were living past the unusually healthy age of 100. After a while prodding and poking it was confirmed that folk here had an extended life span and were slightly averse to kicking the bucket at the average age of most Ecuadorians. Everything from the climate, to food to mineral rich drinking water has been posited as the explanation and so on the approach here I viewed every old-timer as some sort of magical Disney like character or descendent of Methuselah himself.

Since these studies concluded, many sceptics have now engaged in the debate and put forward the case that the locals were in fact lying about their age and are no more likely to live longer than others on the continent. Whether that’s the case or not, it hasn’t stopped every elixir-seeking hippy from making the trek here and planting themselves in this unique environment. It’s another regular scene on the travel circuit too as every now and again a tiny, quaint town becomes transformed into a ex-pat haven where donkey and cart are as likely to been seen in the local square as much as a linen clad, dreadlock styled backpacker in charge of an Iphone.

To make it here, I pedalled down the Pan-Americana and through Volcano Alley where 8 of Ecuador’s 10 highest peaks are to be found. Sighting the majestic Cotopaxi on the southern edges of sprawling Quito was quite the sight, snow-capped and shining brightly in the distance on a crisp June morning. Since I was a child, the name has always encouraged my mind to wander and think of travel. Although not considering the climb, I instead opted to cycle the slopes of Volcan Chimborazo which is the highest mountain in the world if measured directly from the centre of the earth, as opposed to sea level which is usual. Heavy cloud and passing rain showers limited my view and in the end I never saw the glaciated mountain that would surely have been a true sight to behold. On the western slope, I settled for the trip altitude record at a hefty 3900m (12,800ft) and was happy to be descending to thicker air near Ríobamba.

That was to mark the beginning of a twisting, highland road that meandered continually from valley bottom to mountaintop. Just outside the town of Alausí, I was treated to a view anyone would be happy to receive at breakfast as I looked down on a settlement that had just rid itself of early morning fog from a perch high on Ruta 35. Switchbacks made progress slow but the sight of a tienda or small restaurant around a bend made it easier, knowing that I could soon rest a while and take a coffee mixed with hot chocolate which has become my new favourite concoction. These small things can never be undervalued on days where flat ground is minimal and you spend most of your time looking up a hillside for the pass.

I also had my first night, in quite a while, cycling by dark. Spending the morning in Cuenca looking for stickers for my bike may not have been such a good idea on a 120km day with a sharp drop and rise from the Rio Léon valley. As light faded and shadows grew long on the road, the natural impulse is to pedal harder and with a fury to reach destination. With my stove in need of repair, I couldn’t camp and so bound myself south for Ona which was reached with the constellation Ursa Major overhead and a sky littered with stars. Had it not been for the huge shoulder, I would have been more nervous but there was no need to panic on a road devoid of traffic and its accompanying noise. Instead, I just looked up into the quietness of the night and was thankful to be out here in southern Ecuador.

The night before in Cuenca was also a special occasion too. On the street in mid-afternoon I spotted a face and bicycle I last laid eyes on in Whitehorse, the Yukon, Canada. Markus from Austria left Alaska roughly the same time as myself and Lee and has made roughly the same time on his journey south. In Whitehorse, we had some brief chats and some food together and left on different days with emails passed between. But as we both agreed, it is a great and special thing to be in the same place at the same time almost 10months and 17,000kms later with the same enthusiasm as before but altogether different beard lengths! We spent a little more time telling travel stories and naming other cyclists we both met on the road plus Markus offered some advice for my impending route ahead which he has cycled previous.

And so I find myself in Vilcabamba with an afternoon to kill and nothing in particular to do. Just the way I like it. Tomorrow I set forward for Los Chontas, a sleepy border crossing where cyclists have before needed to wake the patrol guard up to lift the barrier – it’s just that sleepy. A rough, dirt track will lead me there and into northern Peru where I yet again live in naivety but the highest hope that chicken and rice will not be the sole item on the menu. I would really love some potatoes.

Total mi/km: 11,830mi/19,040km

Current location: Vilcabamba, Ecuador

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