Something in the Way
26 October 2007
Villa O’Higgins to El Chalten
17.02.07 - 19.02.07
42.51 miles, total 4987 miles
1 hermit, many sickbags
Eleanor: The next part of the journey sounded like it was going to be rather exciting. We’d reached the very end of the Careterra Austral. There was no more road south of here, and to avoid doubling back on ourselves we were instead going to attempt to cross over to Argentina by taking a combination of boats and rough hiking trails.
There were eight of us that morning, strapping our bikes together at the front of the boat as it bobbed around at the far north corner of Lago O’Higgins. It was to be a 5 hour crossing to the other side of the lake, with a detour to get a close-up view of a glacier on its western edge.
The lake was a milky turquoise colour, almost inviting were it not for the icy wind that was blowing off the mountains. As the boat set sail, we tucked into bread rolls plastered with Dulce de Leche, sat back in our seats and remarked on how calm it was.
I was staring out at the view from the back of the boat when I noticed a crew member pumping up a life boat on the deck. Slightly alarmed, I searched for signs of an emergency. Was the engine making that noise before? I scoured the man's face for signs of panic; nothing but calm concentration as he pumped. Now he was loading boxes of wine, sugar, matches into the dinghy. As the ship's engines slowed, a rumour reached us that we were stopping here to make the six-monthly provisions delivery to a hermit. He lives on the shore of this lake, out of the reach of roads, surrounded by steep, snow-capped peaks. The laden dingy sped off into the distance towards the shore, and I could just make out a figure with a stick, limping along the beach, dogs jumping excitedly ahead of him. We watched the silent play as the crew arrived, the mime of shaking of hands and an animated conversation. Then the dinghy departed, and the man was left waving on the shore with his pile of boxes.
Our boat set off again, and the wind coming off the glacier picked up, creating some surprisingly peaky water. The waves seemed to be pointing against us and we climbed right to the top of each one before crashing violently down on the other side. I rued our decision to take the longer boat trip, even if it did mean seeing a glacier. An extra steep up, followed by vertiginous plunge the other side prompted some surprised 'oohs' that echoed around the cabin. That was too much for my stomach. Luckily I had anticipated this moment earlier and had a plastic bag at the ready. It was too rough to go outside, so I tucked myself away at the back of the cabin and spent the next two hours vomiting into plastic bags as quietly and politely as possible. I felt very grateful to the crew member with a wide sympathetic smile who took the bags away.
Suddenly, we had reached the glacier, the engines stopped, and all was calm. We stood on the roof of the boat, fat and orange in our lifejackets and jumpers, blinking in the blue reflected light from the vast wall of ice in front of us. Whisky all round, with ice from a passing ice-berg. It burnt my empty stomach, but I didn't care, so relieved was I to have stopped moving.
The next stage of the crossing was much calmer and late in the afternoon we were deposited at the far end of the lake at Candelario Mancilla, the Chilean border. It was a steep walk up through grassy tracks to the ‘Carabineros de Chile’, the Chilean border police, and their painted wooden building overlooking the lake. There was something incongruous about finding neatly pressed and shiny-shoed officials ready to stamp our passports here, at this outpost at the end of the world.
The Carabineros were very hospitable though, and invited us to camp on their land and to use one of their outhouses to cook in. I can't imagine getting such a friendly reception if we turned up at a police station in the UK and asked to camp for the night in their garden.
We shared the spot with four French cyclists, and spent the evening comparing food rations. Because of the unreliability of these ferry crossings –bad weather can stop them for days at a time; we’d all come prepared with enough food for several meals. Our 30 bread rolls were put to shame by one French couple’s 10 packets of biscuits, 2 kilos of porridge oats and vast tins of fruit.
The next stage of the crossing involved taking a 6 km track over hilly terrain, a ‘no-man’s land’ to get to the shore of Lago del Desierto, and the Argentinean border. We knew that a good portion of the track was not ride-able, and with our amount of heavy luggage, we decided to take up the offer of some horses to carry our things across. I was glad we did, because the next day I found that my energy had been almost entirely sapped by my exertions on the boat, and pushing my bike up those rocky paths tested my strength to its limits. After crossing some rivers, the track then wound its way down again through a forest, Tom rode this part, bouncing over roots, and down muddy slopes, happy to have a little taste of mountain-biking.
We eventually reached the shore of the next lake to find the others, and our bags waiting for us in the sun. In the background was the deep dark blue of Lago del Desierto and behind that, the peak of Mount Fitzroy and Argentina! We took our passports to be checked by the Argentinean customs officials. In keeping with Argentinean attitudes their approach to uniform was much more relaxed, one was even wearing jeans.
I had remembered to take my travel sickness tablets this time, but they were hardly needed, as this crossing was swift and flat. At the other side, we camped behind an Argentinean customs building this time, and the official brought us some shiny fresh trout he’d just caught from the lake. We made a campfire that night and ate well. After the trout, we made our way through most of the food in our bags in celebration of a successful border crossing.
17 May 2007
Coihaique to Villa O'Higgins, 05.02.07 - 16.02.07
360 miles, total 4945 miles
1 condor, 1 huemul, many caterpillars
After our regulation two days rest in Coihaique we were back on the road, on a cold and windy day. The wind started behind us, which led to an unnerving moment at the brow of a hill, where the road had been cut into a cleft. The wind was funnelled through, making us shoot forward and pop out the other side like very heavily laden corks. The tarmaced road initially wound its way through rolling farmland, but then the hill climbing started, and so did the snow, accompanied by an icy headwind to ensure a maximum chill-factor and general unpleasantness. The day was drawing on, and we were wrapped in our warmest layers, when the familiar profile of a cyclist appeared zooming down towards us.
“It is cold, yes?” the large Swiss man boomed, and then started cackling wildly. Looking at him, we suddenly felt warmer; he was wearing only a thin pair of lycra shorts with an old lumberjack shirt, and no gloves. His prescription sunglasses had also seen better days; they still had the glasses part, but not the sunglass lenses, and looked rather like futuristic pince nez. We chatted for a while, marvelling at his blue lips and fingers, chattering teeth, and general level of unconcern, before he continued his descent, leaving us to finish climbing to make it to our campsite for the night.
The reward for all that chilly climbing was a magnificent downhill the next day, with hairpins leading into a dramatic valley, presided over by the Torres Cerro Castillo, Mervyn Peake-esque pinnacles that had been shrouded in cloud the day before. However, our descent was complicated by biodiversity concerns; a mile long stretch was evidently a major caterpillar crossing, with thousands upon thousands of the black hairy things making their way slowly from left to right. Why did the caterpillar cross the road? We shall never know, but the constant weaving to avoid them certainly added to the excitement.
After a short day’s ride, we enjoyed another endearingly fledgling Chilean accommodation experience. Another granny had opened her house to passing cyclists and Israeli backpackers, and quite a house it was too; wooden, and apparently constructed from spare planks and leftovers, none of the walls quite met the ceilings. When the wind blew, the plastic sheeting windows billowed. However we had a cheery time huddling round her wood-fired stove cooking our frankfurters and instant mash.
At Cerro Castillo the pavement ran out again, and the going got slower as the bumpy road snaked alongside a river into the wind. We were consoled with some great scenery though; recent volcanic activity had diverted the river’s course into a wooded area, leaving only eerie silvered dead trunks rising up out of the water.
After two days riding and a wild camp somewhere down a loggers’ track, we made it to Lago General Carrera, South America’s second largest after Titicaca, and a strikingly violent electric blue. The god of cyclists (Madonna del Ghisallo, according to Google) was smiling on us that evening. Pulling into the ‘campsite’ (a cheery family’s garden given over to cyclists for the high season) we spotted a familiar tent, and, sure enough, Rebecca and Edouard, the Franco-English cyclists we’d met a while before, were sitting to eat at the table. “The pasta’s ready and there’s enough for you too!” Our tent was up in record time that evening.
The god of cyclists however clearly believes in karma; we raced off the next day, trying to make up some time, but in what was henceforth known as ‘the saddle day’, it was not to be. First-off, Eleanor, who after an experimental saddle position change was suffering pain in all the wrong places. She was wincing with every bump as a steady stream of cyclists passed us by. Some more adjusting and a lengthy lunch under a shady tree brought some relief, but then it was my turn. Flying down a particularly rutted hill there was a loud crack as the bolt holding my saddle on snapped under the tension. Must have been all those Argentinean high-cal snacks. Our Heath-Robinson skills came to the fore as we effected a roadside repair with zip-ties and string, and I finished the day with my saddle at a somewhat jaunty angle. We were unable to make it to our planned destination, and it was dusk before we spied a suitable lakeside camping spot. In fact we knew it was suitable because we were met by a slightly guilty-looking French cyclist armed with a fishing rod, off to catch his supper. It was only later we discovered the perils of pitching in the semi-darkness; the scattered piles of old toilet paper nearby told us others considered it a better spot for something else.
From there, two more days would take us to Cochrane, the last town of any real size on the Carretera Austral. The last day was scorchingly hot, and the road builders had clearly favoured going up and over, rather than around steep hills and obstacles, with parts almost impossible even to push. We ran out of water, and were getting anxious, but help was at hand, in the form of some Germans in a crazy vehicle; imagine a motorhome built by the Hummer factory, with vast tractor wheels and a metre of road clearance, painted a cheery yellow with a website splashed on the side, and you may have just about got it.
Cochrane when it arrived was a town with a definite frontiersy flavour. The one big shop in town stocked everything, and was full of ruddy-faced farmers filling their shopping trolleys with chainsaws and stirrups alongside their cornflakes. Metrically sized bolts, suitable for fixing saddles, though, were one of its omissions, and so my roadside bodge was to last me until England.
The last stretch of the Carretera Austral, from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins, is the wildest and most remote of all. With a ferry crossing half way to bridge a fjord, and no roads after Villa O’Higgins where the huge Southern Ice fields start, people, traffic and shops were going to be scarce, but that wasn’t an excuse to go hungry. We loaded our bikes with a mountain of food; 30 bread rolls, a pound of chocolate, biscuits galore, and of course tin after tin of tuna.
We had the added motivation of a little competition; a middle-aged German couple armed with a very precise manual on the Carretera, all smart graphs and altitude tables, who would most annoyingly stop to make camp before us every day, then pass us again on the next.
After a pleasant day following a wide river, we were subjected to alternating drizzle, downpours and clouds as the road climbed steadily up. The vegetation became thick and overgrown, more tropical than wintery, and water was plentiful, from the waterfalls pouring down onto the road from the cliffs above, but orange-tinged from the soil. We also encountered various gangs of road workers armed with roadspoiling machines; giant plows designed to turn hard-packed dirt into rutted piles of mud for the enjoyment of passing cyclists. Despite the obstacles, we finally got to pick our way gingerly down the slippery rocks to the harbour (and little else) of Puerto Yungay, setting up our tent in the now customary semi-darkness on the beach, the lights of the waiting ferry less than a hundred metres away.
As we were waiting to board the ferry the next day we were treated to a little mean-spirited entertainment. A carload of intrepid, but ill-informed Israeli backpackers had arrived, and were quizzing their fellow travellers on the route into Argentina. “Yes, it’s a twenty kilometre hike, and I can guide you for a good price” one said, spotting a quick business opportunity.
“No, that’s OK, we have a car”
“But, there are no roads!” he pointed out. They took some convincing, and were slowly heading back the way they came as the boat finally left the harbour.
On the other side of the fjord, the landscape started as the same dank, overgrown swamp, saving the crisp air very similar to the Central American jungles of a year before. However the road then started climbing up into the hills, which were topped with shelves of ice, protruding from the icefields that lay just over the horizon. After one long climb we were rewarded with a great nature-spotting moment as a huge condor swooped low over our heads before soaring up to great heights above us on the thermals.
Our next nature moment occurred the following day; I was cycling ahead and all but ran into a Huemul, a critically endangered and emblematic Andean deer. He didn’t seem particularly bothered by us, so we stood in quiet contemplation while he nonchalantly munched on the grassy verge. It was only after several minutes of this that the peace was broken by two approaching cars. Despite waves and points from us, the first shot past without slowing, while the second braked slightly, peered through their windows briefly, then sped off impatiently in a shower of gravel. It’s always nice to have reminders of why we travel by bike.
That day was another one of stunning scenery as we made our way around a large lake to eventually arrive in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the road. And waiting for us as we pulled into the hostel that evening; 14 cyclists – every single one that we had met on the road for the past two weeks! Time for our last carton of Chilean red – the next day we were off on the ferry to start the adventurous crossing to Argentina.
25 March 2007
Futaleufu, Argentina to Coyhaique, Chile, 24.01.07 - 04.02.07
226 miles, total miles; 4585,
Eleanor: We sat on the grass outside Chilean customs eating cherries, cheese, coca sweets and all the other things we weren't allowed to take across the border because of food importing rules. Then came the forms. 'I am carrying meat, cheese, fruit, vegetables, honey or any other fresh produce. Tick Yes or No.'
"Oh...I've got honey in my bag!" I said loudly.
"Just tick no." Tom whispered through clenched teeth, nudging me in the ribs.
"But I've got quite a lot of it!"
"Just tick no!" nudging harder in the ribs now. The customs official looked up from his paperwork.
"Do you need any help?"
"No, gracias, todo bien."
"But Tom...what about the honey! What if..."
Tom leaned over and ticked my "No" box, we handed in the forms and then I had a nervous wait while they decided whether or not to check through our bags. They didn't, and we were waved on through into Chile. I'd be a useless smuggler.
We'd heard about the rain, but we hadn't expected the weather to change quite as abruptly as it did. As we crossed the border, dark grey clouds loomed low, drizzling gently and we were reminded of home. Now, everything was greener, wetter and mistier and we were being chased by the river Futaleufu, a roaring mass of turquoise blue that is famous for white water rafting. Occaisonally a party of rafters would sail past, looking alarmingly out of control as their boat was whipped downstream.
It was a beautiful road, but hard work, and it was here that we first invented 'the jacket game'. Feeling a bit hot and sweaty after a long uphill? Stop and take your jacket off, maybe a jumper or two. That's better. Uh-oh, here comes a downhill, and a bit of drizzle, suddenly you're freezing. Dismount, rummage rummage, on goes the jacket for a while... but what's this, another uphill, stop, off with the jacket, but is that a bit of rain? I'll gamble and leave it off...and now I'm soaking. On with jacket. And repeat, several times an hour.
We had played one too many rounds of 'the jacket game' when we came across an intriguing sign that read: 'Sauna Camping'. The camp site had a cooking shelter, bathrooms and of course sauna all lovingly crafted out of wood, but it didn't look like anyone had camped there in a very long while. The reason for this was soon quite clear to us: the whole campsite was placed on a rather steep slope. We did find one sort-of-flat place to pitch our tent however, and soon the owner's family were unloading wheelbarrows of wood for us to power the sauna and shower. We sat inside and sweated for a bit, realised it felt a bit too much like a day in central america on the bikes, and then set about cooking dinner. No sooner had we got our cooking pots out than an army of piglets came running, ears flapping, through the long grass towards our camp and set about snuffling. Like small robots on a search and destroy programme they were checking every square inch of ground for something to snuffle up. We tested them on their food locating skills, flinging small strands of noodle far into the bushes and counting how many seconds it took them to pinpoint it. About 4 usually. We sealed the rest of our food safely away in our panniers and fell asleep to the white-noise roar of the Rio Futaleufú.
The next evening we found ourselves in the town of Villa Santa Lucia. It was raining, so we decided to find lodging for the night and knocked on the door of the first 'hospedaje' we could find. An elderly woman with a face that looked like it had done a lot of moaning over the years appeared around the door, and when we agreed to stay sighed heavily at the inconvenience this would entail.
At dinner, she sat opposite us at the table eyeing us intently whilst we ate, and then after heaving herself a few times to spit vigourously in the sink, she noticed our bulging carrier bags underneath the table containing food we hoped would see us through the next few days.
"Where did you buy your food from?" she demanded.
"You didn't buy it from over there did you?" She said, gesturing to the shop across the road where we had just done our shopping.
She tutted disapprovingly "You didn't want to buy it from that place...the shop next door is much better!" . The shop next door it turned out, was owned by her son.
"Have you got cheese?"
"Yes, we've got cheese."
"From that other shop? The cheese next door is much better you know. Have you got biscuits?"
"Yes, we've got biscuits." Big sigh and shake of head.
"Crisps, do you have crisps?"
"No..." We did need crisps it was true, and I dutifully visited the superior next door shop to buy crisps, escorted by the son.
Later, the door swung open, a young Chilean cyclist strode into the old lady's house and without any form of introduction bellowed: "Bread? Bread!! DO YOU HAVE ANY BREAD?!" The old lady, instead of being offended at his brashness, presented him with some freshly baked bread and proceeded to haggle about the price. He proudly told us later his top tip for getting a hot lunch at a good price was to knock on a door at a village and ask if the owner would cook him some food. "Yesterday I got a piece of trout like this!" he said stretching out his arms. It wouldn't work at home, but maybe here in Chile we'd benefit from trying this more direct method of food shopping.
We were on the famed Careterra Austral at last. The contruction of this road was initiated by Pinochet in 1976 in order to open up this remote area of Southern Chile to settlers. It is 1100km long and we were to cycle the last 900km of it, to its end at Villa O'Higgins. We'd heard it was popular with cyclists, and sure enough we hadn't been on the road more than 15 minutes when we spotted the familiar shape of a loaded bicycle approaching. And then another, and another, all with tales of bad but beautiful roads ahead, and some with welding jobs to prove it.
After a few more gruelling gravel hills we found ourselves in a much more jungle-like environment. Temperate rainforest is the proper term and the greenery threatened to engulf the road at any minute. Giant rhubarb-like leaves jostled for space with road signs and great big fuchia bushes dripping with rainwater brushed against my helmet as I cycled. The air was so thick with the smell of plant matter that it felt like I was breathing in a heady brew of oxygenated goodness with every breath.
We had the strong feeling that outside this winding dirt road, all that was out there was nature. For that whole day we didn't pass any houses, not even any fences. Humming birds buzzed up to inspect us. Frogs played wood-blocks in the ditches by the side of the road; but we didn't spot a single other person until: "Hooolaaa Chicoooooos!!" there went Ivan, the Chilean cyclist, seemingly motor-powered.
In the town of Coyhaique, about halfway along the Careterra we stopped to do some planning. We realised we had quite a challenge ahead of us to make it to Ushuaia in time. If we could just have a little bit less luggage then maybe we too could travel a little bit faster.
We sat down with a large steak sandwich and chips to work out how to lose some weight.
9 March 2007
MENDOZA TO TREVELIN
22.12.06 – 23.01.07
588 miles, total 4275 miles
1 Christmas, 1 Birthday, 1 Horsefly killing spree; 116 in one day
Tom; Mendoza; a hot, leafy, big city – it was going to take a little effort to get into the Christmas spirit. We decided that a little luxury would definitely help put us in the mood, and were soon giggling behind our hands like schoolchildren as the concierge at the nice hotel we’d picked helped us with our many bags, smearing travel-dust on his smart trousers in the process. For such a big smart city, Mendoza seemed curiously quiet; shops shut, streets empty, and two days before Christmas too – perhaps we really had managed to find ourselves a paradise where Christmas shopping mania didn’t apply? But no, this is Argentina, and they take their siesta very seriously. 6pm, and the crowds magically appeared, elbowing each other to get at the bargains. I then noticed the extended Christmas shopping hours for the posh mall; 10pm till 2am; they really like their late nights here.
Christmas day was spent lounging by the pool in our Santa hats, not a mince pie in sight; we felt a little cut off from both the hype, but also the comforting traditions of a home Christmas. The white wine helped of course.
After all that heat it was time for a change, so we skipped ahead to a windy dreary town called Zapala, and the start of the lake district. The air was immediately cooler and fresher, the scrubs and cacti replaced by flowers and odd, alien, monkey puzzle trees, with steep hills falling away to blue lakes. We started by taking a scenic route around Lago Ñorquinco, and were rewarded with a few peaceful days on gravel roads with lovely views and campsites with hot showers. Even New Years was a calm affair; we managed to squeeze ourselves into an otherwise full Parillada and ate our body-weight in grilled meat before a wobbly moonlit cycle home. Ah, peace and quiet! Had we realised at the time what a precious commodity it was …
A less welcome introduction occurred with the arrival of the lakes. Cyclists, meet Mr Horsefly. Horsefly, meet food. They’re mean, persistent things, some the size of bumble-bees, and they’re after your blood. After many not-to-be-recommended flailing, swatting moments whilst negotiating gravel roads, we eventually became quite proficient killers, so here’s the low-down. Stay calm, relaxed, find your inner core of peace as they fly around your head, climb over your sunglasses, bump off your beard. Continue to beam peace and love as they land on your hand or arm and prepare to unfurl their serrated mandibles to tear into your flesh, through your jacket if needs be, and lap up your blood. Then hit them, hard, and cycle off with a ‘Ha!’ as they spiral to the ground. The ‘hard’ bit is tricky though; not enough, and they fly off with an insouciant shrug, too hard, and, well, messy.
After a few days of this I felt somewhat hysterical as I saw what appeared to be hundreds of them heading towards me. I prepared myself to stand my ground and kill or be killed, but they deftly changed course, neatly flying up and over. It was then we noted the many hives on one side of the road, with the fields of blue lupins on the other, and realised we were negotiating a bee crossing.
Argentina is in many ways a very European country. The people are mainly of Spanish and Italian stock, and there is scant evidence of the indigenous populations who came before. And one continental tradition that has made its way here is the ‘let’s all jump in our cars and go on holiday on the same day’ phenomenon. Cars. SUV’s. Bigger SUV’s pulling caravans and boats. Mobile homes pulling cars, motorbikes strapped on the back. Convoys of every large, speeding, road-hogging vehicle conceivable, racing down gravel roads pushing us into the trees. The ‘Siete lagos’ (7 lakes) route is justifiably famous for its beauty, a dirt road winding its way around the edge of lakes and through forested valleys. We even caught occasional glimpses of it, through the thick, choking dust thrown up by the monster trucks. It allowed little mental space for thought, but I did have time to ponder how Ford had the gall to call one of their SUV’s the ‘ECOsport’.
After our first day of hair-raising riding, swatting horseflies whilst sweating up hills and dodging crazed holiday drivers, we were looking forward to a peaceful lakeside camp to unwind. It was not to be – hundreds of teenagers were milling around, tents crammed into every possible space like a latin Glastonbury festival.
“What’s going on?” we asked one of the passing trendy mullet-cut kids.
“We usually go to the beaches up north for our Summer, but this year, the party’s at the lakes”.
We were glad for our earplugs that night, but it must be said the massed Argentinian youth are a little more docile than their British equivalent. They were reading books rather than drinking beer, and politely passing round the mate and thermos, rather than other, more controversial herbal extracts. [Yerba mate is the English cuppa and Japanese tea ceremony rolled into one; a bitter caffeinated herb drunk through a metal straw, constantly topped up with hot water from a thermos, the permutations of arranging, shaking, wetting and moulding the set-up seem endless] Of course, as we were readying ourselves for bed, they had just about got their campfires ready for the inevitable meat-grilling session. How exactly they travelled with grills and sides of lamb in their rucksacks is anyone’s guess. The next morning despite the traumas we were grateful to be on bikes as we passed them all, waiting by the side of the road, waving their thumbs hopefully at passing vehicles (including us).
Our reward at the end of the route was Bariloche, a very touristy lakeside town, but one that is famous for its handmade chocolates. Eleanor ate well that day.
Things calmed down somewhat after Bariloche as we headed South to El Bolson. El Bolson is known as a hippie town, proudly proclaiming itself ‘nuclear free’ (quite who was planning to arm them with Trident is not clear). We arrived at the end of market day, and discovered the nexus of Argentine hippie tat. As we have travelled through South America, we’ve often seen a strange breed of traveller, not European but not Peruvian (in Cusco) or Bolivian (in Copacabana), colourfully clad and always sitting on the pavement, trying to sell homemade jewellery, bangles, beads and charms, in a style that borrows from all cultures but is curiously invariant, from Camden market to Koh Samui. El Bolson was their Argentine spiritual home, where the bead necklaces were more plentiful and the wooden gnomes more brightly painted than anywhere else.
Of more interest to us was the brewery with attached campsite. 11 different types of beer to try, and only one night…
Another species, previously unknown to us, that we encountered on that stretch of road, was the elderly French cyclist. Instantly recognisable by their white hair, mahogany skin stretched over rope-like muscles, and ‘1991 Tour de France’ lycra tops, they were inevitably riding old drop-handled tourers that were proving unsuited to the gravel roads and had been welded back together a few times already, but still managed to cover twice as many miles as us in a day. We would converse together haltingly in Spanish, theirs peppered by Gallic exclamations as they swatted yet another horsefly from their sinewy legs.
Trevelin was our final town in Argentina before we were due to cross to Chile, and it was only partially Argentinean at that. In the 1860’s Welsh settlers colonised part of the Patagonian Atlantic coast, keen to create a ‘little Wales beyond Wales’. Later arrivals, finding that, despite innovative irrigation schemes little suitable land existed, and that the similarities between the arid windswept pampas and the Welsh valleys had been perhaps overstated, launched expeditions to settle the Andean side. This wasn’t entirely popular with the existing Mapuche people, and one of the settlers, John Evans, was saved from the fate that befell his two friends, that included death, but also some extreme nastiness beforehand, by a prodigious leap over a ravine by his horse. Some intervention by the Argentinean military later, and Trevelin was founded.
The first immediately Welsh connection we noted was the drizzle, which started the moment we arrived and persisted throughout our stay. We then made our way around the museum containing the first settlers belongings, and the similarities continued; china dogs, decorative plates, Singer peddle sewing machines – it was like a car-boot sale in Pontypridd.
Later we moved on to our highlight of the stay; the compulsory visit to ‘Nain Maggie’s Tea Rooms’. The shock of being served by very Welsh-looking ladies, complete with dinner-lady outfits, but speaking Spanish, was soothed by our first decent cup of tea in eleven months. And then the food came… several rounds of bread thickly spread with butter, a plate of scones with jam, then five types of cake including welshcake, washed down with two large pots of tea. The waitresses looked increasingly admiring, then gave us a brief round of applause as the final morsel was swallowed. We noticed all the other diners eat a polite slice or two, then have the rest to take away, the cowards. Still, we needed the energy; we were off to Chile the next day, and the famous Carretera Austral, and from what we had read, it wasn’t going to be downhill all the way.
Friends and Foes
20 February 2007
Salta to Mendoza
01.12.06 - 22.12.06
600 miles, total 3687 miles
7 cyclists, 1 campsite, 5 bottles of wine
Salta, Buenos Aires, Madrid, London, Sussex. Sussex, London, Madrid, Buenos Aires, Salta. Phew, quite a week! What is comforting about travelling is that you can fly thousands of miles to surprise your parents (and they did look suitably surprised), but within minutes be sipping a cup of tea in the kitchen as if nothing had happened. To go from Summer to Winter to Summer again, though, that’s confusing. To compound the bodily confusion, we jumped on the bikes again at the first opportunity to catch our cycling muscles before they jellified. The next three days, through a dramatic valley, on to vineyards, introduced us to two themes; heat, and swimming pools with no water in.
“Over here!” We had just rolled into Cafayate and were standing in the main plaza, getting our bearings, and a familiar face was waving to us from one of the nearby cafes. It was Martin, the Swedish cyclist we had first met on the Bolivian Salar, looking relaxed and sipping a beer. He had already met an English cycling couple, Tom and Lisa, in his hotel, and later that evening his eagle eyes spotted the tell-tale signs of Ortleib panniers of a German couple, Joachim and Antje, across our campsite, leading to a lengthy wine-fuelled get-together around the campfire that evening. Comparing notes; we thought Tom and Lisa’s weekly bike maintenance sessions a little obsessive, they thought our ‘yet to get round to one’ attitude damn foolhardy. Only time will tell which is the better strategy.
Cafayate is famed for its wine, and so a vineyard tour was in order, along with Martin and two Frenchmen he had met. The setting, with fields of vines stretching to the Andean foothills, was certainly impressive, the tour itself though, was a little … lacking. “This is where we pour the grapes into the machine” – point to chute in ground, “stuff happens under there” – vague wave of hand towards tarmac, “these tanks contain the wine” – disinterested point to large industrial-looking white tanks, “automated bottling machine….” “and now – our Shop!” We enthusiastically helped ourselves to the free samples and bought ourselves the second-cheapest bottle, while the French muttered, glowered and pouted. “Too modern!” they huffed. “Too … New!”
He had taken a break, but couldn’t stay away for long. Our old friend the wind was back. Our second day out of Cafayate, after a brief climb onto a scrubby, featureless plain, and reduced to crawling speed. Even Martin’s thoughtful roadside rescue-banana couldn’t save us. Our ambitious plans for the day shelved, we spent the night camped in a kindly lady’s breezeblock hut. Another day of wind, compounded by gravel road beckoned, but we were rewarded with a day’s riding through dramatic, multicoloured rock formations and huge cacti to arrive in the sleepy oasis of Belen, where we were joined a day later by the Germans.
“What’s that funny rumbling noise?” We were packing up our tent at high speed, anxious to hit the road early before the wind hit again. “Uh-oh” I thought, “stomach troubles again.” But no, this time it was thunder. A minute later, it was raining hard, a minute after that, large hailstones were clattering off the tent. All was over in half an hour, but we later discovered those thirty minutes had destroyed a year’s work by the region’s fruit farmers.
Our efforts at efficiency were to no avail anyway, as the wind kicked in by 10am, coming from the side for a bit of novelty. The only way to proceed was by leaning at a distinctly rakish angle into the gale, leading to dramatic wobbles into the road or the ditch with every gust or passing lorry. After 40km we had had enough. Arriving into the lifeless plaza of a small village, half our faces caked with dust, we were wondering about how to get some food or a lift, when a man approached, with the equivalent of “so I expect you’ll be wanting the hostel too” and lead us to an unmarked house. We understood what he meant after we were greeted by Joachim and Antje in the garden, mending their punctures.
After that, the wind decided to go and bother some other cyclists for a while, and two days later we arrived in Chilecito, after a long hot approach through the scrubby desert, the trees of the town shimmering like an oasis. We pulled into the plaza, and spotted some coke signs, code word for ‘late lunch’. Our usual routine kicked in; stomp in in a cloud of dust, fling helmet and smelly gloves on the table, slump in seat, order too much food, with hopefully ice-cold ‘gaseosa’ to wash it down with. It was only when the waitress was carefully pouring said coke into our large, thin-glassed wine glasses as if she expected us to taste it and nod, that we began to look around, at the white linen napkins, tasteful decorations, air-conditioning, and bemused looks on the elegant, well-dressed diners as they looked at our dust-caked faces and bike shorts, that we realised that, perhaps, we were a little underdressed.
“Oi, tossers!” We were in the main plaza of San Juan, tired, befuddled, and looking for food as usual, and there was Martin, showing off his perfect command of idiomatic English. We had only a few days to get to Mendoza for a non-traditional hot Christmas, but had decided to complicate matters with a scenic detour via Callingasta and Ushpallata. It was worth it though, as the road snaked along a river valley with snowy mountains as a backdrop. For the first two stops there were even, gasps! Swimming pools with water in them! It all seemed too easy…
Lulled by the initial tarmac, we found ourselves looking for somewhere, anywhere, to camp after a day of slogging through the gravel. We pulled off the road, into the scrub, to encounter a new problem; hundreds, thousands, of sandflies. Sandflies in the mouth, in the ears, almost invisibly small, but able to raise a blood-blister when they found bare skin. We pitched our tent with jackets on, trouser-legs in socks, and bandanas over the face. To further compound our misery, we were distracted into inventing a new camping culinary low; charcoal soup.
All that was a distant memory by the last day though. It had taken 30km of diligent, gravel uphill mind, but now all was down, and with a view of distant Aconcagua (tallest peak in South America) thrown in too. And what a downhill! The ‘hill of a year’, their moniker, not ours, for its 365 hairpin bends, taking us from the steep treeless mountains above, to the hot, er, treeless plains surrounding Mendoza. And we had to hurry too; we had Martin to meet, in the plaza, for Christmas drinks!
Change of Scene
5 February 2007
Villazón to Salta, Argentina
Eleanor: I don't normally find myself giggling with excitement in supermarkets, but we had been in Bolivia for a long time without even a whiff of a trolley or a deli counter. Who'd have thought we'd miss all of that. I wandered around stroking the by now unfamiliar wonders; cakes, cheese and yogurts and eventually emerged brandishing two full shopping bags, still grinning from ear to ear. It was to be a day of treats, for next came another we had been waiting for; paved roads. Tarmac, asphalt, pavemiento, whatever you like to call it, we had been dreaming of it. The barren, brown scenery wasn't much to look at, but my, we were going so fast past it, eating up the miles like never before. The other vehicles were going faster here too though. No trundling, smoke-belching trucks that you could hear for hours before they passed and smell for hours afterwards. Here, sleek Fiats with black tinted windows whipped past our handlebars before we could even spot them in our rear-view mirrors. Neeeoooooowwwwww.
The next day we climbed up over a pass and found ourselves flying down into a very wide and very beautiful valley. The sides were vividly-coloured stripy rock and the valley bottom was lush, flat pasture. We cycled past chestnut coloured horses swishing their tails in the knee-length grass, and tall thin trees. Trees! We hadn't noticed it but we'd been missing those as well. The altiplano had been devoid of any plant taller than knee-height, and even green Cochabamba had had nothing to rival these towering beauties. On top of all this, we were cycling downhill; for miles and miles there was not a single climb in sight. Was it a dream...? Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee.
At 3.30pm we were awakened by a slap in the face from a 50mph wind. Suddenly, cycling downhill was next to impossible. Cyclists going the other way, smiled as they whizzed up the hill, pushed along by the gale. The wind had spoilt our fun; there was nothing for it but to push to the closest village and take shelter. Luckily the nearest town, Humahuaca was very close, and a good place to spend the night. We spent the evening eating pasta and listening to a small group of musicians playing Andean music on the quena (a sort of wooden flute) charanga (a tiny guitar) and a drum. They were captivating to watch because they didn't seem to care two hoots whether anyone was taking any notice of them or not; they were so obviously enjoying themselves. It gave me a new incentive to keep practising on the quena that I bought in the witches' market in La Paz; so far the noise it produces more closely resembles that of a troubled parrot than a haunting melody.
I found myself in the city of Salta on my own for a week whilst Tom made a lightening speed journey to London for his Dad's birthday. After an initial period of bewilderment at life in a strange city without the accompanying bearded one, I soon settled in to the cafe culture. I discovered a never-seen-before ability to sit still in a pavement cafe for hours on end sipping cappuchinos and watching the world go by. Lovely.
One morning, I was treating myself to a breakfast-with-everything in a very nice cafe on the square when along came the dog owned by the hostel I was staying at, and sat down under my chair. Now this dog would often be seen wandering around the city, and I'd already heard of his uncanny ability to recognize any gringo staying at his hostel. So that was fine, he could sit under my chair if he liked, and I set about eating my eggs. Then a shoe-shine boy approached my table -'Would I like my hiking boots polished?' but before I could reply, the dog under my chair had erupted in a frenzy of barking and snarling, snapping at the boy's heels, who turned and ran, tripping over chairs to get away from the monster. The dog, satisfied with his work, sat back down under my chair and folded his paws. Then along came a bracelet seller, who got the same treatment, the dog going for his legs with alarming ferocity. By now the whole cafe was staring, and all I could do was embarrassedly shrug my shoulders -"No es mi perro!" This continued until there was a large 'street seller no-go area' around my table -something I'd always craved, but it was a rather violent and very embarassing way to achieve it. I hurriedly ate the rest of my toast, and headed off, dog trotting happily at my side. I found out later at the hostel that the dog's name is 'Bodyguard' -I think I know why.
The next afternoon I did some studious ice-cream eating in the park, which led to a number of interesting conversations with locals. That would never happen in London; sit down on a park bench and before you know it, someone not all that weird or dangerous looking is helpfully telling you about all the best restaurants in town, and what his favourite food is. It turned out to be dulce de leche, an incredibly sweet caramel made from condensed milk and sugar that here in Argentina enjoys a near royal status. They fill their pastries with it, they eat it on their icecream and they smear it on their toast. He was incredulous that we didn't have it in the UK. "You mean to say, you live in your country without dulce de leche?!"
The week whizzed by, with some horseriding and traditional dancing thrown in for good measure and soon I was meeting Tom at the airport, ready for an early start the next morning to set off for wine country!
Headlights on dark roads
12 January 2007
Uyuni to Villazón, border with Argentina
188 miles, 1 goat stampede, many kms of pushing
Eleanor: Oh my Sainted Aunt the roads were bad. What shall it be? A bone-jarring washboard surface dusted with a light coating of gravel, or maybe a softer, flatter verge, with surprise patches of deep sand to keep you on your toes? Whichever I tried, the sand was always greener on the other side of the road, and I zigzagged back and forth, trying to find the best route, probably doubling my mileage.
By far the worst was the washboard, so named because the road is ridged like the old fashioned clothes-washing instrument. A few times on a downhill it made my bike bash up and down violently, gaining resonance until the panniers fell off. I shouted at the road, I shouted at my bike, but it didn't help. It was hard to remember that this was one of the main roads out of Bolivia. It was also sometimes hard to remember that this was meant to be fun.
But but, despite the difficulty of the road and the achingly slow speed we were making, it still felt worth it for the scenery it was taking us through. We passed through canyons filled with red pillars shaped like faces, climbed over desolate hills with misty volcano peaks in the distance, and skidded down through narrow gorges, hemmed in by slabs of multicoloured rock. At times I felt like we were lone extras in a geology documentary, set there simply for appreciation of scale.
Most days we could go for hours without being passed by a single vehicle. On the second day, we had stopped on the verge to let a 4 wheel drive pass us, it was speeding along, spraying gravel everywhere. At the last minute it swerved violently towards Tom, clipping his bike and breaking a pannier off it's fixing. I don't know what that horrible driver was thinking, but it's ironic that after all the hectic cities we've cycled through, the one collision with a car should happen in a barren wilderness. The pannier was temporarily fixed with a zip-tie (marvelous things).
On the fifth day, it was four o'clock and we were tantalisingly close to the border. A helpful cyclist advised that it was probably two, no perhaps three, actually make that four hours of cycling to get there. It was decision time; camp here or carry on to the border town Villazón, despite the fiery red sunset on the horizon. Stubbornness, and a strong desire to get to the fabled tarmac of Argentina took over rationality and we decided to carry on into the sunset. Minutes later, we were in trouble. I hadn't realised just how much I'd been relying on seeing the road, choosing my path carefully, dodging rocks and thick sandy patches. With the light all gone, my balance was suddenly all gone too, and my bike was skidding in unseen gravel ridges. After lots of falling off, I slowly worked out how to navigate by the sound and feel of my tyres on the road -it was like cycling with your eyes closed. Lorries threw up great clouds of dust as they passed that lasted for minutes, lit up by our head-torches in the dark. We cowered by the side of the road until the monsters had passed, then wobbled on.
After two hours we could make out the lights of the city in the distance, but this also brought problems of its own. The dogs. We could hear them barking, but in the pitch black, all we could see of them was their green eyes, shining back the light from our torches. There was a pack of them, they sounded big and were getting closer. Back to back, with our bikes as shields, we flung stones in all directions and shouted insults at the tops of our voices. My imagination raced with drooling mouths and gnashing teeth. But the stones worked, and the dogs fled. We pushed slowly onwards to the glimmering lights, vowing never to never get ourselves into such a silly silly situation again...
BOOM BOOM BOOM
7 January 2007
Sucre and Potosi
1 Hillside, 6 sticks of dynamite
After our grand Salar tour, we decided on a side-trip by bus to visit Sucre, the old colonial Capital, and Potosi, the old mining city and source of the Spanish wealth.
Sucre was pleasant enough, although the afternoon showers were evidence of the approaching wet season, but it was the mine visit in Potosi that stuck in the mind. At 4000metres, it is the highest city in the world, and dominated by the ‘Cerro rico’ or rich hill, from which first silver, then tin and other metals, have been mined since 1549. The mining companies pulled out years ago, and the hill is now in the hands of mining ‘cooperatives’, groups of 5 to 30 miners who buy the rights to small areas and hope to make it lucky. We donned our helmets and boots, and walked into the tunnel, and were immediately struck by how primitive the conditions were; a few wooden planks holding up the rough-hewn walls, tiny passageways disappearing off into the ground, and choking dust. We were proudly shown the electric winch, the only one in the mine, and owned by one of the larger cooperatives to haul buckets of ore up. Everyone else is still doing it the hard way; carrying 50kg loads on their backs up wooden ladders from the depths, then pushing trolleys or wheeling ancient wheelbarrows down the cramped tunnels. We clambered our way nervously down through tight squeezes, sliding down wooden chutes to get to the fourth level, where the air was noticeably dustier and thicker. The thought of what the 11th level must be like was horrifying.
Before we had entered we had visited the miners market, and now everywhere we went we distributed presents; a stick of dynamite here, a bottle of fanta there. The miners do 12 hour shifts, sometimes doing two shifts back to back, and for some reason believe it unlucky to eat, so fuel themselves on fizzy drinks and the inevitable huge pouches of coca leaves. They work 6 days a week, then on Saturday when the work ends go to one of the many ‘devils’ in the mines; devil idols with a suspiciously Spanish look who are presented with gifts for luck. There they drink the 96% strength ‘alcohol potable’, believing to mix it will result in mixed, not pure ore. None of that could have helped their health, but the main reason for the terrible average life-expectancy was the horrible, choking dust. After two hours we had had enough, coughing, our throats sore for days after, not helped by being cheerfully informed that the white stuff dripping down the walls was arsenic. The reason, as ever, that people endure such conditions, is money, more than twice what they could expect to earn working the land.
After the mine, it was time for a little light relief, and a chance to celebrate Guy Fawkes night, Bolivian style. That’s right, dynamite time. We were shown how to mould the putty-like stuff into a ball, stick the detonator-end of the fuse into the centre, then tie it up in a plastic bag with some fertilizer around for some added zing. We were all posing, laughing and joking around when we noticed our guide fiddling with the end of the fuse. The next thing we knew there was very tell-tale smoke coming from the end of the fuse, and a very alarming burning advancing rapidly towards the explosives still cupped in our hands. “Err … No, I don’t like this! What do we do with it now? Err … help please, this isn’t funny, I’ve got a bomb in my hand!” We rapidly lost our cool and started looking panickedly around for somewhere to throw our unwanted possessions as our guides chuckled unconcernedly. After what seemed like ages, and with the fuses half gone, we began our run down the road, dumped our fizzing packages among the rocks and sprinted back to safety. We didn’t have long to wait for the first explosion, shockingly loud and terrifying. In quick succession the other five went off (we had all obviously wanted a bomb each), one that had been buried slightly sending a shower of rocks into the air, somewhat unnervingly I’d imagine for the approaching bus. Indoor fireworks eat your heart out!
And now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, and especially techno-wizz Jack (now available for wedding videos) you can see the whole thing by clicking here!
Just a little bit salty
15 December 2006
Cochabamba – Uyuni
23.10.06 – 01.11.06
294miles, total 2653miles, 1 salt-lake, 2 islands, 36 litres of water
Tom; After our six weeks of work and play, it was finally time
to remind ourselves that we were meant to be cycling –
which meant another bus. We have decided there are enough
miles left without repeating ourselves, so bussing it back
up to where we left the main altiplano road for Cochabamba
made sense; avoiding climbing back up 1500m wasn't a
factor at all.
We worried as ever for our bikes, but it was another
passenger who had a lot more to lose; we watched in awe as
he loaded his wares into the hold; 14,400 eggs. Every
time we hit a pothole I had visions of torrents of yolk
pouring onto the road, but both bikes and eggs made it
safely without merging.
Our trip was to start again in earnest from Oruro, back on
the now familiar, dry Altiplano, which also meant a day
getting used to the altitude again, spent wandering around
the massive markets, buying bike honk-horns, and wondering
over the uses for dried armadillos.
On returning to our hotel that afternoon we were greeted
with the sight of a fellow cyclist in the middle of bike
repairs. Werner was from Switzerland, had started in La
Paz, and was heading South like us. We were then joined
by an Austalian couple, owners of the huge BMW motorbike
that we had admired earlier, which lead to a merry evening
comparing notes on roads and meals.
For the next two days we slowly regained our cycling legs,
meandering on flat asphalt roads, childishly amused by
nearby lake Poopo. On both days we arrived in small towns
to find Werner, who had generally finished his day's
riding before we had started ours, despite owning an overloaded
bike with the weight of a small hatchback. On the second
evening we hatched a plan over local Huari beer; we would
abandon our safe tarmac option towards Potosi, and head
instead for the Salar de Uyuni, the world's largest salt
flat. At 4,085 square miles, it is a trifle large, dry
and empty, but with Werner's cool head, and our true
British pluck, what could possibly go wrong?
As we set off on our grand adventure the next day the first 10km were unexpected tarmac, all important to ferry the precious Huari beer from its lakeside brewery. Once we had passed that though, we were on our own. The bumpy gravel road stretched to the horizon without a soul in sight, with only the odd llama and threatening rain-cloud to admire as we bumped over the endless washboard. The first victim was, surprisingly, a bolt on my front pannier rack, rather than our bottoms, but I was excited to make my first road-side zip-tie repair.
After a night’s rest in a small and simple village, in an even smaller and simpler room, we headed on, which involved crossing a wide, sandy river. Werner sensibly took his boots off for a paddle, I put too much faith in goretex, and spent a merry while wringing out my socks.
As we bumped our way further from the main road, the occasional small settlements got smaller, as did the inhabitants; when we arrived in Tambo Tambillo, there was just a small group of somewhat wary children to greet us and lead us to the village pump. It was here we were introduced to one of the many toys filling out Werner’s voluminous luggage, as he used his UV pen to sterilise the water and further convince the children (and us) of his alien status.
We had been told to look out for some ‘holes’ after Tambo Tambillo. Now looking back I’m not quite sure what we were expecting, but certainly not huge craters, hundreds of metres across, with lakes at the base, testimony to some ancient meteor shower. From then on the scenery proceeded to get weirder; we started to see patches of multi-coloured salt and shallow pools, sculpted pumice hills rising abruptly from the plains, and then herds of vicuñas, that look like the living embodiment of Bambi, all dewy eyes and pencil-thin neck.
After three hard days we had finally made it to Salinas, the last sizeable village before the Salar. There was a promising-looking hostel in the square, but no owner, and as we waited for one to arrive we were presented with a spectacle of bad driving. Attracted by the horn-honking, I discovered a man slumped at his wheel, stuporously drunk, his car stalled. The drivers behind him eventually roused him and helpfully pushed his car forward, at which point it lurched suddenly forward, threatening to squash a passing family, and stalled again. The man promptly fell asleep again, his head lolling on the dashboard. Another wake up call, another jump start, and this time he shot backwards several metres, sliding around in his seat like a rag-doll as a dog barely got out of the way in time. One more cheerful push, and a last-minute swerve around a stationary bus, and he was tacking his way up the road, people scattering in all directions. It was only at that point I noticed the whole family he had in the back seat. I sincerely hope they arrived in one piece.
“18 bottles of water please …. And a tin of tuna”. We were stocking up for the Salar, and determined not to be caught short. Extremely overloaded, and leaving behind a very happy shopkeeper, we wobbled our way out of the village the next day. After a quick first 20km on smooth wet sand, we had to push and sweat our way up a short, sharp hill, but were finally rewarded with our first view of the Salar, a horizon of dazzling white that looked like someone had taken the scenery away. Once we were on the salt it was time for our first lesson in correct GPS use from Werner the professional. Various jeep tracks curved around the ‘shore’ or headed off for distant Colchani, but the island we were heading for that night meant a ‘cross-country’ traverse. Werner gave us an impromptu lesson, and we headed confidently off for a distant island. The salt was strange stuff, formed of rough hexagons, as though drawn by a small child. The going was initially smooth, but later the hexagons became more raised in the centre, meaning a bumpy painful ride as we pushed on. Then, as the going got smoother again, the wind started, and the distant island remained painfully distant. The freedom, though, of being in such a huge empty space gradually dawned on us though, as we experimented with riding for as long as possible with eyes closed, or weaving and circling around. Our brains also refused to compute what it was we were riding on; “the snow, err…sand … err … ice … no, that’s not it…”
After being treated to a spectacular sunset, we were riding by moonlight on the surreal white landscape, finally pulling up on the ‘beach’ of the large cactus-covered pumice island. We had been expecting to find some buildings, as we had heard there was a visitors centre, but as we trudged around in the darkness, it was apparent we had the place to ourselves, so after a quick super-noodle supper, we crashed out in our tents, exhausted.
The next morning we woke to see Werner striding purposely up and down the beach, GPS in hand, peering at it and then the horizon. Eventually he came over and rather sheepishly explained; wrong island. A few experiments later and we discovered what had happened; compasses and bikes don’t mix. When stationary, the GPS relies on a magnetic compass, which had been made doolally by the big pile of steel we were carrying ourselves around on. Start moving, however, and the GPS cheerfully pointed to the small island, 20km away. Apologies accepted, we headed off for the right place, wrapped up from head to toe despite the heat to keep out the burning sun.
As we arrived at Isla Inkahuasi, we had a welcoming committee; three other cyclists! Martin the Swede, and the French couple were heading on their way on the very tough route to the Atacama desert, but had at least started in luxury; while we had been lashing our tents to rocks, they had been eating llama steaks and luxuriating in the hotel that now existed on the island! We found time to eat some delicious burgers before wishing them luck and heading off.
With the wind now behind us and the salt now perfectly smooth, we made up for lost burger time, riding 65km in three hours. We were amused to find we were part of the tourist experience, as traveller-filled jeeps passed and slowed, cameras pointed out of the windows, before speeding off, Werner chasing them shouting “cinco pesos!!”. We also tried and failed to solve the mystery of the holes; small water-filled holes disappearing down into the salt. An impromptu plumb-line (spanner and string) told us they were at least 4 metres deep.
That afternoon we arrived at the ‘Salt hotel’ to be greeted by a rather lost-looking and forlorn group of tourists. We had been told the hotel was closed, but it seemed not. They had booked into a tour, that had deposited them at the door in a jeep then sped off, telling them the owner would be there soon. We waited with them as the sun set and they got more anxious, calculating how well our pasta supplies would stretch to feeding 7, but eventually another jeep arrived, with the boss and other tourists. We were welcomed in for some unexpected luxury. The Salt hotel is exactly as the name suggests; the walls are salt, the tables and chairs, and so, unfortunately, are the beds. We spent a cheery night drinking beer and recounting cycling tales to the assembled international crowd.
The next morning, we left the hotel to find; more cyclists! Karen and Ryan were South Africans, now settled in Canada. We all headed off together to take our final salty pictures, before the final 20km to the shore, and 20km more through the sand to Uyuni. We had made it, and left the Salar with 6 of our 12 litres each of water intact!
Work and Play
24 October 2006
Tom: After our travels across the Altiplano we were pleased for the change of Cochabamba; trees! Flowers! Pizza! We had decided to spend a while in one place, doing some voluntary work, and hopefully working on our Spanish too.
Cochabamba is a pleasant medium sized city set in a long valley, and at a 'mere' 2500m, has a pleasant warm but not tropical climate. For us it offered a perfect 6 week break, with manageable portions of culture, socialising and nightlife, but for most backpackers it has no obvious draws, so is off the 'Gringo trail'. The gringos we met therefore tended to be longer-term residents or volunteers, or the occasional shady adventurer type, all making for a more interesting level of conversation than the usual 'relative merits of footprint over lonelyplanet guide' chat. Another interesting change was our escape from hotels to domesticity, as we rented a room in a pleasantly old family house, and enjoyed (occasionally) cooking for ourselves and giving the family dog a well-deserved haircut.
One thing that Cochabamba seemed to have a lot of was politics. Cochabamba has been dubbed by one writer as 'the place where the fightback against globalisation began', due to an episode in 2000 known as the 'Guerra del agua'. Bolivia had been pressured to privatise its public amenities by the IMF as a condition of further loans and La Paz and Cochabamba were chosen as the guinea pigs. Cochabamba has historically had chronic water supply problems, with a huge damming and tunnelling project ongoing for 50 years, with no end in sight. Some of the slack has been taken up by local water cooperatives and charities, who have installed local wells in dry areas. The water supply was sold to Bechtel, a giant US firm in 1999, and the 40 year contract included rights over all water, including that drawn from private wells. Even if a person had paid for a well to be dug in their own house, the company had a right to charge for the water or turn it off! Then when the company's first act was to double the water bills, the scene was set for a showdown. After 5 days of blockades, teargas and confrontations between troops and protesters, leaving one dead, Bechtel were forced out, (leaving a demand for $25 million compensation) and the water was put in the hand of a collaberative effort between the old state company, and local representatives of the water protesters. All is not yet well with Cochabamba's water yet though; when we were there the farmers switched off the city's supply for 24 hours, protesting about water rates.
Whether for its history or its climate, Cochabamba attracts a number of volunteers and activists interested in issues such as Globalisation and the IMF, centred around the Democracy Center (https://www.democracyctr.org), and living with two of their team, we were soon in the thick of a crash course in global politics. Bolivian politics itself continues in its turbulent way, and not everyone is happy with Evo and his left-wing course. The lowland regions, centred around Santa Cruz, are particularly antagonistic, and are threatening to break away from the more indigenous Altiplano, taking the gas, oil and wealth with them. Two people separately predicted civil war within 6 months.
Eleanor: We wanted to spend a while volunteering to have a chance to experience Bolivia on a different level and hopefully be useful to an organisation as well. We would have liked to have had more time, but with our punishing cycling schedule, six weeks it would have to be. We were posted to 'La Colonia Ecologica', a children's foster home and afternoon club on the edge of the city. Within minutes of us arriving, children were hanging off us like fruit from trees. I repeated the names in my head over and over, knowing I would not be allowed to forget them.
Kiko and Carmen, the couple who run the centre do an amazing job, fostering 21 orphans or former street children, and looking after the 30 or so more who come along in the afternoons.
They try to create a family environment, successfully I think, and all the children, considering their circumstances seemed well adjusted and clearly enjoyed being there.
There's a very strong work ethic, with time set aside each day for reading, and a lot of importance placed on homework. It seems to be working very well; we were suprised at the eagerness the children showed to do their homework, and we heard that two of the oldest ones have recently started university.
They own a narrow strip of land in the village of Chiquicolla on the edge of Cochabamba. It's not a lot of space, but they've made the most of what they've got. Kiko has constructed a series of small classrooms, each with a different theme (there's a log cabin, a teepee, a traditional bolivian house and one treehouse) and in the future he plans to build further upwards into the eucalyptus trees that tower over the site, a sort of Ewok village. The incentive to do well at school will continue here, with only the children getting the highest marks allowed the privilege of access to the classrooms in the trees.
We were there in the afternoons to help out, and these followed the pattern of an hour of chores (cleaning, preparing vegetables or helping to finish the cobbling of the paths between classrooms) followed by reading and then homework. Once that was all done, then time was free and that was our opputunity to introduce some different activites.
Tom found a microscope languishing in the back of a cupboard, a gift from previous volunteers that had hardly been used. He set about setting it up and teaching some of the older children how to use it. Later that day, there was a big queue of small children outside the classroom. I went to see what was going on... roll up, roll up, to see the head-louse under the microscope! They were astonished to see this very familiar beast wriggling in close up, and took it in turns to look then run from the room, giggling hysterically.
I'd decided to try and organise some art activities, starting with making animal masks. My Spanish didn't really come to mind quickly enough to keep 20 children on track cutting, sticking and colouring, but notwithstanding a few glue accidents, maks were made, and I, if no-one else, enjoyed myself immensely. The other activity I tried on them was egg-shell people, with mustard seeds growing inside to make the 'hair'. It turned out that eggshells were a rather stressful material to work with. One lot of eggshells, investigated by the pet dog, came off rather flatter than before. The next batch didn't fare much better in the hands of the children as they carefully drew faces on them "Erm excuse me, my egg has broken" was a familiar refrain. Luckily, they ate a lot of eggs at La Colonia, so there were always plenty more.
We also used our 6 weeks to fill up on culture, both high and low. 'Savia Andina', an andean folk band, proved to be the acceptable face of pan-pipe music, and a piano duet concert was appreciated, even though we felt that 'Rhapsody in Blue' was a little beyond their grasp. The highlight however may have been seeing 'Miranda' at the local football stadium. Miranda are an Argentinian pop group who have caught our ear on our travels, a latin version of the 'Scissor sisters'. We were again given a reminder of the elasticity of Bolivian time-keeping, with two hours of cold waiting, and had to endure two local rock bands, but Miranda, in all their gold lamé and correographed dance routines, didn't disappoint. Our spanish wasn't good enough to discern their 'contraversial' lyrics (although the internet as ever provides) but we got the impression that the Pope would not approve.
Eleanor: The other cultural highlight was our visit to the village of Morochata on fiesta day. It was a long and twisty drive up to the village, precipitously perched on a hillside surrounded by trees. This was the big day out for everyone in the area and the streets were full with families, all in their best clothes. We sat a while in the square, watching some men in heavy cardboard costumes dancing, or rather lumbering past. The weight of the costumes and the style of the dance -slow and laborious with heads bowed is said to symbolise the oppression of the Conquistadors. We asked what the furry monkey and wolf costumes symbolised, apparently nothing, they just had those costumes spare, and everyone likes a good dance if they get the chance.
We got chatting to some villagers who suggested that we should come along to the 'paciente's' house where the real party was. The paciente is the member of the village who that year has taken on the honour of financing the fiesta. It sounded a rather onerous honour to me, but apparently it is gladly taken on, and thought to bring good luck and blessings in the coming year. The paciente's back garden was full -the men were swaying around in their costumes in time to the band who were playing rumbustiously in the corner, whilst the women sat in a circle on the floor, preparing vegetables for the dinner later.
I noticed that people were walking around with buckets of a suspicious looking yellow liquid. Floating in it was something resembling half a coconut shell, from which people were offered scoops to drink. Before long we were pounced upon by a bucket wielder, and there was no choice but to drink coconut-full. It turned out to be Chicha, a fermented maize drink that tastes a little like cider. It must have been fairly strong because soon we were dancing along, arm in arm through the streets behind the band. I jokingly said "I'd love a go on those cymbals" and the next thing I knew I was leading the musicians, crashing along in time (sort of) to the music.
Then it was time for dinner, and plates of chicken and rice were handed around. Once again we were surrounded by chicha-pushers, and I found that suddenly I could speak fluent Spanish. Unfortunately this ability wore off the next day just before Spanish class, about the same time that my headache really set in.
Tom: One visit definitely not mentioned in the Lonely Planet, that I managed to arrange with the help of our very well connected Spanish teacher, was to Cochabamba's psychiatric hospital, San Juan de Dios. It was to be a test of my fledgeling spanish, but I was very grateful for the opportunity to compare mental health systems, and the challenges facing them. My guide for the day was to be the very informative and patient Dr Velásquez, who took my stumbling explanation that he had been volunteered for the job by his boss without his knowledge with good grace, and kindly gave me three hours of his time for a complete tour. The hospital was an odd mix of public and private; the buildings were paid for by the Spanish Catholic charity 'San Juan de Dios', the staff paid for by the government, but patients were expected to pay for admission and medication if they could, otherwise this would be covered by contributions from Bolivian social services and various charities. I was assured that patients without the means to pay would still be treated, and it was apparent that many of them came from poor backgrounds.
The grounds themselves were attractive, and the acute and rehabilitation wards I saw, whilst somewhat spartan in decoration, were otherwise similar to some British examples. From my limited view however, the patients were quite a different mix from that at home. A high proportion seemed to have learning disabilities or underlying brain damage causing their symptoms. Several of the cases described to me had symptoms secondary to head trauma, or caused by poorly controlled epilepsy. It therefore seemed that the psychiatric system was treating the effects of a lack of good midwifery, medical, or learning disability services. The medical care that patients received seemed good, but the real tragedy was that all care was located in the hospitals, with no community services at all. This meant that without willing, supportive families to return to, patients became stuck and institutionalised in hospital. One man had been on the ward for 18 years, his family unwilling to take him back. Admittedly, he had killed his mother.
The hospital had a well equipped occupational therapy department, including woodwork workshop, but unfortunately no Occupational Therapist, the last one having headed back to Britain without a replacement. The physiotherapy students from the local university were gamely trying to make up the shortfall though, with a little art class going on as I visited. I also sat in on part of an interesting meeting. A group of psychologists were visiting from Sucre to set up a 'psychoballet' project in the hospital. Psychoballet, which is new to me, but apparently popular in Spain and Cuba, is the therapeutic use of ballet. It's supposedly successful, but I can't imagine it being a hit with some of the more steetwise patients I knew from South London! Overall I felt that the staff were doing a valient job in difficult circumstances, and that many of the problems they faced, especially with addictions disorders, were similar to those in London. However it brought home to me the importance not only of effective medical treatments, but also appropriate accomodation and non-medical care, in treating psychiatric disorders.
After 6 weeks, full of lots more Spanish grammatical concepts to stumble over, it was time to get back on the bikes, which meant, of course, one final excuse for drinks. It was gratifying to find a nice turnout, adding to our feeling that Cochabamba had welcomed us in warmly for our brief stay. We decided on a little bar crawl, and it was at the second venue that we met Brian and the prisoners. Brian is a US volunteer who had been working with a charity that helps out prisoners, and on that night three of his company were prisoners he had invited out for a night of drinking. (Prisoners allowed out for drinks is one of the least odd of the Bolivian prison systems oddnesses; for a great account read 'Marching Powder'. Other quirks; prisoners have to pay an 'entry fee' into the prison, have to buy their cells, and La Paz prison used to produce the highest quality cocaine in the country.) I tried my best Spanish on them but they were making up for lost time, and were largely unintelligable, so we went back to our game of dice.
They headed off for the next bar, then a while later it was our turn, at which point Eleanor and I realised that our 3 jumpers, the sum total of our warm clothing, had disappeared from the back of a chair. An awful gloom settled over us as we searched in vain; how could we have been so careless? Where will we buy anything warm and not llama wool based in Bolivia? Completely dispirited, we trudged to the next venue, where I was confronted by a glazed, swaying prisoner holding our precious gear in his outstretched arms. "I'm Peruvian!" was his only explanation. I was so happy I bought him another beer, which I suspect was punishment enough the next day anyway. The power of relief (and more beer) kept us going till 5am.
Crosses and Kerosine
15 October 2006
La Paz to Cochabamba
03.09.06 - 07.09.06
243 miles, total 2359 miles, 1 111 kilometre day, 1 sheep with earings
Tom: After our various excursions it was finally time to drag ourselves out of La Paz, which meant dragging ourselves back up the hill to El Alto. After a last few pancakes, during which time we were entertained by a wild-eyed young Irishman, just in from a nights drinking, we were off, back up the 'no cycling allowed' motorway. Incidentally the motorway, all five miles of it, cost the Bolivian Government $60 million. Some cynical types have alleged corruption.
It was freezing when we left, but we very shortly heated up on the slow climb. Two hours later we were back in El Alto, and after a few nerve-wracking kilometres dodging the 'micros' (white vans acting as buses, that pull in front of you then slam on the brakes to pick up another customer) we were back in the Altiplano.
We were going to be on the Altiplano for the next three days, before climbing over the mountains and plopping over the edge into Cochabamba, and therefore had plenty of time to get to know it, and plenty of time to look at the scenery as we cycled along the very straight, flat or gently undulating roads. The Altiplano is very high, never dipping below 3800m, is very flat, and very dry, with large amounts of nothing, which is quite stunning in its way. One thing that constantly surprised us was the way we could appear to be in the middle of nowhere, and then come across someone sitting by the road, or walking steadily along. What villages there were were tiny collections of mud-brick houses, with no signs of shops and little signs of life. Every village, however, had signs of NGO activity, with frequent UNICEF signs proclaiming 'proyecto de agua potable'. It was clear people needed all the help they could get to survive in such a harsh environment.
One thing to break the monotony was whirlwind spotting, as they would make their way across the plains, occasionally enveloping one in a column of dust and plastic bags before heading on. Another entertainment was our experiments in coca chewing. The experience is not entirely pleasant; somewhat like snacking on a hedgerow, but the numb mouth is then followed by a mild but discernible energy boost, that sped us on our way.
That evening we made it to a small town, Calamarca. As we pushed into town, looking for some villagers to ask about accommodation, I spotted a group of men sitting by the side of the road. "I read something about not approaching groups of men" Eleanor cautioned. "why ever not?" I scoffed. The answer; because they might be very, very drunk. One clung to my handlebars and started tugging, repeatedly demanding to ride. As he seemed to be having trouble standing, I wasn't keen, and we entered into a tug of war, me firmly holding onto the brakes, him with the power of his breath as a secret weapon. Fortunately eventually his equally drunk, but more polite friend broke off from dribbling on Eleanor's hand and saved me, and we pushed on up the hill looking for anyone sober. It turns out, of course, they were all in the church. We asked a few people about accomodation, and they all pointed to the same house. Unsure of what they were saying, we hung around awkwardly, until a man turned up. Seemingly unsurprised by our appearance, he ushered us into the courtyard and pointed us in the direction of a room where we could sleep; the Sunday school classroom.
We headed off out into the freezing cold the next morning, saying goodbye to the weird-eyed dog, and shortly after, saying hello to a Brazilian motorcyclist, making a tour from his home through the continent. From then we spent two more days crossing the Altiplano, stopping first at Sica Sica, then Caracollo, two small towns with small hotels and proportionally small beds. One problem we continued to encounter was a complete lack of vegetables on offer in any of the towns, a reflection, one supposes, of the dry and dusty earth. Throughout our third day the mountains were creeping closer, giving us an idea of what we would shortly have to traverse. We were going to have our work cut out for us if we were to make it to Cochabamba in two days.
Eleanor: We started out very early from Caracollo, noses and cheeks red, shocked by the cold. We had the road to ourselves at that time of the morning, and it was beautifully silent, flat cycling for the first few hours. The road then turned into the hills and we wound our way up through rolling countryside dotted with seemingly deserted villages and countless herds of llamas and sheep. We noticed that one choice sheep was wearing pink earrings made of wool, but there was no-one around to ask what was so special about her.
To get to Cochabamba in two days we knew we had to get as far as humanly possible before sunset. Each time we arrived at a village we would take one look at the sky, one look at each other, "Stick or twist?"... "Twist!" and we would carry on, pedalling furiously uphills, careering down them, daring to see how far we could get before it was too dark to ride.
We eventually decided to stick at the small village of Challa Grande -there were only a few scraps of light left, and we had spotted a sign in peeling paint declaring the existence of a 'Pension y Restaurante'. This village also looked desolate and rather run-down but as I approached the door of the restaurant and a woman appeared, wiping her hands on her apron. We enquired about a room, and she gestured for us to follow...into what appeared to be the kerosene storeroom. Great big vats of the stuff, and little puddles of it on the floor as well.
It wasn't the most comfortable of bedrooms, but it would be better than camping in the biting wind outside. We put up our tent, while a gaggle of children peered around the door, taking it in turns to push each other into the room and run out again giggling, making little kerosene footprints across the floor. After a while, we closed the door to get changed, and some older boys started the game of 'rattle the gringoes' shouting insults throught the window and banging loudly on the metal door. From time to time Tom walked outside looking stern, and the boys scattered, only to come back minutes later, even louder than before.
Later, deciding that lighting our stove in the kerosene store would be a bad idea, I stepped out into the cold altiplano night to find out what sort of food the restaurant was serving. I ducked through the door to discover that the room was now bright, hot and packed with people. Eating, talking, on chairs, on the floor, leaning against the walls. Children on laps, all dressed in brightly coloured traditional clothing. A silence fell, everyone looked up and then started murmuring or laughing, some pointing at this strange creature that had just walked in. 'Buenas noches' I said quietly, and hurried over to what seemed to be the kitchen, where big scoops of brown stew were being slopped onto plates of rice.
I summoned Tom to come, and we ate as best we could whilst being eyed by everyone in the room. After a while some men gathered around us and we chatted about cycling, whilst we admired their beautifully bright embroidered waistcoats. I asked if I might take a picture of one of their costumes. They refused, but suggested that I draw one instead as I had my notebook in front of me. I've never drawn with such an audience before, and I don't think I did his waistcoat justice, but I was happy to offer some more entertainment.
Soon it was time to tuck ourselves up in our flammable abode, but before we left the restuarant, Tom asked where the toilets were. He was greeted with blank looks. I went to ask once again, and the woman apologetically replied that there weren't any in the whole village. She led me out of the door, and pointed to a wall at the far end of the village, next to the road. Tom: Yes, I'd been introduced to the village's sewerage system, and it was a little basic, to say the least. An exposed patch of ground, in full view of the road, with fighting dogs to keep me company. Well, at least it discourages lingering on the loo.
Eleanor: We got up earlier than we ever had before -we still had 112 km to go before Cochabamba, and we really wanted to make it that day. With little sleep, and little breakfast, the hill was hard-going, and kept on pulling the same old trick of fooling us into thinking we'd reached the top, before plucking another gruelling climb out of its sleeve. We stopped for supplies at a village called Pongo which very appropriately smelt of sewage, and now we understood exactly why. We passed miles and miles of gas pipelines, some being built as we cycled by.
Finally, and not a moment too soon, we were at the top of this range of mountains, and spread out before us were flat green plains fading into the hazy distance. However, it was not quite plain sailing from there on. The roads were fast and windy from there on, but as slow trucks chugged up towards us, faster trucks would overtake them. This meant that that on occasion, after zooming around a tight bend we would be greeted by the slightly hair-raising sight of two trucks coming towards us, one in each lane, forcing us to screech on the breaks and flatten ourselves against the rock as they passed.
The road eventually widened, and as we happily descended into the valley, each bend would bring a degree more heat, and with it a small change in the environment. It was like cycling into Spring. First grass appeared, then lush green trees. A bird flew overhead, then a bit later, a flock of parrots. Life was popping up all around us, and before long, great big fields of produce appeared; pineapples, potatoes and artichokes. We passed fields of onions emitting mouth-watering fresh oniony fumes and our stomachs growled for a hearty meal that evening -it looked like Cochabamba was in our grasp.
Chronicles of life and death
13 October 2006
La Paz, 'World's most dangerous road', Rurrenabaque
23.08.06 - 02-09.06
two full-suspension bikes, no panniers, plenty of alligators
Tom: After the beautiful loneliness of the Altiplano we were confronted by the mad bustle of La Paz. Sucre is still, for typically convoluted historical reasons, the Capital, but the government, the power, and lots of teeming people reside in La Paz, which spreads up the steep sides of its valley and spills over the top into El Alto, a huge slum city.
Having completed our brief burst as cycle-tourers, it was back to being backpackers for a while, to experience some of the thrills Bolivia had to offer, with an obvious first stop - the Coca Museum! The Museum is a rather charming little place dedicated to the magic leaf; its history, its use in ritual, its first commercial uses (coca-cola - which still imports undisclosed tons of bolivian Coca leaves a year to the US, and local anaesthetics), to cocaine production and the 'war on drugs'. Of greater interest though was the lady in charge, understandably hyperactive and cheerful as she repeatedly demonstrated the coca leaf chewing process to curious tourists, and sold bags of coca sweets.
It was at the museum that we met two cyclists, Dipo and Petra from Germany (Ortlieb panniers; the surefire way to identify long-distance tourers). We enjoyed a pleasant dinner with them that night as they recounted their lessons learnt in the dark art of bargaining, and a useful morning of hints and tips from their trip up from Patagonia through Argentina and Chile.
After a couple of days in La Paz, we were in the unusual position of paying someone to take us cycling. We decided to ride down 'the world's most dangerous road', and while we were content to risk our necks, we weren't going risk our bikes.
This soubriquet was not an advertiser's creation, but rather the accurate label given to the Yungas road by the Inter-American Development Bank. A new road is being slowly, painstakingly built through the mountains, but for now, the 10 foot wide dirt road with precipitous drops to one side is the only access to the Northern Bolivian jungle province of Beni. About 200 people a year die, with a vehicle going over the edge about once every two weeks.
We joined a motley crew of gringos for an early breakfast and were then driven up to over 4700m. After a brief play with our fancy full-suspension bikes with terrifyingly powerful disk brakes, and a swig of vicious firewater to appease the gods, we were off.
The first twenty kilometres were on smooth tarmac through beautiful valleys. For once I was missing the weight of my panniers, as with less mass to speed my descent things seemed painfully slow. Things were however to change when, having cleared the second of two DEA anti-drug smuggling checkpoints, the tarmac ran out.
The road, as promised, became a dusty track clinging to the side of jungle-covered cliffs, with vertiginous drops to the left to focus the attention. The riding itself was not exactly a challenge, especially with four inches of springs to cushion any blows, but I had a young crazed German mountain-biker to try to keep up with, and Eleanor in particular, freed from worries about panniers, found the up-side of gravel roads. We screamed on down the hill, interrupted frequently by whistle blasts, our signal to pull into a layby on the cliff-edge, and let a vehicle pass. Vehicles coming up the hill have priority, and get to hug the cliff-face side. Unsurprisingly, mortality is greater on the way down. However a scheme to make the road one way on alternate days was overturned despite success in reducing deaths due to opposition by drivers trying to make their living. One stop was to stare ghoulishly at the site in the jungle far below where a bus had left the road two weeks previously, killing over twenty.
By mid-afternoon our riding was done without incident, and we enjoyed a meal in the steamy valley at the bottom, surrounded by tame monkeys in a restaurant-come-animal reserve, before it was time for the dreaded journey up. The driver was keen to finish the driving before nightfall, but it was not to be, as on rounding a corner we came across several vehicles stopped in the road. A small truck had gone over the edge that morning, remaining undiscovered until a passing driver stopped for an off-the-cliff toilet stop. By the time we arrived firemen were down at the scene, while other drivers and tourists were milling around, talking in hushed tones. Eventually a rope was thrown down and we helped to haul up the body of the unfortunate truck-driver. Later, as our journey back up the hill was resumed, everyone was silent, perhaps struck by the injustices of a road which to some can be a controlled dose of adrenaline, but to others is a way of making a living loaded with unacceptable risk.
Following swiftly on the heels of mountain-bike venture was a trip to Rurrenabaque, the jungle served by the Yungas road. Having had our fill of mortality reminders, we clambered into a small plane in chilly La Paz, and half an hour later were wrapped in the thick, rotting embrace of jungle air. I tried taking a photo of our plane, but could capture nothing but the dripping humidity collecting on the camera lens. The rest of the day consisted of lying under a ceiling fan trying not to raise our metabolism.
The next day we set off on our 'Pampas' tour, accompanied by two Irish girls, a Welshman, two other English, and a pleasant French couple who were in time going to come to regret holidaying with a characteristic sample of what The British Isles has to offer.
After two hours thrown about in a jeep on dusty roads, we piled into a wooden canoe on the Beni river. The first alligator came into view almost immediately, nonchalently yawning on the river bank, and over the next three days the site of them was to become commonplace, although the thrill for me never quite receded. The same could not be said for capibari; oversized guinea pig/rabbit experiments the size of pigs. Groups of them, frozen like tableau, littered the banks, offering little diversion when compared to killer reptiles.
Our riverside camp was simple but pleasant, and came with a house-trained alligator, who would obligingly snap at our enthusiatic guide Gori's hand on request. That night we headed out again on the river. Once the thrill of the eyes shining back at us had begun to pall, Gori waded off into the gloom, coming back with a baby alligator for us to manhandle. It seemed to accept the situation with good grace, lying limply until released back into the murk.
The next day we headed out on foot to search for anacondas, but were not greeted with the expected verdent vista. Farmers surrounding the National Park had allowed the burning off of their fields to run unchecked, and forest fires had swept through the area and were in some places still burning. We therefore found ourselves crunching through blackened grass and burnt stumps of trees. It was probably that and not our incessant talking that scared off the only signs of life; a lake-load of flamingos that wisely decided to take a hike. Otherwise, the fauna were ex-, and carbonised. A crispy alligator skull was admired, and a toasted toad made a good head ornament.
We reached the boggy lake that had previously been anacondaville, and most of the group settled down to rest, suspecting that one sizzled snake was as good as it was going to get. I went crashing on with the French couple, and after half an hour of getting wrapped up in thorns we were rewarded with a brief glimpse of the back half of a fat snake as it disappeared into the mud. We reported our findings to Gori and he set off with a determined look on his face, coming back half an hour later covered in stinking mud and what he assured us was anaconda poo, a two metre black snake coiled around his arm. This specimin wasn't quite so docile as his reptilian cousin, and put up a bit of a fight before curling up in a sulk. The sight as he eventually slithered back into the water was one to behold.
That evening we headed off to a riverside bar to admire the sunset with a beer or few. Come leaving time, a little supper accompaniment seemed a reasonable idea, and so we picked up two bottles of the local brandy-equivalent, Singani. They went down surprisingly well - so well in fact that at midnight the Irish girls concluded we needed more and wobbled off downriver in the canoe, accompanied by an equally wobbly Gori. They were back shortly after armed with two more bottles, having apparently had 'only one' crash into the riverbank. Things get a little unfocused from then on. I apparently developed an ability to speak Spanish, although about what no-one knows, and was found stumbling through the bush at 3am by Eleanor, leaves in hair.
The next morning, plans of dawn walks shelved, a little restorative fishing was in order - for piranhas of course.
After lunch, and a stop to help put out yet another forest fire, was our chance to swim with pink dolphins. Our fears had been that a stray alligator might fancy a nibble, but our focus was astray. Now I don't know whether pink dolphins feel they have some pansy reputation to live down, but they didn't exactly live up to the friendly frolicksome reputation of their salt-water brothers. After a while of splashing around with them, it was made very clear to us that our presence was no longer welcome. I was the first to be shown the door, when a very forceful plume of water from a tail stroke threatened to sink me. Others got similar treatment seconds later, and it had us front-crawling back to the canoe. Proof if needed that the English can make themselves unpopular anywhere.
From there it was back to the road and an interminable jeep journey back to Rurrenabaque. We had a brief stop to take in a local entertainment, where drunken men clambered onto the back of distressed bull and paraded around a ring. The score only briefly looked like swinging in the bull's favour once, when a drunken man perched on the fence, smugly jiggling to his mates, was nearly rectally impaled by a bull horn. Alas, it was not to be. The entertainment was last seen trotting down the road after someone left the door to the pen open, making me briefly panic that I might suddenly be on the wrong side of the fence.
The next day we were back in La Paz, taking our lives into our own hands every time we tried crossing the mini-bus choked streets and preparing ourselves for heading back out onto the altiplano, and, oh yes, the odd mountain too.
If I had a boat
13 October 2006
19.08.06 - 23.08.06 : Bolivian border to La Paz
128 miles, 1 blockade, 1000 Inca steps by bike
Eleanor: Our bus arrived at the Bolivian border, everyone climbed off to get our passports stamped, and formalities over with, almost everyone climbed back again, destination Copacabana, 18km away. We however, to the slight bemusement of the bus driver and other passengers, unloaded our bikes and bags from the baggage hold. It was important that we started cycling from the very border. We assembled our machines in front of a growing crowd of locals, and finally, with a firm push from our bus-pampered legs, set off! It felt very good to be on two wheels again. Lake Titicaca was sparkling to our left, the sun was shining, and we were cycling at last!
Cocacabana is a small town on the edge of Lake Titicaca, and a popular point of access for the 'Isla del Sol' the island held sacred by the Incas for being the birthplace of the sun.
We decided to visit for the day and bring our bikes along to make the hike across the island a little faster. A relaxing day of gentle cycling around an island sounded like a lovely way to get our legs used to the concept of biking again. The man at the boat house said it would be a 'perfecto' place to cycle. As we later found out, he had either never visited the island, or had a very strange idea about what sort of terrain is good for bicycling. The island itself was in fact one steep peak, covered with narrow walking tracks and ancient Inca steps. The tracks we could just about deal with, though it was more of a hair raising mountain-bike scramble then the leisurely Sunday afternoon ride we had envisioned, and our heavy, suspension-less bikes were less than ideal for the job. The Inca steps however, were a different matter and required us carrying our bikes. I felt like I was on an army endurance training exercise. One quick glance at the view of sunset across the lake, then it was time for humping our steel steeds down another punishing set of steps, only just in time to catch the waiting boat. The rest of our tour group were already on it, probably wondering whether or not we were a little bit mad.
It was a long hard climb out of Copacabana, up into barren hills where the air was difficult to come by and every pedal stroke was a challenge.
Then came one of the most beautiful views I have seen on this trip so far. We had reached the top and suddenly we were cycling along a spit of land between the two halves of the lake; Lago Grande to our left and Lago Menor to our right, far far beneath us. In the distance were the snowy peaks of the Cordillera Real. The expanse of lake to my left was so blue it made my mouth water. I wanted to drink it, I wanted to dive into it, and I stared and stared, trying to soak it up with my eyes instead. Far away a small white boat chugged its way across the lake, its distant engine being the only sound we could hear.
After a while, the road turned downhill, and having passed a gang of roadworkers sitting in the sun, we found ourselves speeding effortlessly along on their freshly laid tarmac. We snaked our way downwards, with not another vehicle in sight, sinking closer and closer to the lake as the sun sunk lower in the sky. The road petered out in a village by the lake's edge, and continued on the other side of the lake's narrowest point. To cross, we wheeled aboard a wooden 'ferry', more like some wooden planks with a motor attached. We shared this craft with a large lorry that made the ferry's nose dip alarmingly into the water. At the other side we had been promised a hotel, but alas it didn't exist. We knew that the next town was about 15 km away, and with the sun so low in the sky, it'd be unlikely we'd make it before dark. However, we couldn't quite bring ourselves to turn back to the village on the other side of the straights, so onwards and upwards it was.
After another stiff climb, down we zipped once more and the road flattened out and started following the water's edge. We were now cycling hell-for-leather through small villages and reedbeds tinged with red as the sun set to our right over the lake. It's a pity that one of the most beautiful times of the day should be also the most panic-inducing one for us on our bikes.
I caught up with an old man pedalling slowly, squeakily along. How much further to Huatajata please? "About an hour by bike" he replied. I hoped that we'd be a bit quicker than him depsite our heavy loads and pushed down even harder on my pedals.
It was properly dark now, and the road could only just be made out, but to my right the faint blue glow of the lake could still be seen. In the distance I could see the lights of what looked like a hotel, standing tall above the other buildings in the area. The 'spa and swimming pool' signs and electric gates that opened for us rang 'out of our price range' warning bells, but we were desperate. The woman in reception looked me up and down, and I suddenly felt very conscious of my sweaty cycling gear and helmet. "80 dollars", and she wasn't budging on the price. Tom said not even the promise of a full body scrub and pedicure was worth that.
We reluctantly cycled back to a scary looking petrol station we had passed a few minutes earlier and there the smiling, toothless owner beckoned for us to follow him. We did, down a dark lane, through a door into what seemed to be a derelict building. I think it had once been a hotel, but it had the deep-down-chill of a place that had not been inhabited in a while, and there was no running water. Suddenly I was very very cold. The cycling and panic generated heat had faded away, and I was left shivering violently. It took a while of wriggling inside my sleeping bag to warm myself back up again, and I stayed in my bag to eat the dinner that the owner's wife kindly offered to cook for us. Somewhere down the in the depths of the building we could hear pots and pans crashing, then a few minutes later, two plates of trout and rice appeared. Fresh trout from the lake, and it was delicious. Food achieved, the next objective was sleep, but first we wanted to snoop around this strange place a little. The owners left, and padlocked us in for the night, and so once the key had turned in the lock we tiptoed downstairs into the dark and shone our torches around. We were in the bar area, surrounded by dusty bottles of fizzy drinks and a calender from 1998 showing glossy picures of the hotel in its heyday. This is exactly how Howard Carter must have felt when discovering the tomb of Tutankhamun. We found a sink to brush our teeth in, but it turned out that the water the owner had left us was lemon flavoured, and mingled with spearmint, made for a very strange taste to end the day with.
I awoke early the next morning, and on peering out of the cracked window discovered that the 'hotel' was right on the water's edge, and boats bobbed nearby in the sun. Attached was what used to be an indoor swimming pool, but the glass roof was broken, and trees were growing through it.
We weren't far down the road that day when we had an enthusiastic offer of breakfast from another empty lake-side hotel. We sat outside in the sun eating our eggs, squinting blindly at the sun but still wrapped up in all our warmest clothes. As if they had been placed there to appeal to our tourist sense of the scenic, two old women sat weaving at a ground-level loom. A grandchild watched with fascination, whilst behind them a ginger kitten rolled and played in balls of brightly coloured yarns.
A few metres down the road we came across the house/museum of Paulino Esteban, the man chosen by the explorer and archaeologist Thor Heyerdahl to make the reedboat "Ra II". It was sailed from Morocco to Barbados in order to explore the idea that ancient peoples may have made long voyages in these types of boats.
We sat in one, and Paulino paddled us around the lake for a few minutes. Incredibly sturdy and buouyant, it felt a bit like sailing in a sofa. A lovely comfy way to cross the Atlantic I thought.
Our intended stop for the night Batallas didn't offer anywhere to stay, and we were advised to carry on a few kilometres down the road to a small village called Puerto Perez on the lakeside. It was well worth the detour, as here we found an idyll of a place, run by a Bolivian 'jazz fusion' musician and his wife. We were treated to a rendition on his zampoñas (panpipes) and then a delicious meal. There was even a selection of cheese and salami to start with, and Tom was in his cheese-eating element. We slept in our own little cabin with alpaca rugs and a medition platform up in the rafters. I could have stayed a week.
We started later than hoped for the next morning, as the owner advised us to listen to the news before setting off. There had been blockades on the roads to La Paz in recent days, but it sounded like all was clear, so off we set. The road was flat and straight, but with none of the beautiful views we'd had over the last few days. It did have the advantage of being very fast however, and we arrived at La Paz's suburb city of El Alto in good time. We looked down into the sprawling bowl of La Paz with some trepidation as memories of Tegucigalpa, the horribly hectic, bowl-like Honduran city surfaced. As it turned out, getting in there was no problem. A policeman directed us to the motorway or 'Autopista' that ran straight into the middle of the city, and down we sped, remarking on the 'no cycling' signs as we did so. At the end of the motorway was a protest. Only around a hundred people were involved, but they were still managing to completely block the main road into the city. We wheeled our bicycles through the throng, jumping every time a firecracker was set off. We didn't stop to find out what they were protesting about, our hotel-homing instincts had kicked in by that point and before long we were tucked up, dreaming of panpipes and pedalos.
Buses and trains
3 September 2006
28.07.06 - 19.08.06 : Macará, Peru to the Bolvian border
8 buses, 67 hours of bus travel, 1 country
We'd done our sums, and the cold hard facts told us that something had to give. There wasn't a way that we could cycle all the way to Patagonia by the end of March, leave enough time to enjoy the places we found along the way, as well as take time out to do some volunteering. Our optimistic selves at the beginning of all of this had not accounted for the complexities that bad roads and bad knees can add. So somewhat reluctantly, we decided that some buses would have to be taken, and Peru with its long stretches of desert seemed to be the best canditate.
I borded the bus to Piura with a niggle of excitement in my stomach. We were to be bus travellers for a while; arriving at places without having to slog up hills, no tousled hair stuck to our sweat covered foreheads, no beast-like hunger to satisfy before we could even think straight. I looked forward to being able to swan in, fresh and sparkly, with immaculate hair.
The bus ride itself wasn't as exciting as I had hoped. We were approaching the deserty coast of Peru now, and the scenery was flat, dusty and hot looking. Interest was added by the settlements we passed, but without the sounds, smells, and human encounters of our usual mode of transport, these all seemed the same after a while. That was until we passed a rubbish dump on the edge of Piura, and not even the coach windows could keep out the stench. At first I thought the black flapping shapes were vultures feasting on the litter, but on closer inspection they turned out to be black plastic bags; the wind on the flat plains had strewn them as far as the eye could see.
We stopped in Piura purely to change buses. We booked onto the night bus to Trujillo, just in time as it turned out, as we had unwittingly chosen the Independence Day weekend for our journey. The bus station was abuzz with people, packages, snack sellers and some shady characters lurking in the corners. Then the bad news came: there would be no room for our bikes on the bus. We could see why; everyone was travelling with a large entourage of bundles. Our bikes would have to go on the next bus we were told, leaving half an hour later. We very reluctantly agreed, feeling slightly reassured by the seeming poshness of this bus company. I was just sitting down in seat 9a, looking anxiously out of the window at our poor abandoned bikes, when I noticed a man wheeling my bike away. Up I jumped in a flash, down the bus steps, only to see him loading it into the baggage compartment. There was room after all. What a relief; maybe there would be a chance of me sleeping on this night bus now.
The journey passed in a haze of badly dubbed films, processed ham sandwiches and snippets of delirious sleep. We arrived in Trujillo, tousled, flushed and not in the best of moods. But before we could relax, we needed to find ourselves a bus that would take us to our final port of call: Huaraz. It took us five and a half hours of cycling around the ring-road system visiting various bus companies to eventually find one that would fit us and our bikes on the same bus. It wasn't to leave until 9 the next morning, so we found a hostel and slept.
The bus to Huaraz was the comfiest yet; this was the QE2 of buses. Plush seats coddled us, the toliets smelt of roses and the smiling bus steward served us Coke and crackers. We settled in to our seats and looked out of the window; we were now on the coastal road proper. Grey desert surrounded us, grey sand-dune hills loomed on the left hand side, a grey cold looking sea was on our right. Periodically, lurid yellow Inca Cola signs flew past us adding a dash of colour to the monochrome landscape. We read, ate and, looking up from time to time, were amazed to find that we were still surrounded by the same grey landscape.
Eventually, we turned left, left the coast behind and started climbing into the hills. The bus that had seemed quite at home thundering along the straight desert roads now swayed like a tall ship as it rounded increasingly tight bends and wound its way up, up into the heights of the Cordillera Blanca. Yet still the bus-steward teetered down the aisles clutching a tray of glasses filled with Coke without spilling a drop. I have no idea how. I suspect years of training on simulation machines. The views got increasingly dramatic, until we rounded a bend and saw a row of white peaks, with a lake beneath reflecting the blue sky perfectly. We put our books down and soaked in the strange and beautiful sights.
Huaraz is a base for climbers and trekkers exploring the Cordillera Blanca and wherever we went around town we saw people with grizzled faces sporting adventurous clothes. I wondered what exciting things they had been up to. We decided that our taste of adventure in the area was to be a 4 day trek around the 'Santa Cruz' Circuit. A trek known for spectacular scenery, yet not too taxing. We thought this a good option as we weren't sure how our legs would fare faced with the prospect of going up and down instead of the round and round that they'd become so very used to.
The first day started with a bumpy ride in a small van to the start of the trek. So bumpy that my head was thrust with vigour into the ceiling on some of the larger potholes. We strained our necks to follow the huge peaks as they passed, heads bashing against the windows as the van bounced and rolled over the mountain passes. We stopped to admire turquoise lakes far far below us, and could notice the air getting thinner, or was it just vertigo? We arrived, and sat exhasuted, eating bananas as our donkeys were loaded with our gear. Yes, this was the luxurious way to trek; donkeys to carry our tents, and a cook to prepare our meals. The first day's hiking was suprisingly hard work though. There just didn't seem to be enough air up there, and I found myself lagging behind the others as we clambered up the rocky paths. I didn't feel too bad about that later when I found out that one member of our group was a former member of the Swiss special forces and a 'iron-man' competition competitor. What a lovely sight our camp was at the end of the day, tents all set up ready for us, our donkeys munching grass on the outskirts. We were ushered into the food tent and before long were presented with fried trout and potatoes, with a hot cup of mate de coca on the side. All seemed far too easy, but I wasn't complaining.
The next morning wasn't so easy however. It had been a night of broken sleep, with periodic wakenings to put yet more clothes on, until I was sleeping in all of the clothes I had, including two hats. The reason for this was clear when we emerged from our tents; the ground was covered with a layer of shimmering frost and our water bottles were frozen solid. The sun hadn't hit our tents yet and they too were coated in white. It took a good half an hour of hiking up a hill to fully feel my fingers and toes again, but before long the sun was out in full force again and the factor 50 sun cream was needed. We hiked to the top of a pass, and suddenly we were amongst the white peaks we had seen from the bus. Pure white voluminous snow had been piled on top like icecream. Mmmmm. They looked so close, yet we knew that their summits were thousands of metres away. That night's camp was especially beautiful, nestled in a valley with amazing mountain views all around, and a small network of rivers circling us. The iron man went for a skinny dip. I dipped my toe in, and my bones nearly shattered with the cold, and so I settled for trying a bit of sketching in the sun outside our tent. I'd never really tried to draw a mountain before, and I discovered it's a very difficult task. Something that big just doesn't fit on a small piece of paper.
From Huaraz, we continued our journey south, once again by night bus, to the capital, Lima. We'd heard stories about Lima, mostly not good ones, about the level of crime. We took a taxi from the bus station to the area of 'Miraflores' where most of the hostels are located, and could start to understand a bit about the problem. It was a long drive, and the contrast in levels of wealth was clear to see. The crumbling buildings with piles of rubbish outside stood in stark contrast to the shiny modern, gated residences we saw in the Miraflores district.
The next day, it was time for a trip to the main post office. With luck, five parcels of essential clothing items and books would be waiting for us there. Such suspense, such hope, but no, only one had turned up. The lady behind the counter had little patience for our requests for her to 'check just one more time at the back of that cupboard.' We spent the morning taxiing across town to all of the other post offices, but still no luck. Either they're still in transit across the atlantic, or some lucky postman somewhere is wearing thick winter cycling gloves, wearing Adidas wrap around sunglass lenses like monocles and reading 'War and Peace'.
We bought our next set of bus tickets in town that day; to Cusco. A painful sounding 19 hours trip. The top notch bus company was fully booked, but we managed to get some tickets with the next best. We were assured that they were just as good, only their buses were a little bit older. It won over flying, for the simple reason that packing our bikes up in boxes for a flight seems to usually take us at least one whole day.
Tom fell ill that night; I blamed the suspiciously quick arrival of the special fried rice we had eaten for lunch. He spent the next day limply flicking through channels on the tv inbetween visits to the bathroom. It's not all glamour this travelling lifestyle you know.
Still feeling weak but over the worst and loaded up on imodium, it was time to drag my weary body from my death-bed for the thrilling prospect of a 19 hour bus journey to Cusco. What an error. We got to the bus station nice and punctually and were quite impressed to see they had pretentions of being an airline; checking in and even weighing our bikes and bags in an efficient-seeming manner. That however was the end of the pretence. The 4pm departure time came and went with no sight of a bus, and we were forced to entertain ourselves by watching the builders who were apparently working on a shiny new terminal, get themselves into difficulties as a girder dangled from a crane, periodically slipping further through the ropes, and getting perilously close to destroying the scaffolding. At 5pm a fellow French traveller and elected spokesman started making enquiries, to be told '10 more minutes' at 20 minute intervals. At 6 the bus finally arrived and by 6.30 we were finally off.
Most travellers are not man (or fool) enough to bus all the way from Lima, so we had the coach virtually to ourselves until midnight, when we arrived in Nasca, and a tour-group excitedly piled on in their newly purchased Peruvian knitted hats and incongruous ponchos. I decided that sleep was the best option and took a bumper dose of the potent 'available over the counter' hypnotics we had purchased in Lima.
Eleanor: I was awake and was noticing with only mild alarm the slow progress the bus seemed to be making; at intervals the bus would stop, the driver's mate would jump out, and the bus would crawl along with him running alongside, staring intently at something underneath -the wheels? the engine? After a few repeats of this procedure the bus stopped for good. The bus had broken down, but.. what was that? I strained my Spanish ears to hear the announcement. "There'll be a few hours to wait for the replacement bus..." You have to be joking. "...there is however a bus right behind us with room for just 15 people on it to go to Cusco." Right, I thought, we're on that bus. "Let's go Tom!" Tom was fast asleep.
Tom: I was ejected from a beautiful drugged dreamless sleep and into the luggage hold of the bus, lugging bikes whilst being shouted at by impatient bus drivers. Congratulating ourselves on our rapid action, we settled down for another few hours of rest as the bus slowly climbed up into the hills, but even that was not to last, as we pulled into Arequipa bus station for another change, to an older, more cramped bus. On and on our day from hell went, as we travelled through starkly beautiful but bleak landscapes. The bus then made a tour of Juliaca, which was appropriately enough a true vision of hell; cold wind blowing dust down a ripped up road past mud-brick shacks and drunken old men. From there we had to endure 8 more hours as the bus headed first away from Cusco to Puno, before doubling back on the same road, along with complementary repeat tour of Juliaca.
We finally arrived in Cusco at midnight, 30 hours after we had started, shell-shocked and exhausted. We ignored the hotel touts and headed for a likely area, but rapidly realised our mistake as we walked up and down the dark alleys knocking on locked doors, with people sending us on, but also telling us to 'take care - it's dangerous!'. We were for once very grateful for an overpriced hotel with a vacancy. We slept well that night.
We were in much better form when we woke up, and were in better mood to appreciate the architectural delights of Cusco. Cusco was the old capital of the Inka kingdom, supposedly shaped like a puma, and at that time each local leader had to build a house and spend part of his time in Cusco. When the Spanish came along, and in the usual true colonial style, they built their buildings on the Inkan foundations, and it went on to be very prosperous. However the final architectural battle was won at least in part by the Inkans, when a 1950 earthquake damaged much of the colonial architecture, but exposed the rock-solid Inkan foundations below. These have been left exposed, leaving a dramatic two-teir effect, and showing off the impressive huge-block masonry in its splendour.
We spent a couple of days apppreciating all this whilst on our usual round of eating, internet and shopping, before heading for the obligatory Machu Picchu tour. We boarded our train at Ollantaytambo, and had a little time to admire the Inkan fortress there. (The train, cannily enough, is the only way to get to Machu Picchu, and therefore has a monopoly on tourists which it sensibly exploits with incredibly expensive tickets. Not so canny, for the Peruvians at least, is that it is owned by Chile.) On first seeing the fortress, I wondered whether either Tolkein or Peter Jackson had visited, as it bore a striking resemblance to 'Helms Deep'. It had also been one of the last stands of the Inkans too, when the last king Manco Inca retreated there in his ongoing battle with the conquistadors. Without Gandalf on his side he was however less successful, retreating from Ollantaytambo and giving up the highlands, before ultimately being trecherously murdered in 1544.
The train takes one to Aguas Calientes, a town that nestles prettily beneath the steep-sided valley walls, but exists only to ferry tourists up the hill to the ruins, having first sold them an overpriced pizza.
A painfully early start the next day (and our most expensive and shortest bus journey yet) ensured that we were close to the front for doors opening at 6am, and had the blissful experience of clambering over the dramatic site alone, but for the llamas on gardening duty. The site itself is in an almost impossibly dramatic location, perched on a rock 2000m above the Urubamba river, and inbetween two mountain peaks. The location also seems to have appealed to the Inkas; apparently it was the country retreat for nobs and royalty, away from the potentially murdurous Cusco hoi polloi. That kept it away from the 'extreme makeover' hands of the conquistadors, and it may have even been abandoned by their time. The Sun-god king held residence there, who's palace had both en-suite Sun temple and toilet, an apparently unique luxury. One thing that makes me think the Inkans days may have been numbered even without Spanish intervention is the fact that, while his harem was apparently well-stocked, his heir had to be produced by number one wife; his sister. I'd imagine they were headed for the gory photo pages of the genetics textbooks at high speed.
After a brief tour of the rubble we headed up Waynapicchu, the big nose-shaped peak towering above the site, backdrop to all the postcard pictures. We spent an hour of hard climbing, passed by several groups of Japanese tourists, unusually clad in office shoes and white woollen gloves. At the top were more ruins, and a chance to catch our breath, before the stomach-churning descent down vertiginous flights of steps. By twelve we were done, just as the thronging masses from the day-tripper train were hitting their peak. Machu Picchu had won us over with its drama and beauty despite the efforts of the train, bus and entrance ticket prices to harden our hearts.
Cusco somehow sapped our will to leave, and it was three days before we were on the road again, again by bus. Having started by bus in Peru, we had determined to finish that way, but reading tales of robberies of cyclists on the road ahead certainly helped cement our decision. We bussed back to Puno and bought our tickets onward to the border for the next day, whilst eavesdropping on a group of girls tearfully reporting their bag stolen.
Overall we had mixed feelings about our descent into 'backpacking with awkward luggage' in Peru. Peru itself has huge amounts to see and do, from history to mountains to sandboarding, and we only got a brief 'taster' in our three weeks, but was also the first country we couldn't let our guard down in, because of scare stories of crime, but also from warnings by locals wherever we went. My hunch is that the crime is related to the great disparities in wealth we encountered, especially in Lima and Cusco; a large army of disaffected have-nots, with millionaires in their midst. It was good, also, to find ourselves missing the aspects cycling can give you, not least the views of small-town life and interactions with people. Time to get back on the bikes!
Four seasons in one day
6 August 2006
24.07.06 - 27.07.06: Loja - Macará
109 miles, total: 1988 miles, 3 giant grasshoppers, 7 helpings of muesli in one sitting
Eleanor: Our bright and early start out of Vilcabamba was hindered by the realisation that it would be sheer lunacy not to take advantage of the free breakfast in our hostel. These were delights that had been the stuff of dreams for the last few weeks; fruit salad, pancakes, muesli and most excitingly of all, brown toast. As we gorged ourselves on second and third helpings of jam laden slices we were sure that every bite would pay off directly in miles covered today.
But first, we had to get back on to the route at Loja, by bus. Once at the bus terminal, lots of frenzied 'wrapping rope around a large object' actions and cries of 'Muy fuerte, por favor!' to the man strapping our bikes on to the top of the bus made sure our bikes were more securely attached this time. Still, that didn´t stop me gritting my teeth every time the bus teetered around a corner on two wheels.
We screeched to a halt in Loja at around lunchtime and with bikes and bags once again assembled, set off through the honking traffic to find our road South. We had cycled a good few miles through town when we reached a fork in the road. 'Which one will take us south on the Panamerican, please?', I enquired of a bus driver sitting on the kerbside peeling a tangerine. Neither would. The turning for the road South was near the bus station where we had been dropped off in Loja an hour earlier. Arghh. After a brief roadside meeting we decided that, rather than risk a potential 'stuck up a hill in the middle of nowhere, what shall we do' fiasco (which we are usually so fond of), we should cut our losses and start afresh in the morning and make a proper go of it. The rest of the day was spent fruitfully, cleaning chains and stocking up on cereal bars in a supermarket; a rare treat.
The next day, I was glad we hadn´t started at 2.30 in the afternoon the day before. A long, big climb awaited us and the steep sides that fell away from the road would have meant no easy camping spots had we not made it to the top before dark. At the top we stopped in the cold and squally rain for some banana hot dogs*, and then knowing that what lay ahead, wrapped up very warm for a long, cold descent.
No matter how hot we are after an uphill, the air temperature is so cold in Ecuador that you know you´ll need all the wool and windstopper you´ve got to counter the chill. Despite that, it felt good to be whizzing along with no effort at all after all that slugging. Down we went, through pockets of rain, fog, chilled to the bone, still more down, for what felt like miles and miles, until I noticed a faint warmth to the air; my shoulders that had been hunched against the cold, relaxed, and, was that a palm tree over there?
At the valley bottom it was astonishingly hot, in a matter of minutes we had plumetted from rainy winter into a hot baking summer. We both felt rather disorientated, jet-lagged almost. It looked, felt and smelt like a totally different country. We had some juicy tomatoes for lunch under the shade of a tree, then started to climb up the other side of the valley. My body had forgotten how to deal with hot weather it seemed, and I was reminded of the first few days of the trip in the oppressive Mexican heat.
We were expecting to have to camp that night at the side of the road, but magically a village called El Cisne turned up just as we were flagging. The villagers ran to greet us. Well a small gang of children did, doughnuts in hand, eager to be the first to sell the gringoes their wares. We didn't need any doughnuts, but answered questions such as 'Why don´t you just buy a car?' and 'Why do all gringoes have blue or green eyes?' as best we could, whilst thirstily slurping down fizzy drinks.
We stayed in a ramshackle 'hostal' owned by a smiling old man, who also happened to be rather deaf. We learnt the extent of his deafness the next day when, eager to get out of the hostel for breakfast, we discovered we were locked in to the courtyard section at the back of the house. We patiently knocked for a few minutes, then less patiently banged, then shouted. No one came. Tom was just attempting to lever the door open with a large piece of chipboard, when it opened suddenly. The old man had been watching television a couple of feet away, but hadn´t heard a dicky-bird.
We sat outside a small restaurant on the square and ordered a standard breakfast of eggs, bread and coffee. On the mention of bread, the waitress nodded to her co-worker; it seemed they´d run out and it was her task to go and buy some more. A cunning plan formed in my head; we needed bread for the day, but we had yet to find any bread shops in this village. I decided to follow the bread buyer, stealth style, to the bread source.
I waited a few moments until she had disappeared around the next corner, then got up from the table and headed off in the same direction. I spotted her pink-jumpered form striding down the street a few metres in front of me. I followed at a safe distance, feeling a little foolish in my bike tights and cycle jacket without the usual explanatory prop of my bicycle or helmet. The woman took a right turn, then a sharp left, now I was running to keep up, eyes fixed on that pink jumper. Now where? There she was, hurrying along a dirt track that seemed to lead out of the village -where on earth was this bread shop?
Then suddenly, I had lost her. I asked a couple of old ladies chatting on the roadside if there was a bread shop around here. 'No, only in the centre of the village, although..' one of them mused 'I think the house on the corner over there sells bread'. Aha. I went to investigate, and sure enough found a small paper sign in the window 'Se vende pan', but the place looked deserted. I asked the man lifting wood into a van on the street. 'No, no bread, not today' he said. Finally defeated, I ran back to the restaurant in the square, where I found Tom munching on eggs, and... bread. 'Where have you been? The woman returned in about one minute with this bread.' Bah. My sleuthing skills may need some honing.
It took us two more days of hot uphilling (people doing this trip from south to north have it too easy!) to reach the Peruvian border. Ecuador had proved to be a very friendly, dramtically scenic and consequently challenging country to cycle through. Some good training for the road ahead...
*Banana hot dogs: Replace sausage with banana, replace mustard with honey. Omit ketchup.
where I lay my hat
6 August 2006
Cuenca - Vilcabamba, Ecuador
140 miles, total mileage; 1879, max daily metres climbed; 1667, 1 day; 11 hours in the saddle.
Tom: Our two planned and one impromptu rest days in Cuenca were pleasant but fairly unremarkable. Cuenca was a moderately large city with a colonial centre that is becoming increasingly familiar, and just enough cafes to while away the hours. We also learnt a valuable moral lesson; excited by the one dollar pirate DVDs we settled down with the hostel DVD player and some somewhat sickly caramel popcorn only to wail and gnash our teeth as, after an hour of watching, the sound went out of synch with the sound by several minutes. (Moral; pay more for your pirate DVDs.)
After one day's false start ("that was the alarm, shall we get up then?" "Na.") we were back on the road, with a rather less than propitious start. Armed with the vague notion that the Pan-American was 'over that way somewhere', and a devilish one-way system, we were soon completing a dull and draining tour of Cuenca's outskirts, and it was heading for midday before we were on the open road. The road itself was something of a novelty though; the first twenty kilometres were flat. Also some unusual roadworks were going on, laying miles of concrete over the top of the tarmac. We got to test run the road, dodging the men patiently painting over the cracks, and the ice-cream man serving the weary workers.
All flat things must come to an end, however, and soon the inevitable climbing started, and we left the cow fields behind, and wheezed our way up into moorland reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands. Three hours later we were finally at the top, but had little time to celebrate as the sun was dipping dangerously low in the horizon. We knew there was little on the road, and were hoping to camp, but where? The rough moorland fell away on both sides of the road, offering nothing. We pressed on, hoping for a big down to take us a few kilometres on, but the road frustrated us with an up for every down. We were beginning to get distinctly tense, our blithe luck seemingly having deserted us. As the last rays of sun were stretching across the hills, we came by a track heading off to a distant village, and a farmer's hut. With no-one around to ask, and definitely with a mind to getting ourselves out of sight of the main road before night was completely on us, we rather anxiously and furtively set up camp in the hut. Dusk had come and gone, when the last hints of light picked out a mysterious shape making its way towards us, finally revealing itself as a horseman. We gabbled our apologies and explained our situation. "Si, Si, esta bien," he said, rather amused, "but why didn't you carry on to the village?" jerking his thumb on down the road we had been travelling.
The next day were were indeed able to confirm that there was a small village about two kilometres on from our hiding place, but no matter, our hut had served us well. The road carried on rolling up and down through the moorland, a bright sun combining with a chill wind, before heading downward. We stopped in a dusty town to scour the shops for biscuits, crisps and other healthy fare. There was also a particularly striking example of the Ecuadorian 'clown bin', that seemed to be troubling the local dog.
When the downhill came, it really came in earnest; from over 3300 metres to under 2000 metres in half an hour of screaming straights and sweeping hairpins - more than enough to shake off the morning cobwebs. Of course that meant up again, out of the valley bottom, and slowly back up to almost the same height that we'd lost. For a brief while on our way a boy joined us on his bike, assuring us we had an hour to the top. The road zig-zagged across the face of a steep cliff before heading over the top...for more up. We again found ourselves in the late afternoon with accomodation issues. At the 3000 metre mark, we met a cheery group of policemen. "you're at the top!" they assured us. "downhill only!" they gestured with their shotguns. "Saraguro no problem!" Feeling hopeful again, we pressed on, each turn bringing yet more up, and more impenetrable tent-unfriendly scrub. The road did finally start its descent, and at dusk we were in a rather small and rundown village called Urdaneta. We scoured the fields and roadsides for somewhere to camp, but saw instead the tempting twinkling lights of Saraguro, 9km away. "It's so close, why not press on?" we reasoned, ignoring once again the still small voice of sanity. The road, of course, promptly shot down and down into a hitherto hidden valley, so that by nightfall we were a good 300 metres below those now mocking lights, with no choice but to get back into hillclimbing mode. We finally collapsed into a hotel at 8.30pm, after 11 hours in the saddle, and with a new record of 1667 metres climbed (Ben Nevis, at 1334m, eat your heart out).
The next day over breakfast we were able to take in more of Saraguro, home to a proud and particularly nattily dressed indigenous tribe. The mens' outfit consists of long black shorts and a black top with optional poncho, finished off with a black hat and long plait of hair - overall a good look that has only recently been implemented wholesale by British and US Nu-Metal enthusiasts.
We had been told by other cyclists about a dirt-road route on to Loja that avoided a big hillclimb, but try as we might, we couldn't get anyone to tell us where it was. "no, this road better! Nice, pavemented!" they all exclaimed, brushing aside our fears about hillclimbs, so press on up the hill we did. Eleanor's cycling was briefly enlivened by an elderly couple with their horse, making conversation with her as she weaved up the road (a most impressive bit of multi-tasking currently beyond my abilities).
That day's riding consisted of a big up, a dip into a valley, then another, with the thought that our target, Loja, was on the other side to motivate us. As we were taking a well-earned banana sandwich break from the second hillclimb, there was a thundering sound then a stampede of bulls came round the corner ahead, closely followed by two running men. We flattened ourselves against the hedge as they shot past, but the men smiled and waved, then broke off to distract a bull getting amorous with someone else's cow, and rescue another from the ditch, before heading off round the corner. All in a day's work I suppose.
By late afternoon we could see Loja in the valley below us, although the local dogs were conspiring to spoil my downhilling fun; one required a rather hasty emergency stop, including rubber skid-marks on the road. Loja is a fairly large city, which meant that the last few kilometres were the expected hell of honking taxis and huge lorries, but the pizza and beer later helped as we celebrated our achievements of making it through some dramatic (i.e. hilly) countryside in good time for once.
The next day we headed off for another side-trip to a small town set in a beautiful valley called Vilcabamba. The population there are meant to be particularly healthy and durable, and we were hoping some of the magic would rub off on us. To ensure this, we elected to make it a bus trip. We soon regretted our decision, firstly as the road, after a brief up, snaked down and down into the valley below, later, and more seriously, as we heard the scrape of bike-on-roof everytime the bus took a corner. By the time we had arrived in Vilcabamba town, and two kilometres from our elected hostel, our nails and nerves had had enough, and we piled out to inspect the damage and finish the journey by pedal power. We again had plenty of time to rue our hastiness. Firstly, and after all the descending by bus, the last bit was up, and our winter layers had to cope with the unaccustomed warmth of Vilcabamba. Once we had sweated our way up to the hostel, we were just in time to watch a Swiss family sign in to the final room. After a tour of the swimming pool, fine gardens, and restaurant with view, and some soul searching, we took their last two dorm rooms, and settled in to enjoy our first of many fine meals. Time for some rest and carbo-loading before our last stretch in Ecuador, and the unknowns of Peru.
Somewhere over the rainbow
22 July 2006
04.07.06 - 14.07.06: Riobamba - Cuenca
174 miles, total: 1739 miles, 13 dead dogs, 1 dead cat
Eleanor: I could hardly summon up the energy to get out of bed - there was no way we were going anywhere on a bike today. Wrapped in up in all my jumpers I stumbled down to the the hostal´s own ´Rainforest Cafe´ and nibbled tentatively at some pieces of fruit covered in honey -the only thing my stomach could stomach. The 'rainforest' theming had been somewhat haphazardly executed, consisting solely of faux snakeskin tablecloths and some silk daffodills draped around pillars with the odd wooden parrot hanging from the ceiling. The ´Best Panpipe Hits in the World Ever´ CD was playing. I decided it was time to get back to bed for some more sleep and some langorous staring at the ceiling. It was a very pretty ceiling as it turned out, a masterwork of plasterwork; a repeating floral design in the rococo style.
Later on that day I ventured out of the hotel for a short walk, blinking in the sunlight. Still in a bit of daze, the city seemed to be moving too fast for me, cars appeared from nowhere to beep angrily as I tried to cross the road, I nearly tripped over the fruit stalls that seemed to be on every street corner. Fruit stalls that were with laden with neat pyramids of familiar tangerines and apples, but also fruit that I had never seen before; pale yellow smooth ones the size of a fist with purple stripes; large brown ones the size and shape of a turnip but the texture of a coconut. I was passed at great speed by a woman wheeling a fruit stall whose fruit seemed to be screaming. On closer inspection it turned out that it wasn´t the fruit, but her small child that was being transported in the bottom chamber of the stall making the noise. Only a tiny pair of frustrated hands were visible.
One more day passed me by in a stupor, then not being able to face another day of staring at that ceiling, we decided come what may, we´d hit the road the next. The morning was spent creaking uphill, weaving in and out of stationary trucks on the roadside and being blasted with fumes by the moving ones. My weak legs were making heavy work of it, and so we stopped for an early lunch at a bustling market town. 'Dos almuerzos por favor' -two lunches please. That´s the nice thing about most of the restaurants here, there´s no faffing about with menus, or choosing. Lunch is lunch, and you´ll get what you´re given. Usually a soup of some kind, followed by either chicken or beef with rice, with a juice on the side. This time the soup was a watery cabbage and chicken broth, which was exactly what my body needed, and I for the first time in a while I felt energised. The cycling became easier, and before too long, the road forked. The trucks went right to the coast, and we cycled straight on. At last, free of the fumes, we were travelling along a lush green valley plane and all was idyllic. The painful uphills turned to effortless downs. Groups of people in indigenous dress sat in the afternoon sunlight sorting beans, chatting and smiling. Children with dirty, rosy faces wrapped up in red ponchos chased each other in the long grass, donkeys brayed and pigs snuffled at the roadside. This was more like it. The miles sped past happily and photogenically and before too long we arrived in the town of Guamote, our stop for the night. Here however, the idyll was shattered; two dead dogs lay in front of us in the street. Another looked on in apparent distress at the scene, but then started munching at his late friend´s leg. It´s a cruel world.
We stayed at the 'Ramada International', we suspect not part of the famous international hotel chain, but very hospitable all the same.
The next morning I was feeling sick again, but after a few tablets I was on my bike; more than anything I didn´t want to spend the day in Guamote. It wasn´t long before it dawned on me that I had made the wrong decision. Not being able to properly eat anything for a while meant I had absolutely no energy. Hills were next to impossible, and the day was spent willing myself to take one more pedal stroke. We made it to Alausi somehow, me on the power of boiled sweets alone. Tom later said that the scenery that day had been absolutely stunning. You´ll have to look at the pictures.
We vowed to take some time off in Alausi to properly recover. Our hotel was fortuitously placed next to the Chinese restuarant in town, and we gave them some good business. Suddenly, my appetite returned and we spent two days eating vegtable chow meins and watching the spectacle of the arrival and departure of the ´Ferrocarril´ train. A big tourist draw, it´s known as the ´most difficult train in the world´ as it traverses some very steep valleys. We watched the 'gringos' getting loaded onto the roof of the train, and as they rumbled off into the distance I had a slight pang of jealousy as I realised that tomorrow we´d be doing the same thing, only with no engines.
We really did get up bright and early to tackle the day ahead. Finally, I felt good, which was just as well, because the climb out of Alausi was a steep one. A small boy accompanied us for some of the way on his bike. The day was spent snaking slowly upwards around the edge of a precipitous valley, round headland after headland. The views only became more spectacular with every corner that we navigated, and I had to be careful not to stray over the road´s edge every time I admired the scene. Up and up we went, and each drink and snack stop provided a cinematic vista. We may have lingered a little too long admiring the views, as at around 4 pm we realised that we weren´t going to make it to the town of Zhud as planned for the night. We would have to find somewhere to camp. The thought daunted a little, as most of the camping we´ve done up until now has been in a campsite, all proper like. We started talking to people we met on the road, deciding our strategy should be: 1) Ask how far it is to Zhud. 2) When they say ´Quite far´, say: ´Oh dear, we´ll have to stay around here, are there any hotels nearby do you happen to know?´ 3) When they say no, we say: ´Luckily we have a tent, do you know of any good flat places?´ and hope that with a bit of luck they´ll offer a safe spot to camp that they know of. After a few fruitless attempts, we came across some people sorting beans in front of a house. This time, the plan worked, and they very kindly offered us the school playground opposite as a place to pitch our tent.
The next morning was beautifully still and sunny. So peaceful that I could hear the sound of cows munching grass as we passed them lazing in the fields next to the road. We were high up here, and as we looked to our right over the mountains we could see the coastal plain far away and down in the distance. On first sight it appeared as if covered in a flat patchwork of fields but in fact it was a layer of cloud - a rippling white duvet of it as far as the eye could see. That afternoon, the silence was broken and the wind started. I was taking a photograph using a tripod and suddenly a gust of wind pushed me in the stomach, nearly tipping the camera over. Soon, we were struggling to pedal at all, with strong wind pushing us backwards, stopping abruptly, and then gusting suddenly to topple us off our bikes in surprise. I found it extremely frustrating, but hopefully good practise for the famous Patagonian winds. We arrived into our destination for the night with the sight of a triple rainbow against a fearsome dark sky. A beautiful sight, but an ominous one for the next days cycling.
Sure enough, as we cycled out of town the next morning, glowering clouds spat needles of rain at us. We cycled up and up, over bleak grey moorland, and it was cold, so very cold. We didn´t dare stop for a moment for fear of losing in an instant the warmth the effort of the climbing was generating. Dry season -where did you go? With numb faces and hands, we huddled over eggs and coffee in a well placed roadside cafe, our breath visible even inside.
A few minutes back on our bikes and we had reached the top; a steep downhill presented itself. Then our old friend the rain turner-upper flicked his switch. We could hardly see for water pouring out of the sky, and, with no hill to warm us up, we were freeeezing.
We stopped in a grain shed to put on every piece of woolly or waterproof clothing that we own. Cycling on, newly wrapped against the elements was a little more dangerous, as I was having trouble flattening my arms against my sides and hearing was a bit muffled due to excessive hats. Not muffled enough to block out the strange sound that was now coming from my bike every time I braked though: "Eeeeesskkkeeeekkkshgh!" Now I don´t know much about bikes, but I know they´re not meant to make that noise ever. I stopped to take a look at the brake blocks. The metal was poking through the rubber and scraping against my wheel. Erk. I (well Tom actually) didn´t fancy stopping and changing them there and then in the rain, so I made the rest of the distance using only my back brake. A bit alarming when it´s all one big slippery wet downhill, with dogs placed at regular intervals to jump out and scare you into a making (very slow) emergency stop. I needn´t have worried though, they would have had real trouble biting me through all that clothing.
We arrived in Cuenca the next day, time for a nice warming shower.
It's just a game
22 July 2006
ECUADOR; Quito - Riobamba, 18.06.06 - 04.07.06
150 miles, total miles; 1565, max altitude 3610m, planes missed; 1.
Tom: After two weeks, one wedding, one birthday and many pints in the UK, it was time to get back to adventuring, but we hadn't reckoned on adding another country to our itinerary. However the combination of a delayed flight, and the intermidable queue that is US immigrations meant that despite a final energetic dash through Atlanta airport, we were only in time to see our connection depart. For some reason Eleanor rubbished my plan to visit 'Coca-Cola World', so our twenty-four hours were spent in an airport hotel, reading up on the road ahead and carbo/fat loading on the complementary waffle-based breakfast. That evening we were afforded a great night-view of Quito as we came in to land in the surprisingly central airport, and a brief taxi ride later and we were installed in our hostel.
I had confidently asserted that at 'only' 2800m the altitude wasn't going to be an issue, but was, unusually, proven wrong the next morning by our collective lethergy and thick heads - rather like delayed after-effects of London socialising. Quito was in full World Cup mode, and our entertainment with breakfast was the Ecuador: Germany match. The cheers and smiles diminished somewhat after Germany's three goals, but the good-natured flag waving continued. After booking in for some top-up Spanish lessons, we hurried to a bar for England and Sweden, a tense draw that ensured a game against Ecuador to come. That evening we decided we were only good for staring at screens, and headed for the multiplex. 'The Omen 666' was showing. "I don't think it's a 'proper' horror film" I argued. Two hours later, Eleanor was not amused.
We spent the next three mornings back at school, adding to our limited Spanish, and much of the afternoons sleeping off the effects of the altitude. On the third night, we went socialising with one of the teachers, Leo, his English girlfriend Sadie, and their Ecuadorian friends. We were introduced to a hot, boozy canazelas, which somehow lead to a long and involved lesson in Ecuadorian swearing, our five teachers each adding their own favorites.
Once school was done with for another term, and after a day of shopping for final bits and bobs, it was time for the Ecuador: England match. We had been invited to offer numerical and moral support to Sadie while she watched the match with Leo and his family. We felt distinctly nervous as we made our way across the city and surveyed the sea of yellow flags, and the final few people without Ecuador tops hurrying to the street hawkers to join the yellow sea. Would we have to hide our identities or skip town if England won? The match was very close and nerve-wracking, but a Beckham penalty shot finally settled it in England's favour. We needn't have worried, whilst downcast, were unfailingly polite, and the celebrating, horn hooting and flag-waving continued for the rest of the day anyway. Ecuador, in their second 'Mundial' outing, had aquitted themselves well. We mused whether an Ecuadorian in London would have faired so well if the tables had been turned.
That afternoon we made an obligatory trip to the equator. There's a large park there, a big monument, and a nice red line, so that you can straddle the hemispheres. The only problem is, you're not. The line is the one verified by the French Academy of Sciences at the end of the Eighteenth century, and is about 150 metres out. This has allowed a 'rival' equator museum to spring up alongside, which was much more pleasingly eclectic and home-made. As we were lead through the cacti and totem poles, one of our guide's more intriguing claims is that the Incans had more accurately astablished the equator several hundred years before the french, and built temples on the line to prove it. We were then invited to take part in a number of equatorial experiments of increasingly doubtful veracity. The idea was to show the effects of the Coriolis effect, caused by the Earth's rotation. The first, and most satisfying, was the 'water spinning down plughole'. Now a check on the internet suggests in a kill-joy fashion that the force is too small for such things, but no, it really did spin one way in one hemisphere, the other way only two metres away, and straight down on the equator. Next was, for some reason, egg balancing on nails - possible I suppose. However, call me a boring rationalist, but I refuse to believe that muscle strength is weakened by standing on the equator.
On our final day in Quito, we raced around trying to fit in all the sight-seeing we had missed, so in the morning we headed for the teleferico for a view over Quito. The teleferico is a big new development, with attached fast food restaurants, rollercoaster rides and arcade games, and large numbers of enthusiastic staff just waiting for a tourist to serve. We did feel that the separate, and lengthy 'express' and 'normal' lanes, and bored armed guards at every corner were a bit of overkill for the fifteen or so visitors there at the time though.
The teleferico took us up to 4000m, to the rather bleak hills above Quito, which gave us quite a view of how big the city was, and a taster of serious lack of oxygen. Sitting down to recover, we were treated to a halting and wheezy rendition of Bob Marley on the pan-pipes. Perhaps the altitude had got to him too.
Our next stop was the Old City. We have found attitudes to architecture so far have been an inversion of that in Europe, and Ecuador is no exception, so residents and businesses with money favour the new suburbs, full of multi-lane roads, drive-through fast food restaurants and gleaming shopping malls, wheras the rather attractive, but gently crumbling centre is home to markets selling cheap plastic dolls, second-hand washing machine shops, and beggars. After a wander round we sat in the informal old-mans' club of the central square. One of the old men, wearing a beret, whipped out some charcoal and sketched us as we sat. Grinning, he presented his work. It was rubbish.
A week in, and it was finally time to hit the road. After innumerable last-minute tweaks and jobs, we set off. We had been told the route to the Pan-American was tricky, and that it was best to follow the trolley-route, advice we followed to the letter, but with considerable anxiety. This meant heading through the old city, busy honking traffic on one side, but intermittent trolleys bearing down on us from behind. We developed a strategy of listening for the sound of the cables rattling, then race for the next bolt-hole and let it past. Leaving the trolleys behind we joined a horrible, busy, bus-filled road and for the next twenty kilometres we crawled uphill, suffocated and occasionally pushed off the road by buses and lorries. The road eventually quietened and widened, although the climb continued, and after 50km, our legs struggling to remember what had hit them, we were grateful for a hostel appearing.
The next day, trying to ease ourselves back into the cycling thing, we decided to just complete the climbing we had baulked at the day before. It was a short day's riding, but, as we were climbing to 3500m, we made quite a meal of it. I found stopping frequently to let the spots disapear from my vision worked best. Our stop for that night was the Valhalla hostel (room names; Bor, Oden, Loke, owner; Swedish), located on the starkly beautiful but notably windswept open hills. We had decided to experience a bit of camping, and it was, let us say, an 'experience'. The learning point here was that if you put your tent up facing the wind, it becomes an effective wind channel, and that no sleeping bag, however Polish the goose down, keeps you warm when the wind is whistling down your neck. I didn't have a good night's sleep.
'On a clear day, you can see 16 peaks from Valhalla hostel'. Needless to say, we were shrouded in cloud, and scrapped our plans for a day's volcano spotting in Cotopaxi national park, and decided to keep pressing on south. After a brief bit more climbing, we were rewarded with a wonderful downhill, losing all the height we'd gained since Quito. The only distraction on the road was the sight of several men, determinedly stamping on a very large pile of carrots by the side of the road, as their family looked admiringly on. Us city folk, we just don't understand country ways. Latacunga, that night's stop, was a pleasant colonial town, remarkable only for it's policy of lighting up all churches in gaudy green and purple spotlights at night.
Our next day's plan was to head for Baños, a town famed for hot baths and being rather close for comfort to an active volcano, and a detour off the main road. The Pan-Am continued on its rather busy, smelly way the next day, and the first half of the day was easy, but ugly cycling. As we approached Ambato, the turn-off town, we were directed to the by-pass, and rapidly regretted it as we swept down into a deep valley. As we climbed laboriously back up, I had plenty of time to observe their clearly new road. Whoever had built it had rather unwisely left no gap between the road and the steep mud banks, which now occupied a whole lane. If I were them, I'd ask for my money back. (Note to other cyclists; try riding through Ambato instead, it can't be worse).
It was late in the day by the time we made it to the turn-off, but luckily we had 1000 metres to lose, and the sun had even broken through the clouds. As I whizzed down, every turn in the road brought ever more spectacular views of the steep sided hills and valleys below. One more corner brought me face to face with a particularly dramatic hill, only something was rather odd with this one; clouds were coming out of the top of it. As we stood staring, there was a deep, thunderous rumble. So that would be Tungurahua then. (Note to readers; you now may wish to peruse the pictures on the internet of Tungurahua erupting, two weeks after we left.)
Most people go to Baños for healthy walks, but we went for a rest, and were helped in that respect by it being shrouded in thick clouds and sprinkled by rain for the two days we were there. We did become quite intimate with one cafe and its Pad Thais and cake, although memories of it may be forever tainted by watching England once again get knocked out of a World Cup on penalties. On one of our few trips outside we made it to the rather ugly Basilica, and paid our 25c for a visit to the attached museum. The highlight for us was the dusty and motheaten range of stuffed birds and animals. Most had a startled and cross-eyed appearance, and some had been positioned into unconvincing attack positions and daubed with red paint.
The next day we made it to Baños Zoo, which has a particularly dramatic location surrounded on both sides by deep ravines and fierce rivers. The zoo had a large sign proclaiming that they were not responsible for the bad behaviour of customers, and I soon came to see what they meant. The place was packed with children who ignored the signs about not feeding the animals and cheerfully stuck their fingers through bars, poked animals with grass, or tried to shake monkeys' hands. Some of the animals seemed happy with their lot, others not. The pride of the collection was a particularly mournful jaguar, stereotypically pacing a fixed line in his small cage. While we were there a toddler walked up and poked his hand through the bars. I screamed slightly and grabbed him away. The jaguar looked up briefly, appeared to shrug his shoulders at the missed extra lunch, and then returned to his pacing.
Our rest days were over, but the climb back up to Ambato didn't appeal, so, arguing to ourselves that it was a scenic diversion anyway, we got a bus back up the hill, and were pleasantly surprised to arrive, bikes in one piece, not having been charged any extra 'taxes', at the top. If we had known what was to come we may have asked for a lift a little bit further. The road steadily climbed, then climbed some more, then carried on up. We slowly left the ugly tyre and repair shops of Ambato's outskirts behind, and the scenery became more dramatic. It reminded me rather of England's lake district, with dark steep open hills scored by streams and rivers; a similarity helped by the swirling mists. Eventually as we pedaled on, we spotted a couple of outlines ahead. It turned out to be Christian and Pierre, two French Canadian cyclists. They had started in Canada and were on a mission, to educate schoolchildren about the environment, and publicise local environmental initiatives where they find them. (And write a website in French, English and Spanish; www.velopax.org, bloody showoffs!)
We cycled the last of the climb together whilst trying, breathlessly in my case, to converse, and then had a long and chilly descent as dusk approached. With 10km to go to Riobamba, and night properly upon us, Christian realised he had a puncture. We were, however, conveniently next to a hotel, and a bit of bargaining later, were all checked in. It was a strange place. I suspect a recluse somewhere had had a vision; 'build it, they will come!'. So he had; two restaurants, ornamental gardens, corridors of rooms, sitting rooms full of trinkets. Only they hadn't come, only us. The clearly over-excited young watchman/chef/receptionist enjoyed fussing over us in the icy dining room as we swapped notes of hills climbed and punctures mended.
We had planned a heroic ride for the next day, but it was not to be. Eleanor fell victim to an undercooked pad thai overnight, meaning more rest was in order. The day had turned out clear and sunny, at last affording us with a view of Chimborazo volcano that we had been cycling past the whole previous day. Eleanor eventually mustered up the strength to complete the final 15km to Riobamba and we installed ourselves in a nice hotel for more rest and recuperation. We had checked Christian's rather better map before parting company, and it turns out our legs were going to need all the rest they could get!
Fool in the Rain
26 June 2006
25.05.06 - 27.05.06: Bocas del Toro - Panama City
81 miles, total: 1407 miles, 1 deadly snake
Eleanor: The Bocas del Toro was quite beautiful, but after the simple and deserted turtle beach, its boat-tour touters and hotel strip grated a bit. We spent a pleasant day cycling around the island beach-hopping, but strangely had them all to ourselves -we wondered if everyone else was on the other beaches, the ones without toe-stubbing rocks and piles of burning rubbish.
Then, it was back to business; there were only four days left to make it to Panama City -we had a flight to catch. The plan was to cycle for two days to get to the town of David on the Pacific coast, and then catch the bus along the coast to the capital.
Day one involved another boat ride to the mainland, which was slightly less choppy than the outward journey, but I was still impressed when a local man in a wooden canoe paddled up to us and offloaded a small boy and some large parcels before paddling off into the distance, the wake of our motorboat almost tipping him off balance as it passed.
We had been spoilt by our previous days cycling along the Caribbean coast. This part of it was most certainly rugged, with steep straight hills that reminded our hill-climbing muscles what they had been missing. However, the friendly waving people at the side of the road whenever we passed through villages definitely helped us motivate us onwards and upwards, and eventually, with darkness and rain chasing at our heels we arrived at our destination for the night.
Our last day of cycling in Central America on paper looked tough. The distance from our position on the Caribbean coast to our destination, David on the Pacific coast was long, and the map hinted at a rather large mountain range in the middle. Was it possible? A sensible person would have known the answer there and then, but only time would really tell.
We started early, and with our fail-safe breakfast of eggs, fried plantains and beans inside us, the first few miles were flat and easy. After a while, I noticed that Tom had stopped ahead of me and was pointing at a large brown object hanging from a telephone wire. I assumed it was a strangely shaped bird´s nest. On closer inspection it turned out to be a snoozing sloth. He must have inched along this cable quite a long way before deciding that he´d found the perfect place for his beauty sleep.
The hills gently rolled, then swelled, and before long we were climbing some impressive tropical ranges once more. There were some downs too, but the ups just kept getting higher, and longer.
Then, this never normally happens, but just as the words ´I´m hungry..let´s stop for some lunch soon..´ had passed my lips, as if by magic, out of the misty drizzle appeared a thatched roof cafe, with a smiling owner selling delicious plates of smoked chicken and rice.
We hit the road after lunch with renewed vigour -David seemed like it was in our grasp.
I had stopped for a drink when I noticed a snake, gliding along in the short grass next to the road. Very pretty; red with yellow and black stripes. I called Tom over and we stooped to take pictures of it as it slipped away into the undergrowth. Some later research revealed that we probably shouldn´t have taken such quite a close look at that snake, as the rhyme goes: "Red next to black, friend of Jack; red next to yellow, kill a fellow." This snake´s red was definitely next to its yellow. We decided that future snake sightings shall be met with much more caution.
As we climbed higher it became darker, and rainier. We were high in the mountains now, and it seemed that with every metre we climbed the water falling from the sky became denser, and colder. My boots were full of water and with every push of the pedals, waves swooshed back and forth inside them. The waterfall pouring off the visor of my helmet and nose made for poor visiblity, not ideal with large trucks thundering past at regular intervals. In fact, there wasn´t really much of this experience that could be said to be enjoyable in the traditional sense. But then, a short downhill lifted our spirits -we had reached the top! It was all downhill from here! But no, this isthmus had much more to offer us; a few metres on and we were met with hills even steeper than before. I may have cried.
We were pushing our bikes, bent forward at almost 45 degrees to counter the slope, heads braced downwards against the lashing rain, when a pickup truck pulled up alongside us. There was no consultation or hesitation needed when the driver´s mate asked us if we´d like a lift. He cheerfully loaded our bikes and bags on, and we piled into the back seat, dripping water, hardly believing our luck. The driver´s mate´s small son sat on his Dad´s lap in the front seat and pulled faces and aimed imaginary guns at us through the head-rest.
It was a long way, a really long way. As the road just kept on coming, we realised that we´d have needed about four more hours to make it to our destination.
After a short stop at his house in a nearby town to pick up the remainder of his family who bundled in alongside us in the back, we arrived at the town of David. To our grateful astonishment, these lovely people firstly drove us to the bus station and pointed out which bus stop would take us to Panama City tomorrow, then drove us to a hotel that was handily close to the bus station, and did a rather good steak and chips -perfect for two hill-weary cyclists.
Panama city was full of things to do, eat and buy, but we were too busy thinking of ingenious ways to pack up our bikes for an international flight to really make the most of all it had to offer. Even a visit to the Panama Canal had to be forgone for a morning spent lovingly wrapping corrugated cardboard around various parts of our bikes' anatomy.
Then it was home to the UK for two weeks for an intensive burst of weddings, birthday parties and generally catching up with friends and family before the flight out to Quito on the 18th of June to begin leg two of our adventure!
I'd rather be a sparrow than a snail
16 June 2006
14.05.06 - 24.05.06: Tegucigalpa, Honduras - Bocas del Toro, Panama
129 miles, total: 1329 miles, 4 countries, 1 chance encounter
After the exciting style of our arrival, we deserved a rest in Tegucigalpa, and thanks to our generous hosts, it was one spent in considerable luxury. We spent much of it resting, reading in the beautiful tucked away courtyard, and entertaining the exciteable family dog Toffee. We did however get something of a flavour of Tegucigalpa, a city dramatically climbing out of the steep bowl-shaped valley and up the sides of the surrounding hills. One of the hillsides however is noteably free of slums, hurricane Mitch having wiped it clean.
Tegucigalpa is also noticably a city of extreme contrasts in wealth; we had seen the slums as we raced in, but now found ourselves in a land of private security, razorwire and electric fences.
After two lovely days, it was time for a big bit of cheating, as time was running out on us. An early morning start got us on the luxury bus to Managua in Nicaragua. We arrived there in a thunderstorm, and as we waited for it to abate in the bus station were deluged with helpful advice and offers on how to get across the city. Our previous experiences of city riding not being uniformly positive, we listened patiently, before explaining that no, two bikes and ten bags cannot be strapped to the roof of an ordinary taxi. However the final solution was unexpected and rather charming; a man jumped on his bike and escorted us across town to the waiting bus to Granada, and that evening we were in Nicaragua's lovely lake-side colonial town.
Granada was a victim to our rushed schedule and would have deserved a few days; a relaxed version of Antigua with a friendly feel (and delicious pizzas). Unfortunately after a day's rest it was time for more painful travel. We had elected to cross the enormous lake Nicaragua by boat to take us to the Costa Rica border. Expecting a large ferry, on arriving at the dock we initially mistook the boat for the end of the pier. High speed catamaran it was not. If ever the term 'rust bucket' was deserved, this was the vessel. Small, square-sided, and able to make heavy weather of the smallest waves on the lake, we were in for a trying 16 hours. What we did get to see were the stunning islands of Omatepe, perfect volcano cones rising out of the lake. We looked enviously on as sensible tourists got off and the hold was filled with bananas, then it was onward into the night. Cleverer people than us had come armed with hammocks that they slung between rails on the deck, but we had to make do with a bit of bench in a stuffy room, or, in Eleanor's case, firmly staring at an imaginary horizon trying not to be sick.
By morning we had finally arrived, and got to cross into Costa Rica in a novel fashion, taking a leisurely boat down a river, accompanied by howler monkeys. On arrival on Costa Rican soil we were greeted by having our bikes sprayed with pesticide. Strangely they didn't think to spray us. Lots of waiting and another bus later, and it was night-time, and San Jose, next stop on our Capital city tour. We were abruptly dumped in a very quiet bus terminal, and we suddenly felt very alone. We jumped on our bikes and pedalled furiously into the rainy night. As we rode, various drunk forms lurched out of the shadows, reminding me unfortunately of 'Dawn of the Dead'. Fortunately our fears weren't realised, and the next morning a short ride to another bus station from the hostel, and we were off again to the Caribbean coast.
It felt odd but not entirely unpleasant to be back by the sea again, swapping rough buses for palm trees and surf. We had a brief ride out of Puerto Limon (Chiquita banana shipping container capital of Costa Rica, need I say more) and found a pleasant beach at Playa Bonita, and enjoyed a surprisingly warm swim in the sea.
The next day it was back to Puerto Limon, and you know you're not in the classiest of towns when the nicest place for breakfast is the bus terminal, but then it was a lovely, and flat, day's riding along the caribbean coast to Cahuita, and camping by the beach.
From then we headed on down the coast, and by lunch we had arrived in Puerto Viejo, surfer central. No sooner had we arrived than we were accosted by Patrick, an elderly american, who sensed our weakness and hustled us into a nearby lunch place, before launching into a rambling life story. Patrick explained that after the Vietnam war he had come in search of the perfect wave, and had settled, 26 years ago. That certainly tallied with his appearance, mahogony coloured wrinkled skin, a collection of scars, and a few brown stained teeth. Less credible was his claim to be in 'real estate'. He then moved on to hint about his dramatic past, smuggling cannabis in Vietnam during the war, and explained that an old aquaintance had written up his story as "in search for Captain Zero", now being made into a film. He airily talked about lawyers back in the US looking into royalty payments on his behalf, and his conversation then meandered on, from his lack of interest in the material life, to his plans for a house with 'beautiful hardwood floors'. He then told us of his fine homegrown organic weed, which he had been smoking daily since his teens, 'without any ill effects', and asked solicitiously after our own personal supply, before heading off down the street to shouts of "yo, captain zero dude!" from local teen surfers. We wish captain zero the best of luck in his forthcoming legal action.
After luch we pressed on down the road towards Manzanilla. It was described as pristine jungle in the guidebook, but things change fast in prime carribean territory, and now it was a strung out chain of cabinas and restaurants. We tried to get a boat onwards from the end, and after being offered one for 'only 250 dollars' by a very drunk tourguide, were told about the road route onwards by a very helpful and philosophical dive-boat owner. I mentioned the pace of development, saying that everyone wants their piece of jungle and beach. "they think they do", he countered. "The average owner lasts two years".
The next day, after trying 50 metres of an impassible off-road route, we settled for the long, but paved way round, retracing our steps for 20km, before heading inland, and into banana country. The difference was striking; on one side of the road the jungle, plenty of birds, and the deafening sound of cicadas, on the other side nothing but the dry rustling of mile after mile of banana trees. More alarming were the helpful signs, warning against trespass in the fields due to the danger from aerial pesticide spraying (although there did seem to be a number of houses within the fields).
We were completing our last few kilometres of the day to Gandoca, admiring the hanging-rail conveyer system busy carrying scores of huge banana bunches towards one of the packing plants, when a familiar but unexpected apparition appeared; the swiss couple in their camper van, who we'd last seen in Honduras!
We set up camp, rather riskily for us, under a coconut tree, then finally got the opportunity to buy them a round of beers. That night we all headed out with a guide to turtle-spot. Gandoca is a turtle reserve, and the beautiful, pristine beach is manned by a small army of enthusiastic young international volunteers, who scour for turtles laying, measure everything in sight, and if necessary move the eggs to safety in a hatchery. Turtles only lay on certain beaches, and return to the same one every two or three years from their feeding grounds near Canada. Admiring the empty beach, soft sand and palm trees, I had to admire the turtles' taste.
That night we patrolled up and down the beach, with nothing in sight, had resigned ourselves to the fact, and were due to head back, when a call came through, and we hurried up the beach to find a cluster of volunteers lying on the sand, focusing intently on...something. In the dark it was very hard to make anything out at first, but we could gradually make out an enormous shape, it's tail end pointed into a large hole in the sand ready to lay and bury its eggs. Only it wasn't, as a gaggle of volunteers were poised with a plastic bag, catching all that was produced, ready to race them off to the hatchery. We knew she was done when we were greeted with a shower of sand, as she started to fill her hole. Following that she continued to shift around on the beach, making further marks to throw predators off the scent, and we were able to admire her further. She was an enormous leatherhead turtle, her flippers like old canvas showing signs of tussles with sharks, and a shell like polished wood. Amazing though the sight was, it did unfortunately bring to mind a bad animatronic model in Chessington world of adventures. We eventually and unwillingly tore ourselves away to leave her to her business and allow our long-suffering guide his bed, and had a last few beers, feeling old with a now rather drunk group of volunteers.
As we headed back through the banana fields the next day curiosity got the better of us and with Mark and Christina, invited ourselves into Del Monte's packing plant and asked for a tour. The very cheerful and engaging manager welcomed us in and for the next half hour showed us around the place. And fascinating it was too; a process organised down to the last man to achieve as effectively as possible the aim of providing the American and European consumer with the perfect three pound, uniformly sized, unblemished bunch of bananas. The process started with the men in the fields, putting foam collars between the individual bunches to avoid bruising before loading the 60lb bunches onto their backs then onto the conveyer rails. Later it was the quality checkers; any insect damage could condemn the bunch, all bananas must be 40 - 49mm (any bigger and they may split and spoil in the container), any banana bunches approaching ripeness were rejected; one ripe banana could make all the others spoil in their two week journey to Europe. Moving on the armies of men and women armed with knives and scales, expertly sizing exact three pound bunches and throwing them into the baths for washing. The end of the line were the packers, expected to pack a box in twenty-five seconds, their hands a blur. We were told the workers were paid 21 dollars a day, a good wage for the area, and that the sooner they finished the work, the sooner they went home, expaining the speed and determination. We left, grateful for their welcome, and slightly alarmed by what goes into creating our humble banana.
After the tour, we were pushed for time, and raced to the Panama border. After quick formalities, we crossed into Panama over a very alarming bridge of lumpy wooden slats. The Sixaola border town was the most perfunctory yet, without even the usual horde of money changers, which caused more trouble and delay as we tried to pay for luch with Costa-Rican cash. What we hadn't twigged is that Panama's currency is the Dollar, only they call it the Balboa. Time against us once again, we raced on to the next town to discover what the guidebook had omitted to tell us; that the port we sought was a further 20km down the road. Desparate not to stay in Changuinola, 'home of the Chiquita banana', we grabbed a taxi pick-up and made the ferry for the Bocas del Toro Archepelego with seconds to spare. From there we enjoyed and endured the journey through old verdant banana-boat canals and across the bay, excited every time the driver opened the throttle but fearful for our precariously attached bikes as we shot off every wave. All made it safely to the islands, ready for a final bit of Caribbean life before the race for the UK began.
12 June 2006
07.05.06 - 13.05.06: Gracias - Tegucigalpa
143 miles, total: 1199 miles, Max vertical climb in 1 day: 1553m
Eleanor: Before the sun had fully risen above Gracias, we were on our bikes and pedalling, determined for once to have finished our cycling by the hottest part of the day. We traversed some beautiful leafy valleys in a relatively cool, sleepy silence. But as our minds and bodies gradually shook off sleep, so did the sun, and before too long it was back in its familiar position grinning brightly down at us.
The road had just turned from smooth tarmac to a rather rocky, gravelly obstacle course when a pickup truck passed us on the other side of the road. Standing up at the back of the vehicle was a man dressed in a balaclava with a large shot gun held high at his side. He smiled and waved. Did I actually just see that or had my brain finally succumbed to heat-induced hallucinations? Tom had seen it too. We tried to come up with some explanations. Tom thought he might have simply been hiding an unfortunate skin condition, whilst I was sure he must be on his way to a fancy dress party. Our shaking legs, fuelled by panicky adrenaline now span faster than ever before. The road got steeper and more rocky, and Tom's knee started to hurt, a lot, but he wasn't stopping, and neither was I.
For once, oh for once, the wayward author of 'Cycle Central America' had underestimated the distance for that day. We reached our destination, San Juan, a good 15km sooner than we had been expecting to.
In time for lunch, delicious chicken and rice, with a few deep breaths on the side. San Juan was a sweet little village, putting a lot of effort into enticing tourists to stay there. Coffee is the major employer but is a very seasonal industry, so a few years ago a Peace Corps volunteer started a tourism cooperative here to provide an alternative source of income for the locals.
Dotted around were signs saying things like 'Don't just pass through, stay a while in our village! We have horse riding, coffee roasting demonstrations, beautiful waterfalls and much more!' and there might have even been one that said 'Please stay! You'll really like it!'.
We stayed with the mother of the lady who ran the tourist office, who also happened to run coffee roasting demonstrations from her kitchen. We had a great time watching the transformation of these insipid little green beans into the black and fragrant ones so familiar, and were plied with copious cups of delicious coffee.
Tom's knee was in no fit state for cycling the next day after the battering it had received the day before. Adding that to the leaping of local eyebrows when we mentioned that we had planned to cycle over the precipitous hill between San Juan and the next town, we decided the only thing for it was to get a lift. Before we left we signed the the guest book and were proudly shown a small and fading photograph album that seemed to contain photos of every tourist that had ever visited San Juan. All ten of them.
We rested in La Esperanza for a day to give Tom´s knee a chance to mend, then had two days of hilly and picturesque cycling to arrive at La Paz in time for dinner and an early night. We knew we had a big day ahead of us:
We awoke blearily at 4.30 only to find that it was still very much night-time outside, with no sign of the 5.30 sunrise that we had been promised by the Honduran news programme the previous night. It seemed that the only people running to the new 'daylight saving' hours were us. We went back to sleep for another much-needed hour and things were looking more promising at 5.30. The reason for the eagerness for an early start this time was an impending deadline. We had promise of a bed and food at some friends of my Dad's in Tegucigalpa, but we had to arrive before 5pm that day, as they were going out. All we had was an address, and the suspicion that there were a few rather substantial hills and a busy Central American city to traverse first.
We'd been climbing a hill for a couple of hours when we rounded a bend and instead of the downhill we had been expecting, were confronted with a wall of mountains. 'There's no way we're climbing up there' I said. 'The road must go a different way'. It didn't. Up it went, and so did we, snaking higher and higher, passing lorries having trouble with the incline, expelling clouds of smoke. We were desperate to stop for a proper break, but with no way of knowing how much more of this climbing there was to go we didn't dare, and just gobbled handfuls of jelly sweets from our handlebar bags.
Happily, at around 1 o'clock we were rewarded with the sight of the downhill and a roadside restaurant, and after enquiring as to which was the most rapid meal to prepare, wolfed down a lunch of our old favourite chicken and rice. With lots of Coke. Then the climbing started again, and we hadn't really been banking on that. Every time we turned a corner, there was another hill looming down at us. With one wary eye on the progress of the sun across the sky we toiled on.
At 4.10 we reached the top and peered downwards, panting. No more hills, just a valley bowl stretched beneath us, filled with a megalopolis as far as the eye could see. Somewhere in there was our destination, Avenida Principal, Loma Linda. We put our fluorescent jackets on and down we sped into the chaos. Six-lane roads criss-crossed around and above us. Drivers, unused to the sight of a cyclist or any vehicle travelling at less than 60 miles an hour, beeped, honked and swerved around us. A taxi with it's doors almost falling off skimmed my wing mirror and I wobbled dangerously. We were swept along in this wacky race with no real idea of where we were going, or how on earth we were going to get there, and our maps seemed to bear no relation to the city we had found ourselves in.
At 4.39 we pulled into a petrol station and I started frantically asking everyone that passed for directions. I may have scared a few people, with my luminous lycra clothing, red face and panicky expression, but they were on the whole very friendly. We received lots of ums and ahs, and arm-waving in a variety of directions, until one man with a rather large moustache, said 'Yes I know it well, wait there a moment' and he proceeded to join the long and winding queue at the till to buy some cigarettes. Arghh. 17 minutes to go.
We were just about to set off in the average direction of the arm waving when the man reappeared from the shop. 'Get in' he said, gesturing to his pickup 'I'll drive you there'. I did a quick mental calculation of likelihood of him being a murderer, based on length of moustache and shininess of shoes, and accepted gratefully. 12 minutes to go. We circled the district of Loma Linda for an excrutiatingly long time, the numbering system seemingly organised by a bingo machine.
At 4.59 we pulled up outside the house. We had made it. We were grinning with relief when a security guard appeared at the window and handed me a piece of paper 'Dear Cyclists, we have gone out, should be back around 9 o'clock...' Our grins faded as we contemplated the options, sitting on a door step for four hours or cycling back into the madness to find alternative accommodation. But no, we were in luck after all, as our host then appeared from his house on his way out -he hadn't quite left yet. We were quickly ushered in and dusty bikes and bags deposited on their lovely shiny wooden floor. We went back outside to thank our pickup saviour but he was off, with a wave and a toot. What a nice man.
Exhibits from a new museum
10 May 2006
28.04.06 - 06.05.06 Antigua, Guatamala - Gracias, Honduras
Miles; 146, total miles; 1054, Max temp; 45C, Tactical dog dismounts; 1.
Tom: After our recent mammoth efforts, we gave ourselves three days to enjoy the charms of Antigua. As usual we spent most of it sampling the delights of the local restaurants, interspersed with batting away offers to admire Jade 'museums'. Antigua showed us a different side to Guatamala; the one with money. As well as attracting tourists a cut above the scummy backpacker/sweaty cyclist, it's a weekend playground for those with money from the big city. we felt under-dressed again, never more than when we gate-crashed an art exhibition and made ourselves feel queasy on free sangria.
On the 1st it was time to hit the road again, but discretion, or more accurately not being squashed by lorries, being the better part of valour, it was time for more dreaded bus interactions, so once again we found ourselves wincing as our steeds were flung violently on the top of another battered American school bus and we were cheerfully quadruple charged by the scary looking conductor. After six weeks of reading the latest murder round-ups in the papers we were more than usually tense arriving into Guatamala city, busily fastening panniers onto bikes in the quiet suburban street we had been deposited in. This time the extra fee for the ride was the loss of one 'Hallum Murray Brake device' (toe-clip strap used to hold brakes on), which came to be sorely missed over the next few days.
Still, the fifteen minutes we spent in the capital were gratifyingly incident-free, and soon we were being hurried on to the coach to Chiquimula, in the East. Our entertainment there, for the first fifteen minutes anyway, was a smooth sales pitch by the moonlighting bus conductor, as he sung the praises of his miracle cream of violet extracts, now available to us the lucky public at a very reasonable price. The cream, he claimed, helped most problems from impotence to impetigo, and he proudly demonstrated it's uses with a practiced charm, to go with his lustrous flowing permed locks and sheer silk t-shirt stretched slightly too tightly over spreading paunch. However, as saddle sore didn't appear to be on the list, we sadly declined.
Over the next few hours as we left the Highlands behind and sped Eastwards, we were able to confirm that our sources had been right; the main (and only) road was very busy and narrow as it wound around the valleys, with no major stops for the first 100km, and we were glad to be avoiding it.
By that evening we were in Chiquimula, a large but functional town near the Honduran border. It, more even than many Guatamalan towns, has an unusual density of shoe shops, and I again found myself worrying that it might suffer the same fate as Brontitall, the planet in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and pass through a 'Shoe Event Horizon', their economy collapsing under the weight of so many poorly made shoes and sandals, something I feel Guatamala doesn't really deserve. While we were sitting in the main square a local proudly exclaimed 'Beautiful, eh?'. As we scanned from the piles of litter blowing gently in the breeze, to the stray dogs listlessly scratching their fleas and sniffing for scraps of food, we could manage only a shrug.
The next day was another landmark one; leaving Guatamala after six weeks. It was also an unwelcome return to riding in the heat after the relief of the mountains. It started hot and got hotter as we plodded on through the dusty barren hilly landscape towards the border. The small villages we passed were a contrast too, an obviously poor ladino rather than Mayan population. One of the villages was in the middle of some large celebration, which may have involved brass-band members in clown costumes, although that may have just been the heat.
By the time we reached the border we were hot, headachey and dehydrated. For once, when a tourist heading the other way exlaimed how tough our trip must be, we could only grunt in whole-hearted agreement.
Our first taste of Honduras was a long slow climb, but finally a brief welcome descent brought us into the town of Copan Ruinas. The town itself was a pretty cobblestoned colonial town, retaining it's charm despite the tourist throughput that come to see the ruined mayan city.
The next day we got to see the ruins ourselves, which offer a good counterpoint to those of Tikal. Tikal was clearly the brash, flashy New York of it's day, with it's ostentatious big pyramids, whereas Copan clearly prided itself on it's art. Florence perhaps... or St Ives?
Sculpture was the big thing in Copan, and the advantage of the searing heat was, as we collapsed into every available bit of shade to recover, we had plenty of time to admire it. Each Copan ruler had one or several Stelae devoted to them, on one side a stylised statue of them in enormous headress, on the other sides various glyphs detailing their heroic exploits. The highlight is a large staircase made of thousands of carved glyphs telling the stories of the leaders, their statues in the centre. Unfortunately, as it was found ruined, and reconstructed randomly, decypering it is proving difficult.
The museum of sculpture there gave us a chance to cool down, and also admire a reconstruction of a temple in it's original garish paintjob of red, green and white. Added to the many repeating monstrous faces and eyes all over the place, and the effect was somewhat disconcerting.
The museum also had many sculptures, one of which Eleanor settled down to draw, inadvertently offering herself up as a temporary exhibit. Soon a crowd of American teens were gathered inches behind her, loudly cooing their praises; "that is SUCH a cool picture!" Unfortunately cultural crossed wires mistook her icy silence and furious stare at her sketchbook as the wrapt concentration of a true artist. The final picture was good, of course, but embossed through several pages with the force of her pencil grip.
That evening we met various fellow travellers. Particularly interesting was a Spanish girl taking a break from her duties at Medecins sans Frontieres. After her previous mission, heading up security and taking testimonials from survivors in a Darfur refugee camp, she certainly deserved one. We ate supper that evening with a German food scientist, fresh from bringing European knowhow to Guatamalan Mayonnaise manufacture (stronger bags, apparently).
We were back on the bikes again the next day, on our slow way through the Honduran highlands. The scenery was notably beautiful, with big green rolling hills, large butterflies, and, on one occasion, a startlingly pink tree. Things at one point were looking a little like an English Constable vista, that is, until a Honduran cowboy rode by of course. We were also in coffee country, and had hoped to stop at a plantation for lunch, but things were looking very deserted when we arrived, so a pack of biscuits had to suffice. As we got hotter and hungrier, our thoughts about the rolling countryside slowly soured. At one point, cruising downhill through a village, Eleanor completed a neat tactical bike dismount to avoid the two dogs that raced under her front wheel, looking surprised but overall relieved to find herself suddenly on foot and running.
Later and longer than expected, we arrived in La Entrada, a dusty crossroads town. We ate a late lunch in the 'fast food' chicken joint (food laboriously and individually microwaved) and found out we had exhausted La Entrada's eating and entertainment possibilities. Supper, much to the teenage clerk's entertainment, was microwaved supernoodles, Bubulubus (chocolate coated turkish delight; delicious!) and beer. All food groups represented, I feel.
Our early start the next day was compromised by having to wait for every breakfast ingredient to be laboriously and individually microwaved, and it was already hot and humid by the time we we started crawling up the hill out of the town. The scenery, with it's green hills and dramatic valleys, was impressive, but soon all we could think about was the rising temperature. We had one delicious downhill (new max speed; 63km/hr), but then it was back to slogging up the hill, frequently collapsing into spare patches of shade, as the temperature guage rose to 45C. As we were riding, a familiar camper van pulled up; a swiss couple who had said hello the day before. They offered us a water refill that we happily accepted, and pressed some crackers on us before heading on towards Gracias. We came to realise how lucky we had been as the hill continued to climb long after our book had claimed we would have arrived, with various false tops to the hill to compound our misery. A brief descent then final agonising climb, and we were in Santa Rosa de Copan, burnt and exhausted. We checked into the posh hotel in town for our 1000 mile celebration, and determinedly used the pool despite chattering teeth as night approached.
We, or rather our forearms, had learnt their lesson, so we got up good and early to tackle the ride to Gracias. Unfortunately, in my haste to zoom on, I cycled determinedly past the turn, leading us 5km back down the hill we had so painfully climbed the day before, Eleanor's furious bell-ringing lost to the wind. The climb back up was a rich mixture of physical and emotional pain. However after our little 10km 'warm-up' we got our deserved descent, rapidly losing all the height gained the day before, until we reached the bottom of the river valley. Once again the green hills scored by rivers appeared dramatic, but once again we couldn't care less as the temperature steadily climbed. After much plodding through the undulating scenery, punctuated by shade and core temperature re-alignment stops, we arrived in Gracias, guided in by a concerned local on a bike. My final exertion of the day was to carry the bikes up several flights of stairs to our beautiful hotel room overlooking the town.
Gracias was another pretty colonial town on a similar model to Santa Rosa; a leafy parque central with a big church, and a grid of cobbled streets radiating outwards. That evening we located the Swiss couple and drank some of their beer to thank them for saving our lives with their water. It turns out that this trip, driving from the USA, through Central America, then on to Columbia, Venezuala and Brazil, is a follow-up to their 2 1/2 year trip around S America 10 years ago. Once again for their finale they were going to catch a container ship carrying Fiats from Buenas Ares to Italy. Over two weeks of apparent luxury and Italian food as you slowly return home for double the price of a flight? We'd really missed a trick.
It was time for a day of rest and laundry for us, before the final push through the highlands to the capital. Ice creams all round then!
Cry Me a River
30 April 2006
23.04.06 - 27.04.06 Xela - Antigua
Miles; 100, total miles; 907, Max climb; 1376 metres in one day, Worn brake blocks; 8.
Eleanor: I don´t think it helped that we´d drunk hardly any fluids the day before; we weren´t feeling at the peak of fitness in the morning, and our intended 7 o´clock departure from Xela became a 10.30 one. We had a bit of a mammoth day ahead of us -could it be done in the time? Our previous track record gave us foolish conviction.
Once on the road, our legs felt different somehow, feebler. The hills we had cycled over to get to Xela seemed steeper this way round, and our bikes heavier. My brain scrambled to do the sums; the hill is 10 miles long, we´re averaging 3 mph, if we get to the top and have a peanut butter and jam sandwich by 2pm then we´re in with a chance to do the rest before nightfall... Amazingly, we reached the top of the hill, 'Alaska' again, earlier than we expected, and after a hurried lunch, we felt invigorated all of a sudden. We´d done the hardest part now.
Powering down the other side of the hill we realised how high up we still were when we could see clouds slowly tumbling down, literally falling from the sky in front of our eyes. Before long we were submerged in cloud, and were cycling tentatively through the thick whiteness, my eyes fixed on Tom´s red flashing rear light as my only point of reference. It was only 3 o´clock, but dark like dusk, even without my sunglasses.
We were happy to find the turn off from the Pan-American to Lake Atitlan approach sooner than we´d hoped. According to our information it was mostly steep downhill from now, just 20 miles of it. Haha, we´ve done it again by the skin of our teeth. As we pulled up at the junction to check our maps one more time, the gloomy light began to spit rain at us -we pulled out our waterproofs,(as yet unused) and our bikes tilted into the downwards position; Wheeeeheee, Lake Atitlan here we come! Disappointingly there were only a few metres of whizzing before the uphill started again, steeper than before, and our legs, promised zoomy downhills tutted and grumbled. We plugged away in the drizzle and were eventually rewarded by the sight of the road curving down at last, down away from us along a narrow lane. Then, perfectly on cue, the drizzle turned to needle sharp pelting rain. The lane was winding, and very very steep. My wet hands clenched tightly on brakes as we screeched and slid down the road that now felt almost vertical. The rain got harder and turned the lane into a speeding river. Then as if someone somewhere was playing around with the precipitation control dial, it got harder and harder, mocking our shouts of ´Wow, now it really can´t get any harder than this!' It was a bit like cycling down a flume at a waterpark.
We had been concentrating so hard on the rain that we hadn´t noticed the dark. As we had been descending, so had it. Our vow to never cycle at night was going to have to be broken. There was nothing for it but to carry on down this slippery slope til we reached San Pedro, our intended stop for the night. We could see twinkling lights of a town far away at the bottom, next to a dark expanse that we knew was Lake Atitlan. Tom´s rear light once again was my beacon, the red light reflected off the wet road enough to highlight obstacles, bits of rock and vegetation that had been washed down the hillside in this rain. Tom must have used some special powers for his navigation, as our front lights were next to useless in the now inky blackness. Now and again, lightning would light up everything in bright purple, giving us a useful snapshot of the road we were cycling on. We knew that down and to our right had it been light, we would have a spectacular view of this immense lake, but our imaginations had to do the work, helped along by the lightning that gave us tantalising glimpses of its vastness.
Some sections of the road had been washed away completely by mountain rivers that had overflowed, and at times we picked our way carefully over wet sand. Fireflies in their hundreds flashed and darted in front of our eyes.
Eventually, eventually we reached the bottom, the ground became flat again, and we were in the outer reaches of a town or village. Dogs snarled from behind gates in the darkness. I trembled with the thought of these invisible creatures chasing us after us.
We searched the town for signs of the 'backpackers haven' by the lake that we had been promised. I asked a man, and he replied 'No, there's no hospedajes here in San Pablo, only in San Pedro, that's about 6km down that road.' He pointed to an unlit track disappearing down to the lake. 'Go carefully'. A wave of realisation hit us -our over tired minds had misread the sign for this village as San Pedro. There was nothing for it but to carry on down this dark lane until we found a place to stay. After the bright lights and chatter of the village, the dark seemed extra dark, and extra quiet. We felt our way along, now running on adrenaline only, our eyes straining to see, and our ears pricked for danger. Before too long, we reached another village, and happily found a sign directing us to an 'eco-lodge'. We decided that San Pedro could wait until the morning and smiling gratefully, almost shaking with exhaustion, bundled our wet bags and bikes into a room. We ate dinner in happy tired silence, as pan-pipe renditions of
'Up Where We Belong' by Joe Cocker and 'My Heart Will Go On' by Celine Dion gently washed over us. Considering the hotel's 'eco-lodge' status I was suprised to notice that the speakers were draped with skinned cats and that most of the bamboo rafters were furnished with startled looking stuffed parrots.
The next day, we found San Pedroto be pleasant enough, but a bit high on the 'tourist hassle' scale, so we decided, after a family sized pizza each, to get a boat across the lake to San Marcos a fabled 'Spiritual hangout'; it sounded like a good place to properly relax for a few days. On our way to the boat, we noticed some panniers being unloaded. Once again, we had crossed paths with some other long-distance cyclists. This time, it was Fred and Anne from Ghent, Belgium, who were travelling North from Argentina. We decided our boat journey could wait a while, and chatted at length, swapping advice about roads travelled and equipment carried. We were encouraged by their enthusiasm for Argentina and also their admission that before this trip all they'd done was drink and smoke.
After a slightly nerve racking moment where one of Tom's panniers fell off the jetty into the lake (happy to report, our panniers are not only waterproof, but also float when dropped in lakes) we docked at San Marcos. A grassy bank with swaying willow trees and a few wooden lodges set back from the water's edge made me think we had made a good choice. It was indeeed a lovely place to rest for a while. We spent hours reading on jetties at the lake's edge, water gently lapping beneath us. Flat blue water almost as far as the eye could see, the shapes of volcanoes rising out of the lake in the misty distance, disappearing into clouds at their tops.
We wondered whether we should make use of the holistic therapies available to us here. A spot of yoga to stretch our muscles perhaps, or a massage to soothe? We had a peek at the noticeboards of the next door 'Las Piramides' spiritual retreat. We read about courses in tarot, the legend of Atlantis, of astral projection and chakras. We read of the moon course, a month long course meditation course, ending in a week of fasting and silence.
We thought better of it and retreated, once again to our reading and drawing on the jetty.
The peaceful atmosphere was altered slightly by the fact that the next day was 'San Marcos day'. The village centre was taken over by stalls, and amplified marimba bands that played non-stop tunes that were either indistinguishable from each other by our untrained ears, or lasted an hour and a half each. More alarming were the bangers or 'Bombas' that would be let off at random intervals. Imagine the loudest bang you have ever heard and then quadruple it. We flinched in anticipation of the next piercing crack that would rocket around the lake. I imagined that anyone meditating in the 'Las Piramides' centre next door would be having trouble maintaining focus.
Too soon it was time to move on from the Lake, to our next stop, Antigua. As we left our hotel, the friendly owner (also a cyclist) cheerfully told us we'd never make it to Antigua in one day. We thought we knew better and off we went. Climbing back out of the lake's 'bowl' was almost as tough as the rain-soaked cycle down, but this time we could see the lake clearly, and as the road wound it's way around the volcanoes the views were something amazing.
The climbs got steeper and steeper, and as even cars struggled to make it up and around some of these hair-pin bends we knew we weren't being wusses if we stopped on every corner to swig water and cram jelly sweets into our mouths.
Once the climbing stopped we were in a very different landscape, flat agricultural land, with a patchwork of cabbage, broad bean and mange-tout fields. A pretty sight, but the occasional large sign with glossy photos of beans reminded that these were all owned by a large American food company. To reward all our climbing efforts, the road then became a constant downhill for the next 20 miles. It looked like we were going to make it.
We did indeed, and were bumping along the cobbles of Antigua's old streets when we were stopped by an American, keen to find out about our bikes. It turned out that he himself was at the end of a long bike trip from California. He pointed out the cheapest decent hotel in town which was just around the corner, and we settled ourselves in.
Head strain - brain drain
29 April 2006
07.04.06 - 22.04.06 Chichestenango - Quetzaltenango(Xela)
Miles: 66, Punctures: 1 (There's still all to play for Alex!), Max Altitude 2980 metres.
Tom: We did well out of our lovely hotel in Chiche, and they did well out of us. Before we left that morning we had had a large breakfast with the family, bought our first brown bread of the trip, and some home-made peanut butter to fire us up the hills. We needed the energy, but cursed the weight as we slowly climbed out of town. As we were climbing a man on a bike pedalled to come along side us and quizz us on our route and country. Pleasantries over, he turned round and headed back down the hill. It was rather touching to meet someone who would climb a hill to chat to us.
Following that, the road plummeted down into yet another steep-sided valley, which meant yet another slow crawl back out, and more buses and black smoke. The road headed onward and upward, gradually getting busier and more built up as we approached our first taste of the Pan-American highway. We had definitely left the Rural Highlands behind for a while.
The Pan-American was pretty much as expected: busy, polluted, and ugly, with added gloomy weather for atmosphere. Still, it had some space for us at the side, and got us without fuss to our stop for the night, Nuahala.
Arriving in Nuahala, an undistinguished small town, we had to run the gauntlet of the entire population of school-children, lined up for a parade to come. We surveyed the first hospedaje we came to. Ominously, it served as the local cantina as well. More ominously, it was down an alley that smelt strongly of piss. Eleanor reached her conclusion on it before the front door.
The only other accomodation in town offered tiny rooms with single beds, and we were urged to take two. However as Tetris was an old favourite of ours, we declined, and spent a happy half-hour fitting two bikes and 10 bags into the space of the average tourist's suitcase. During this process we were approached by the owner's teen son, who attempted to explain that as there were two of us, we were to be charged for two rooms anyway. We patiently explained that we didn't think much of his business model, and he eventually went away, disappointed with his 10 quetzal concession.
By the time we had left the room, the procession was just a line of pine needles in the street and drunk men in Mayan kilts. We tried to tour the town, but discovered that we already had on the way in. With not even a restaurant in sight, supper was chicken and chips from a stall in the square; cheap, but not necessarily cheerful.
That night, as we tried to get to sleep in our single bed, some terrifying crashing and banging started, initially outside, then above, then just outside our room, accompanied by the loud shouting, singing and crying...of a very drunk teenage boy. As we cowered in our room listening to him stagger into walls and objects fly we wondered which would have been better - give more money and keep him happy, or less, and less beer money.
The next day, not rested but determined to escape, we headed off early. We knew that the day would be long one hill climb, and we plodded on up and up, slightly alarmed after our night's experiences by the groups of teens with their machetes off to work the fields. As we got nearer the top, it got colder and mistier. Then, out of the gloom came two strangely recognisable shapes, as two equally heavily laden cyclists zoomed down towards us.
Ruth and Horst (www.velotraum.ch) were a swiss couple who had started in Canada, and were now sensibly racing towards South America to beat the rainy season. We spent a happy while comparing notes and kit. We both had the same puncture-proof Shwalbe tires, and both boasted about our lack of punctures so far. When it came time to move on, we agreed to try to meet in Equador, then got back to puffing up the hill. Two minutes later, I ran over a broken beer bottle in the road, and was greeted to the sound of hubris as my rear tyre rapidly deflated.
Our first roadside repair later, and soon we were at 'Alaska', at 2980 metres our highest altitude yet, and according to one guidebook at least, the highest point on the Inter-American highway. Either way, we deserved our chocolate bar, and enjoyed the gentle descent into Quatro Caminos, which is, as the name suggests, the meeting of 4 major roads. 4 roads means four times the buses, pollution, and general chaos, and things didn't improve for the final 15km to Quetzaltenango, as we powered our way, being blared at by lorries on the narrow, potholed road.
We had made it! Our excitement and relief slowly turned to anxiety as we realised what we'd signed up for; two weeks of Spanish school, with homework and everything, and living with a family; give us a hill to climb any day!
The next two weeks were a necessary evil of school, homework and drudgery, enlivened by the many cafes and pastry shops of Xela, and, of course, the family's cable TV. Some of our favorites, apart from discovering that one of CNN's anchormen is allegedly called 'Wolf Blitzer', were 'Casos Cerrados', where a shouty female pseudo-judge banged her gavel a lot and settled minor conflicts between families, and, of course, 'Laura', Peru's take on Jerry Springer, where the guests have to be permanently pressed into their seats by the burly security staff as they scream abuse at each other.
The first week we were in Xela was Semana Santa, culminating in a big weekend of processions and revelries in a Catholic way, with a Mayan twist. The processions started on friday morning, with huge floats borne on the shoulders of purple-clad men, with images of Jesus in gaudy finery carrying the cross, followed by Mary's on wheels looking pained and saintly, the whole lot wreathed in incense smoke swung by enthusiastic boys. The town had also spent the night making 'fombras' - carpets of dyed sawdust in rich mayan patterns, that the processions then walked over. After each procession, any solemnity was quickly broken by the ice-cream men quickly following with their carts and incessant bell-ringing.
After the morning's religiosity, we had lunch with the family, and were relieved to find a familiar scene of eating too much, getting drunk, and watching the football. We were introduced to 'Submarinos' (beer with added rum), which certainly passed the time.
That evening, post-mortem processions, now carried by men in black, now depicting a dead Christ, followed by a 'searching' Mary. Each float was preceded by more boys with incence, each lit up with many lights, and each followed by a solomn man pushing a generator.
Particularly gory and innovative was one that achieved, by means of technical wizardry, a continuous torrential flow of blood from the back of the reclining Jesus to the float below.
Two weeks later and it was time to leave, our brains overflowing with verb tenses, and our legs turning rapidly back to spindles. Our final night in town was the night of the local football Derby, Xela's 'Xelaju', vs rivals San Marcos. By the time we had arrived in the concrete, open-air statium and battled our way through the tacos and nut sellers, it was already one goal each, and by half time a nail-biting 2:2. It was also apparent by half-time that while neither team was going to trouble the international leagues, Xelaju were either having an off-day, or needed a serious injection of Russian cash. None of this seemed to bother the fans though, who treated the opposition team to a hail of fireworks as they ran for cover at half-time, and their own team to a wonderful display of fireworks (the difference is in the angle of firing).
However after half-time all the drumming, singing and shouting of 'Cuecon!' at the opposing goalie every time he kicked the ball [look it up if you're interested] couldn't motivate the boys, and the final consolation goal couldn't improve the 4:3 final score.
As we finally got to bed the next day we looked forward to finally being on the road again. Two big days of riding, and two big Guatamalan sites left, Lago de Atitlan and Antigua, before onwards to Honduras. Now, how much fitness had we really lost in two weeks...
Wicked Twisted Road
21 April 2006
Coban - Xela, 4th - 9th April
Eleanor: We had enough information to suggest that the upcoming section of road to Uspantán was unrideable, so there was nothing for it but to once again put ourselves and our bikes on a bus. This time we decided to at least try to make things a more comfortable for our bikes by making them little carboard jackets. We spent a good while outside McDonalds ripping up cardboard boxes and carefully taping pieces round the frame. It made us feel better. Then we stood and waited for the Uspantán bus. And waited. A very helpful boy carefully and patiently explained things bus related to us, but we with our currently limited Spanish skills, didn´t understand much, if any. However, the penny dropped when the bus eventually arrived. It wasn´t the large comfortable sofa of a bus we had been anticiptating, but a tiny mini-van. Yet, driver and mate seemed more than happy to accommodate us and our unwieldy, wheely loads. Said loads were passed through the back window, onto the back seats of the van, panniers wodged in and around.
Determined not to let us and our gear get in the way of passenger revenue, at every stop and shout of Uspantán , Uspantán , Uspantán!´ yet another passenger and his cargo was welcomed on board. Sacks of maize, large baskets full of rugs, oh the more the merrier. Just when it seemed that not a single other item could possibly squeeze inside this groaning vehicle, we pulled up at a bus stop where a family of seven, seven including grandparents and small baby were ushered towards the bus. Surely not. But yes, in some perfectly orchestrated feat of tetris-like people-manouvering the family were fitted in, the youngest boy perched on our panniers, back resting on a basket of melons.
It was a long journey, made all the longer by the alarming sounds of our bikes clanking around under the weight of a market's worth of produce in the seats behind us. White-knuckled hands gripped and knees were battered as we bounced around hairpin bends that clung to mountain-sides, dust from the road billowing up in clouds that clogged in our noses and sometimes completely obscured the spectacular views of the valleys to our left. I was grateful for the roadworks that stopped us in our tracks for 45 minutes. Stalls had been set up by the side of the road, and small hands passed icecreams, enchilladas and sweets through the windows, large hands passed coins back in exchange.
We emerged, in Uspantán, tired, and grey with dust like characters from a black and white film. Too exhausted to complain much when the driver sprung as an afterthought a 'bike tax' that doubled our fare.
Uspantán was at an altitude of 2000 metres, and you could certainly tell. Out came the jumpers for the first time. Locals where wrapped in thickly woven brightly coloured cloth. Eyes squinted against the sun that gave the world crisp definite edges and deep saturated colours like old postcards of British seaside resorts.
The next day's ride to Sacapulus started off unpaved. Not the 'Oh my God where's my mechanical digger' sort of unpaved roads we'd been starting to quite rightly fear, but just a light dusting of gravel with the odd pebble cluster. A little skiddy on the downhills for my unaccustomed wheels, but Tom loved it and was off, putting his mountain bike skills to good use.
We encountered our first steamroller at 9.32 am. It was to be the first of many. Dozens of workmen lined the roads, though the most pertinent task seemed to be eating sandwiches. You'll be pleased to hear that the universal signal of workmanly appreciation is alive and well here in Guatemala. We nodded and buenas dias'ed politely to their greetings and peddled on. It took us a long while to find a spot of road not covered in workmen to stop for our late breakfast in peace and quiet. Diggers, caterpillar trucks, tarmac spreaders, they were all out in orange shiny force, bringing asphalt to this road that had obviously until maybe only earlier in that week been a dirt one. We felt privileged to be rolling over such beautifully smooth freshly laid surfaces. Our time on rocky tracks faded even more in our memories.
Tom: After a lunch of suspiciously large chicken breasts accompanied by Spanish Simpsons in a roadside restaurant, we sweated slowly up a climb to our highest altitude so far, 2110m, creaking past yet more workmen putting the finishing touches to their beautiful creation. We stopped at the top to admire our handiwork and the valley below in the afternoon sun. To my mind, however, the greater thing of beauty was what was to come; 1000 vertical metres to be lost, on barely week-old tarmac, with nary a lorry in sight. Oh yes, I had my fun all right - seeing how long one can go between touches of the brakes, how much of a motorbike impression one can make, leaning into the corners, sweeping from one side of the road to the other; it's a thrill I can heartily recommend to anyone with a bike and a spare hill to hand.
At the bottom, several degrees hotter, was Sacapulus, a rather chaotic town that serves as a big bus stop at the junction of roads to Huehuetenango, Nebaj and Quiche. We booked into the only bike-capable Hospedaje in town, an equally if not more chaotic place. We unloaded our panniers to the extremely loud screeching of a rather deranged and ugly parrot. The cause of his traumatic stress disorder was apparent the next morning. As we loaded up again, the parrot had to look on as the owner casually wrung the neck of the two chickens destined to become that day's stew, leaving their still flapping bodies on the floor. Poor thing doesn't know he's not worth the effort of cooking.
Eleanor: Our next day started with another dreaded bus ride, a necessary evil to avoid yet another stretch of steep and unrideable road. Once again, we aged at least ten years as the bus careered around corners on two wheels, the driver's mate all the while swinging around on the outside of the bus, hauling bags up onto the rood and tying them down with ropes. As we screeched around one particularly tight bend there was a loud 'clunk' as an object flew off the roof at high speed. We feared for our bikes, but it was only a large sack of maize. The bus ground to a halt and an old man trotted off to retrieve his cargo.
We were deposited in Santa Cruz del Quiché, rattled and feeling slightly jet-lagged. The bikes were mostly in one piece apart from a damaged rear light on Tom's. Once again we vowed never to do that again. Relieved to be back on our own two wheels again, we set off for Chichecastenango.
But first, we had a steep sided valley to cross. I looked below and could just make out the road through the pine trees, winding it´s way precipitously downwards. The valley echoed with the honk of horns, and the laboured sound of vehicles changing gear. Hands off the brakes and down we plunged, hands back on the brakes to screech round hair-pin bends, deeper and deeper into the valley. A 'chicken bus' roared past me leaning precariously, belching out thick black smoke behind it as it went. I'm not sure but I could just make out the driver at the wheel; head thrown back, laughing manically as he plunged ever downwards in his brightly painted machine.
We reached the bottom slightly shaken; now for up the other side. The incline was so steep it was an effort to keep my bike from wobbling into the ditch, but I didn't dare to stop on any of these bends. I heard a low roar behind me and felt the hot breath of a chicken bus on my neck; in my mirror, the evil eyes of another red and orange monster gaining on me. Must. keep. pedalling.. Closer and closer, and then with a deep groan and a big splurt of black it was gone, leaving me gasping for air but getting mouthfuls of grainy soot.
Chichicastengo, famed for its handicraft markets and ancient religious ceremonies was a great place to stop for the night, though it has to be said that the wonderful hot showers we treated ourselves to will be what sticks in my mind most. There was even hot water coming out of the taps in the sink, what a treat.
We had arrived on a market day, but just in time to watch the process of the market being un-assembled. Great towering wooden structures that had been dripping with huge blankets of every colour, blocking out the sun were now being collapsed into enormous piles of logs and bundles of folded material that were were simply carried away. Everywhere we looked there were people moving like snails, with the world on their backs. The other tourists had gone home so we were pounced on by sellers desperate to have a little less to carry home: "Blanket, blanket, blanket buy my beautiful blanket blanket"
The market vanished, and we were left wandering around the main sqauare, air full with the incense that was burning on the steps of the church.
Two more days of cycling and we'd be in Xela, our much needed stop for two weeks of Spanish lessons.
Meeting people is easy
10 April 2006
Languin - Coban 30th March - 3rd April
33 miles, 1 day cycling, Canadian cyclists met: 2.
Tom: After the excitements of the previous few days, our cycling on the 30th consisted of making it 500 metres down the valley to the more cheapscate-tolerant El Retiro lodge, something of a backpacker heaven, with it's dorms, hammocks and cabanas, eco-loos, and sociable buffet meals. It was definitely rest time.
What we discovered, as we lounged, rested, checked emails, ate, and rested again, is that we were back on the well-worn Gringo trail. It was a sociable place, what with it's buffet meals and ready supply of Gallo cerveza. In the main, the backpacker crowd was a familiar one of GAPer's, students and the 'Spring break' crowd. We were a slight crowd-pleaser, and did a lot of talking. We did meet a few different characters though. The first were a British couple, Nick and Gill, who had motorbiked up from Patagonia. We spent a merry time talking road conditions and highlights, and getting deeply excited about the prospect of South America to come. They had managed to cover 48,000km on their trip, in a year and a half, though. Perhaps our 10,000 mile estimate may be a little off then...
Having had two whole beers on the first night may have had something to do with the subsequent locking of our key in the room that evening. No problem, we thought, as we sauntered back to the bar to have a chat with the American staff member. "Dude, that's really harsh...you could borrow my tent though!" he exclaimed. "ha ha...it's ok, we've got our own, if you could let us into our room we'll get it!" I wittily countered. Ah, he wasn't being deadpan and dry, but sincere and helpful. No spare key. The prospect of a night outside our lovely room was not looking appealling, as we wobbled windows, peered through mosquito netting, and swore. Luckily, the night watchman, and a well practiced routine with a machete on the window, and all was well.
Languin is famed for it's natural beauty, caves, and outdoor pursuits, so the next day, we did nothing. Our bodies in fact had completely rebelled, and the saunter to the restaurant was an effort deserving a cinnamon bun. More resting meant more socialising though, and the next night, it was three US women. Two described themselves as 'missionaries', partly supported by their church to teach in a school in a nearby Mayan village. One was a somewhat intense PE teacher who explained she was on a mission from the Lord, apparently to bring baseball to the football-loving Mayan children. They had just received their first dispatch of catcher's mitts, you'll be glad to hear. The third member of the group was married to another teacher in the school, and had been living in Guatamala for some time. Asked about the social conditions for the Mayan villagers, she opined; "why do they choose to live in those villages...they're so dirty! And they have so many children...it's so sad!"
On our trip down to breakfast the next day we had a big excitement; another heavily laden bike parked up by the river! It was owned by Rohanna, a Canadian who had cycled mostly solo from Alberta. We had great fun swapping stories of roads and high-calorie snacks. We were rather impressed and jealous to find that while we were eating happy cow and noodles, she was able to whip up a stir-fry on a camping stove. Looks like more practice may be needed ... lucky we´ve got a year.
That day we also finally made it out of the lodge to Semuc Champay, a local impressive bit of nature. I'm sure I'd have understood it better had I paid attention in Geography (the teacher looked like a monkey - it was very distracting), but the gist was that one rather large river disappears underground, leaving a limestone 'bridge' which has formed into a series of pools, each with a little waterfall into the next. All most pleasant, not least because we got to have the nearest to a bath in six weeks paddling in the water. We also discovered the only practicable way to eat an over-ripe mango; standing in a handy river to wash the excess away.
By the 1st, it was finally time to hit the road again. However, once bitten, twice shy, so we decided to get a lift up the first 11km and 1000 metre climb of rough rocky rubble, and back to tarmac proper. This meant hanging around in the town until a bus big enough came along, and then sitting nervously listening to the bumping noises from up top as we climbed the hill. We were right to be afraid; our beautiful paintjobs are now thouroughly travel-worn.
Whilst we were standing at the top of the hill, stroking our battered steeds and swearing at the departing bus, a cheerful French Canadian called Francis came over. At first we were more engaged with surveying the damage than chatting, and it only slowly dawned on us that he too was a cyclist! Again we got to compare and contrast kit (small union flags on our bikes, a Canadian and Quebecois flag on his) and experiences. It turned out he had also started in Cancun, and was travelling through Guatamala, Belize and Honduras, making a documentary about the uses of the bicycle for Canadian telly, meaning he was travelling with a video camera and tripod. And we thought we had over-packed!
The rest of the day we relished the cycling on beautiful, empty tarmac. We spent the first half mainly climbing, the second mainly descending, but all was (the novelty!) rideable. For the last twenty kilometres, the road snaked through hills covered with small, dark-leaved bushes. Ever the botanist, I peeled one of the berries and finally found two coffee bean-like things inside.
By that afternoon, we had arrived in Cobán, our first Guatamalan city, and first sizeable town for some time. Wow...bright lights, big city! We spent the next day as the country yokels in the metropolis. We goggled at the mall, gasped at McDonalds, fondled the pens and stationary, and generally stocked up on essentials; also known as blowing a week's budget in a day. We also met Rohanna again, who was topping up her already good Spanish, which meant more beers and bike-chat. Still, we knew it was allowed, because the next leg was going to take us into the mountains...
In the land of the mountain king
31 March 2006
Finca Ixobel - Languin, 27-29.03.06
58 miles by bike, 3 lifts gratefully accepted, bruises, multiple.
Eleanor: What power we found in our legs after such a short but concentrated stint of rest and calorie-cramming. After our first large hill we stopped at a ´tienda´ to buy our day´s worth of ´fizz´, a now well-honed routine where we fill our panniers with the most energy-packed snacks we can find. Today´s nutricious stash included: 2 packets of ´Tortrix´, (a salty snack from the tortilla school of thinking, with the added twist of a coating of green lime-flavoured powder that lingers on your fingers for days) 3 packets of ´Can Cans´(a very poor relation of the custard cream biscuit), a small bag of buns (stale, with an unidentifiable crusty substance on top)and some banana flavoured sweets. Yes, now we were truly ready for anything.
We did some pointing and even found some sentences to ask which was the road to Fray Bartolome, our next port of call. A friendly van driver indicated the road veering away to our right, but then looked worriedly at our bikes and made a very good impression of operating a pneumatic drill. Oh how we laughed.
We were soon involuntarily making the same movements ourselves as we bumped over stones and rocks, pots and pans clanking as the road turned from bad to rodeo.
Then up ahead, roadworks and a traffic jam; how novel! I welcomed the chance for a break from the joggling and to put my helmet on the right way round again. Afer an all-too-brief pause we were waved past the diggers and the steamrollers and were off again, a bit slower this time as the roadworks here seem to involve smearing the earth that has washed off over time back on top of the stones and rocks. Last night´s rain however, had turned the surface into a thick muddy soup. Well, I preferred this to the rocks on their own and anyway, round this next bend I´m sure the road´ll be back to normal.
Seven miles later, our bikes ground to a standstill, our wheels and brakes clogged, more mud than metal. We scraped and wiggled sticks between mudguard and wheel in an attempt to lever out some of it, and then pushing this time carried on through the mud that had now turned to a rather unpleasant yellowy green. Scrchh... wheels clogged, stick scrape, wiggle, curse. A family of pigs marched past looking smug. On we pushed through purple mud, black mud, and mud that reminded me of a yule log, chocolately in colour with a white powder on top like icing sugar, mmmm. More food needed obviously. We stopped at another tienda and bought some more fizz.
Then, suddenly the mud stopped and we were back to rocks. And then the rain started, making the rocks so slick that we couldn´t even push our bikes up these steep hills, our feet slipped in all directions like Bambi on ice. It became clear we had a situation on our hands. 40 miles still to cover and about two hours til sunset. Erk.
We were standing, dejected in the rain considering our options when we noticed a truck had stopped just ahead of us. The word 'aventón' reached my ears. We had a lift. Our saviour was a man who delivered drinks to the shops in the area. He was going to Esperanza, the next village along. He knew it well and we´d be able to camp there. We squashed our bikes in amongst the orange juice bottles, Tom too, and I climbed into the cab.
Tom: After the day´s hard slog, I was glad to be in the back of the truck, and my spirits lifted. My lofty position, perched on the spare tyre, surrounded by a sea of bottled drinks and 'frescas' (bags of proudly articicial and sickly sweet squash, drunk with gusto by kids and occasional gringo cyclists by biting the corner off and squeezing) gave me a good view of the scenery, and the business operation we were tagging along with. We bumped our way up and down the terrible roads, mainly enclosed by rather dark and gloomy jungle. No space for wild camping I noted; the nature had got there first. Every so often we would come across another small village, and the driver´s sidekick would locate the little 'tienda', take their orders, and supply them with their latest batch of drinks.
It was nightfall when we arrived at their chosen village stop, about 10 miles from where we had been picked up. It was a very dramatic scene; traditional thatched Mayan huts appearing out of the jungle, a little smoke and a few pigs to add atmosphere. The lorry guys explained our predicament to one of the village elders, and soon we were being ushered politely into a barn, our home for the night. Meanwhile, word rapidly got round, and we were soon surrounded by most of the village. We entered the barn to set up camp, and were joined by at least 30 slack-jawed children, with many others peering in from outside. And that was when the "once in a lifetime gringo show" started; "first, they clamped lights onto their heads...then, they got out some material, and made a little house...in the barn!" For our encore, I got out the camera, and was greeted with screams as the flash went off, followed by crazed excitement as I showed them the picture. What slowly dawned on us, apart from that we may have been the first gringos in a long while to have ventured this way, is that few people could even understand our few words of spanish. Only the men spoke any, the women and children conversing solely in K'iché, the local Mayan dialect.
For our next trick, we cooked up our pasta in front of our audience. The petrol stove was of great interest to the menfolk, but also inspired the awkward question; 'how much does it cost?' How does one answer, that it probably cost someone´s annual income? We looked bashful and shrugged. We finally retired into our tent-in-barn, much to the disappointment of the waiting children, and quickly fell asleep, exhausted by the oddness of the day.
The next day we ate our porridge with our now customary audience, packed up, and then spent a merry half hour with sticks, battling to unclog our bikes with the now thick-set mud. It was quite late, and a hot and dry day, before we finally wobbled our way out of Esperanza, our home for the night. The road continued in it´s tough, rocky winding way, and the going was slow. We passed through several further small Mayan villages, dodging pigs and chickens, and getting slowly used to the stares.
After some while we arrived in a larger village called La Caoba. Now this was something of a worry. This was the first village to be marked on our rather perfunctory map, and it suggested two things; firstly, that we were on the REALLY back-road route, rather than that intended, and, secondly, according to the map, we were only about 10km along it, rather than the 40 miles we had so far covered. We tried our GPS system for the first time. It helpfully gave us our precise longitude and latitude...which placed us some 50 miles from any roads in the middle of the jungle according to our maps. Thank you, technology.
It was market day in La Caoba, which meant we could admire the bike-part and machete stalls as we battled with the crowds and stares. Soon after the village we encountered yet another steep, rubble strewn hill and after pushing our bikes laboriously up, stopped for a supernoodle lunch at the top. Shortly after stopping, we were joined by an elderly, wizened man. He sat down with us as we ate, and seemed very intent on communication of some sort, barraging us with K'iché and a few spanish words, ignoring our attempts to converse. Firstly he mimed something with his arms - was it a rifle gesture? Then, to our clear discomfort, he got out the machete, stabbed the ground several times with it, and carefully placed it on the grass between us. That done, he waved at a passing truck and swung on board, leaving us with his machete. Why? Answers on a postcard, please.
By mid-afternoon, uncertain of our location and deeply fed up by our slow progress on the awful 'roads', we gratefully accepted an offer of a lift in the back of a pick-up. It should be pointed out that even this is not exactly an easy option; the driver hurtled along at high speeds with us clinging onto the truck and our bikes for about the next 40km, trying to keep all intact. It did add a little upper body work-out to our exercise regime, though.
We were grateful to make it out of the jungle and to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, but then the next problem, what to do with our still mud-encrusted bikes? No problem; we took them to the car wash. We sat back, crossing our fingers as the man blasted not only the bikes, but also our panniers, with his high pressure hose, and even added in a complementary bubble-bath. A word of warning to others though; even the famous Ortlieb roll-tops don´t entirely keep out pressure hoses.
Although still in awe of our pretty unique slice of Mayan village life, we were slightly rattled by our experiences on the bad road, but the map showed a highway to Lanquin, our next stop. Even unpaved, how bad could it be?
We started out quite late, on another hot day. Things started well on a well packed gravel road, but 10km in, it turned into our now familiar mix of rubble and potholes. The road started climbing, and we met our first obstacle of the day; roadworks. This was no mere brush up either; the big machines were out in force. The first issue was a big pile of boulders blocking the road, but the road workers cheerfully came over to lend a hand. One gallantly picked up Eleanor's bike and slung it onto his back. "¡qué pesa!" he grunted, staggering back a few paces, but macho pride dictated that he made it over the climb. We thanked them, and headed on, but two turns on was more, and we could see no bikes were passing for a while, as one huge digger pulled rocks down from the hillside, and an earthmover pushed them into a giant hill where once there had been a road. The sole hard-hatted man (must have been the boss) somewhat redundantly came over to tell us to wait a while, as a digger swung it's bucket inches from his head. Time for snack break, then.
Eventually, with more scrambling through mud and rock, we were back to hill-climbing, and soon we congratulated ourselves on our first ascent of the day. That unfortunately meant a descent of steep, rubble-strewn hairpins; fun on a mountain-bike, not so great with 20kg on the bike.
On the flat again, and time was against us as usual. We had a hurried lunch of canned fruit cocktail and stale buns, and pushed on. But then the hillclimb started. We rapidly realised we were in trouble as the path deteriorated to loose scree and rocky steps, which we pushed up with difficulty. We pushed on and on, with water supplies getting low. Surely there must be a top soon?
At 4.30pm, after two and a half hours of solid pushing, our saviours appeared in a pick-up, and cheerfully roped the bikes down. There followed 2 hours of extreme pain as the road bumped on, mainly up, up, and further up into the mountains, before descending just as precipitously towards Languin. Eleanor´s bike gloves saved her hands as she clung to the rope, by mainly disintegrating themselves. We finally arrived in the dark, which probably hid the grimaces from our bruises as we thanked our chauffeurs.
We checked into the first hotel we had arrived at, a rather odd place it turned out. It was a huge hotel complex, waiting for the tourbus that never comes. We ate our dinner alone in the restaurant that evening, surrounded by 30 empty tables, then retired to our room, set by the swimming pool filled with bright green water. 'Patrons swim at their own risk' informed the sign. Quite.
"Who told you you could ride that road" had asked the pick-up guys. Yes, who indeed? Ian Benford, author of 'Cycle Central America', that´s who. We have now come to the conclusion that the man must be either superhuman, or a crazed fantasist. OK, so he had warned about the 'hard 1000m of climbing', and we now know what that means, but not of the 'road' conditions, and OK, we may just possibly have been on the wrong road before, but the final proof was in his sentence; 'the journey from Cobán to Fray Bartolome...is relatively easy this way round and would be worth doing in a day'. What! 120km, 60km of which are mountain climbs on some of the worst roads known to man?
We have a new mission; it is to use whatever combination of bike and bus power get us back on the navigable roads again. Wish us luck!
26 March 2006
San Ignacio, Belize - Finca Ixobel, Guatamala. 20 - 25.03.06
185 miles, 615 miles since Cancun, Tom´s resting pulse 44bpm, 1st Blood Eleanor
Tom: Buoyed, if not cocksure, after our 73 mile day, and well rested, we looked forward to our next challenge of crossing into Guatamala. Only 50 miles, a nice early start - how hard could it be?
The day started with a misty, humid hill climb out of San Ignacio, but by the time we were at the border things were hotting up. The Belizian side was a shiny new hall, one they were not keen to let dusty bikes into, but we negotiated that without too much difficulty. And then on to Guatamala, but where´s immigrations? It turns out it was that small window, squeezed between the pepsi stands, with one hot and bothered official seemingly processing arrivals and departures simultaneously. A 20 Quetzal 'fee', (lonely planet: 'no entry or departure taxes') and we were in.
Once again, the change was immediate. Where had the road gone? We wandered up one dusty high street, and then with a little pointing and sign language, wobbled up another. The other change was just as immediate, as people cheerily engaged us in conversation with smiles and hand shakes, as we smiled and 'no hablo espanol'd back.
However from there things got a little sticky. We crawled slowly on up the endless hills in searing heat, picking our way round the large potholes, turning white with the dust thrown up by the passing lorries. The next 20 kilometres were distinctly painful as we ground slowly on. I looked with dismay as my computer read '45 C'. That may not be 'in the shade', but then again, neither were we. The one brief entertainment was when we stopped at a roadside stall for a much needed cool drink, and tried to make conversation with the boy then. I admired his possibly somewhat dated English textbook. Apparently the english for 'oye!' is 'hark!'.
We were deeply grateful to be proudly told that the tarmac started in a few kilometres, and so it did, and was a joy to behold. By then it was afternoon, and we had some serious milage to cover. We toyed with the idea of hitching a lift, just at about the time the traffic dried up, and so another dusk found us pounding on at high speed, only this time in a new country (with none of the local currency!). El Remate, and it's large lake, arrived in the nick of time. Never again! (sweepstake on how many times we say that can open now...)
After a day's rest in El Remate, we headed up the hill for the Mayan ruins of Tikal. We actually managed to get up at 5.30am for once, although the first steep climb still had us sweating. However after half way we entered the Tikal national park and got to swoop through, with the jungle mainly to ourselves. At one point we disturbed something 'out there' in the trees, and were greeted to a terrifying sound, rather like an emphasematous smoker coughing their way through their first of the day. Could it be the elusive jaguar? No - howler monkeys.
Tikal itself was very impressive. Once a major Mayan city, and occupied from the 4th Century BC until the mysterious Mayan collapse in the 9th Century AD, it had had plenty of time to be reclaimed by the jungle. The geeks out there may recognise it as the rebel base in star wars, but for me it was definitely Indiana Jones/Lara Croft territory (don't ask which way round).
Several huge pyramids rise up from the jungle, often still with trees growing from various places. We climbed, increasingly wearily, up them to admire not only the views over the jungle, but also the spider monkeys jumping around in the trees below. I was halfway up one particularly large pyramid, when a motorbike pulled up and (two) policemen got off. Approaching us, they said; "Eleanor? Eleanor....Weelson? En Bicicletta?" Oh no. What´s happened to them? Our precious steeds had been left, locked to a tree back at the campsite. That's it...trip's over. "You..arrested!" they chortled, pointing at me, pleased with their attempt at humour, before whipping out Eleanor's (unsigned) traveller's cheques we had changed at El Remate. We were still so shakey they ended up climbing half a pyramid so we could gratefully sign them.
That night was a fine one of camping under a particularly impressive set of stars, and a delicious new meal to enter the cookbooks; supernoodles with 'happy cow' processed cheese.
We had, with some foreboding, signed up for one of the 'must-do´s' in Tikal, a view of sunrise over the temples, so we found ourselves at 4.30am the next day, huddled with a group of mostly American youth for our ´genuine mayan experience´. We hadn´t actually paid for another day´s entry into the temples, but got round that by the simple expedient of shuffling to the back of the pack and hanging our heads whilst passing the ticket barrier. Since the park didn´t open till 6am, and the whole thing smelt somewhat of a nice little earner on the side for some of the guards and one of the guides, the guilt didn´t really hit. We headed off in the dark at high speed, pausing briefly whilst our guide manhandled a tarantula and pointed out a marching army of leaf cutter ants, before storming up to the top of the massive temple IV for our mystical dawn adventure. We waited, whispering quietly, or in silent contemplation, as the sky slowly got lighter...to reveal...clouds, ... the odd glimpse of a tree... other tourists. At quarter past 6, dawn experienced, not quite in all it´s majesty, we headed back down.
From then on, our boding was largely justified. Our guide smoothly progressed from somewhat grating to jaw-clenchingly annoying. Both of us somewhat rankle at the best of times with the tour experience "now look to your left... take a photo to your right...", but the man´s grasp of idiomatic American made you want to hit him. "let´s lock and load guys, lock and load" "so you, like, wanna know 'like, why did these guys build these things, huh?" We slunk to the back and made faces like sullen children on a school trip.
After Tikal, we rather slowly made our way back down and plodded our way round to Flores, a nice town (I hesitate to use the word 'quaint') on a small projection into the lake. Having yet again get money out of the ATM when we had the chance, we were, 'sighs', forced to eat in the one posh restaurant in town that accepted visa. Real bread! Pudding! Complementary rum! Ahhhh....
Happily full, the next day we headed off down the highway, beginning our slow progress through the 'jungle province' of Petén towards the hills. The first half of the day was deeply depressing; instead of jungle we were greeted to black hills, a charred smell, and breeze-block shacks. Progress has come to the region, which seems to mean burning off the jungle.
On the road, the monotony was broken by large advertisments for an up-coming place. It seemed to have it all; hotel, restaurant, swimming, even, it seemed, a garage and puncture repair service. We had visions of camping by a lake. When it arrived, it wasn´t quite all that, it was so much more; a large 'waterworld' experience, with slides and pools, attached to a motel. Loud music was rattling around the tinny p.a. system. It appeared deserted. We headed on.
Towards the end of the day it started drizzling slightly. I was lost in thoughts as usual until a large crashing sound and yelp woke me. Eleanor's front wheel had slipped on the edge of the road, rather inconsiderately depositing her onto the tarmac. She had grazed her elbow, and was sufficiently shaken to allow me to administer some of the noxious Mexican-bought antiseptic (I suspect for the last time), but seemed to be bought round by a sweet roadside bun stop.
That evening we stopped in a nowhere town called Saboneta, where it seemed we were the main attraction. I went to town poisoning the extensive local mozzie population, giving myself quite a cough in the process, and we entertained ourselves over our tough non-specific meat by laboriously translating the paper. The news, it had been leaked, was that Castro, fearful of dastardly CIA plots, has his underpants burnt.
The next day was delicious - we were cold! What a novelty. We even got to wear some of the various fleeces we've been lugging through the heat. The hills slowly got more rolling and dramatic, and by afternoon we had cleared Poptun for our final destination, an eco-lodge jast past it called Finca Ixobel. The place was heaven for our food obsessed frames; home-made bread, all-you-can-eat buffets. We did well there. We didn´t make use of the bar there, unlike our neighbours. As we settled to sleep in our tents, we were disturbed, firstly by very loud, persistent snoring from a nearby cabaña, then from his locked-out girlfriend. "Victor! Victor! Snore snore. Victor! Victor" More snoring. And repeat, for 40 minutes.
We enjoyed our rest day at the Finca, knowing that things would get a bit adventurous from then on. And how....
Don't let the sun go down on me
26 March 2006
Caye Caulker and on to San Ignacio 15 - 19.03.06
Eleanor: The speed-boat ride to Caye Caulker was a cramped affair, tourists holding onto their special holiday hats as we bumped over the waves. Our bikes knocked against knees. I alas, had only my helmet to protect me from the elements, as my favourite and long serving 'Glastonbury' hat has not been seen since Corazul. I hope it's gone to a good home. I loved that hat.
We spent a couple of days relaxing on this tropical island paradise with cheesy sunsets and Bob Marley t-shirts. Our main reason for stopping off here was for Tom to do a spot of diving, and with a bit of luck, see a shark at close quarters. Meanwhile, I decided to spend an afternoon snorkelling on the reef to pass the time. The snorkel boat stopped at an area of the reef called 'Shark Ray Alley'. The name gives it away a bit, but the snorkel tour guide dropped some sardines into the sea and within seconds the water was black with rays. As big as bicycle wheels.
The guide pointed out some darker, pointier shapes on the other side of the boat. Nurse sharks. Harmless apparently, they don't bite, just suck. I was supposed to get in the water at this point, but there didn't seem to be room. After teetering for a bit, I plopped into the water, what the hell, I'm a big brave adventurer now. I then spent at least 15 seconds underwater admiring the rays' graceful movements. I'm happy to say a ray touched my toe only once. I thought I saw a shark lurking in the distance, but I couldn't be sure. Luckily the boat was nice and close. The fruit salad they served us on the ride back to the shore was delicious.
Tom enjoyed his diving, but no sharks. Lots of coral though apparently.
[Note to Hallum Murray, our inspiration, and other cyclists tired of 'bike falling over when loading panniers/leaning against trees/on water taxi to tropical island; use a toeclip strap to secure the front brake! Try it, it'll change your life. See picture on right for details.]
Resting over, it was back to the riding. From Belize City, we rode 73 miles to San Ignacio near the Guatemalan border. We didn't really mean to. I blame the huge burgers that we had for lunch that day, or maybe the Snickers icecreams for pudding. Either way, the glut of fat and calories combined with a couple of days rest powered us along. We found ourselves at Belmopan, our intended stop for the night. On first sight it didn't thrill. There was restlessness in the air. We had a coke and surveyed the situation. We had two hours before sundown. If we could keep up an everage of 10 mph, we would make it to San Ignacio just in time. We hadn't bargained for the hills. Up until now our world had been flat.
Suddenly the landscape bubbled up into dips and swells and we were careering down tree-lined lanes and gasping up slopes past bemused villagers taking in their washing. Everything was bathed in a beautiful orange glow as the sun was setting. Sun setting! Oh no. The golden rule rang in our ears -never approach a town at dusk or the dogs'll get you. And then there's the robbers. A helpful american speaking hippy farmer lady stopped in a pick-up and told us that we'd never make it before sunset and we'd have to ride a bit in the dark. But you probably won't get robbed. Right. Our legs found previously unknown levels of power. Must. Beat. The. Sun. Deadlines always work on me that way. We skidded into town as the last rays disappeared from view. A dog snapped and growled as we passed, but we hardly noticed, we had made it!
The Heat (The Energy)
17 March 2006
Bacalar, Mexico, to Caye Caulker, Belize
125 miles, 1 1/2 countries, 3rd degree burns
Tom: We spent a day resting our weary parts in Bacalar, a pleasantly sleepy town close to the border, significant mainly for it's 'lake of seven colours'; a slight oversell as the colours seemed to my untrained eye to only appear three at a time, and one was sea-weed brown. A more unusual sight greeted us on the dusty main street - a pony and trap making it's way sedately up the road containing what appeared to be extras from 'little house on the prairie'. The man was lean, dungeree'd and straw-hatted, his wife hidden beneath a large bonnet and severe dress, and with two shockingly blond haired boys, who stared in slack-jawed amazement at us, as we slack-jawed back at them. And they were speaking German. No sooner had they disappeared than the apparition was repeated, with minor variations (but similarly blond hair). The internet, as ever, provided. It turns out there are quite large numbers of Mennonite settlements in Central America. The Mennonites are 'a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after and influenced by the teachings and tradition of Menno Simons (1496-1561). As one of the historic peace churches, Mennonites are committed to non-violence, non-resistance and pacifism (or refusal to go to war).' (Thank you Wikipedia!). So the gist is that the Mennonites, of which the Amish are an offshoot, have come to Mexico and Belize looking for a bit of rustic simplicity, which for some reason involves dungerees.
After Bacalar, it was time for our first border crossing, and to leave our fledgeling Spanish skills behind before they had had a chance to take root. We toiled our way against a hard wind to the border crossing. We pulled up to the Mexico immigrations window, proud to be down to our last two pesos. "That will be ten dollars please..." the border guard smiled at us, "what, no, our book said..." we spluttered, patting our empty wallets in alarm, "oh, OK then, thanks for visiting!" he smiled, waving in the next suckers. Nice try son. A bridge, a customs hall, and we were in Belize, skirting passed the frankly bizarre 'duty free area' between the two borders, containing a casino, a car showroom, and many a booze shop. As we continued our battle against the wind to our first Belizian stop, Corazal, we got to muse on the unexpected, immediate differences between the two. Gone was the jungle, replaced with open fields of sugarcane.
Also gone, as it turned out, was the shade, and the last of our optimistically small British Suntan lotion. Time to crack open the 'hawaiian tropic factor 30 sport', and another surprise for a culture shock day; the effect was not unlike smearing oneself all over with alcohol gel, which dried into tacky rivulets down the shins. And factor 30? Factor 30 my rosy red arms. One of it's slogans did hold up to the test though; despite several minutes hard scrubbing that night, the gum and dust mix remained impressively water resistant. Our flannels have now been replaced with scouring brushes.
We arrived that afternoon in Corazal, a windswept sea-side town, which, by day at least, re-defined laid back. Our hoped-for hotel had been locked on arrival, but half-way down the road, we were approached by the owner; "you after my place? I was at home, eating... Baked rabbit, and beans... I like meat..." He also liked Princess Diana, and reverently showed us his Andrew Morton book, but wasn't enamoured with Camilla; "ugly".
Onward, the next day, to Orange walk, a pleasant ride, which included a diversion on a rural road to admire further fields of sugar cane. (It might be hard to get lost here; the one turning we make off the main road, and we had a bus-stop of people shouting "wrong way! Dat way!" at us.) Orange Walk itself was uninspiring, and if we thought Corazal was quiet, Orange Walk on a sunday was the British Library reading room. We checked into a rather spacious room, washed our clothes in the shower (block the plug with a sock, stupid), which proved stubbornly resistant to drying, and then searched increasingly bad temperedly for food. We finally found a chinese restaurant, and eagerly attacked the noodles. The place consisted of a chinese schoolgirl, who took the orders, served the food, and completed her homework on 'Animal farm', two Chinese men, who drank tea and chatted, and a Belizean man propping himself up with a bottle of Belikin beer. Spying us, he came to chat. "You English? You read 'Animal farm'? George Orwell English, and..." He burped and swayed to emphasise his coming insight, "a communist!". We frowned, and stared into our chicken chow meins.
One observation about Belize is that the shops and restaurants, 'Tina's place', 'Marla's restaurant', seem to be run by women, and many of the supermarkets single-handedly by harrassed chinese. The men seem to have carved a useful niche for themselves in the beer drinking stakes. Overall Belize is more 'caribbean', and less Latin, than expected. Most people speak a strong Jamaican-style patois, and there is a slow pace, but also more direct begging and hustling.
The next day was another slog down an achingly straight road, battling for miles against a headwind, with only a lunch-break of sardines and 'happy cow' processed cheese to cheer us up, but by the afternoon we had made it to the 'Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary', a village surrounded by protected lake and forest, for another well earned break. Crooked tree was a delight, and we got to pitch our tent for the second time, this time on the water's edge, at Paradise Inn [much recommended, if you find yourself in the neighbourhood]. The big thing in Crooked tree is birds, and so the next day we went on a boat tour, aided by a somewhat monosyllabic guide, and a rather more knowledgeable US biologist-turned artificial rock sculptor. So I can now say with some authority that the black water-birds are cormorants, the white ones egrets, two large splashes accompanied by brief glimpses of a log-like thing were crocodiles, which may have in fact been alligators (something to do with teeth, apparently), and the large ones that have been circling overhead are vultures. But why do they circle overhead us? Anyway, David Attenbourgh better watch out...
Our other zoological finding was that dogs like powdered milk, ours specifically, and enjoy eating it noisily at alarming times of the night. No porridge for breakfast, sighs...
A quick note about food. An inspired chap called the hungry cylist (www.thehungrycyclist.com) is on a gastronomic cycling tour of the americas, harnessing the powerful exercise induced appetite to eat his way through mountains of mouth-watering tacos, burritos and the like, guided by suggestions from the public. Damn, I wish I had thought of that. So here's a little recipe of our own. Take one pack 'macaroni and Cheese mix - now even cheesier, with added calcium!'. Boil on kerosine stove. Add milk powder and water, as substitute for milk. Add generous slug of oil, as substitute for butter. Add provided sachet of 'cheese flavor powder', and stir vigourously. Enjoy, at least if you've been riding all day.
After a day of rest, culminating in tacos delivered to our hammocks, we were sorry to leave Crooked tree, but invigorated, powered down the increasingly busy and narrow road straight through Belize city, to a conveniently waiting boat, which, with a few nerve-racking breakdowns, powered us to Caye Caulker, for our last bit of marine appreciation before we head inland for good. Here little fishies....
Eleanor: I fancied staying in the Wildlife Reserve at Crooked Tree as a chance to surround ourselves with nature and get a bit more used to the camping lifestyle...
As the sun switched off and plopped into the sea, the wildlife switched on, creating a thick background roar of whirring, buzzing, chirping and bleeping. We tucked our trousers into our socks, battoned down our sleeves, clamped headtorches to our foreheads and with toothbrushes in hand set out into the dark for the toilets. Jade-green specks of spiders eyes glinted in the undergrowth and fireflies blinked on and off in our peripheral vision. To the left, pairs of red eyes reflected my torchlight. Their owners, startled, scampered into the bushes.
The sinks were abuzz with mosquitos that flocked to my head torch and vibrated in my ears. Hands batting, I escaped into the quiet of a cubicle and shut the door. A party of frogs peered down from the rafters. We were surrounded.
Minutes later, we were safely zipped up in our tent, and once we were satisfied that not a scrap of nature had followed us in, fell asleep.
It was about 2 o'clock when I woke with a start. Something, something was creeping around our tent. Footsteps, definitely footsteps. I woke Tom and we sat, poised, ears straining. 'Crunch, crunch' there it was again. Then... 'Clunk' the sound of our bike spokes rattling "It's going for the bikes!" Whispered Tom. A vigorous munching sound ensued. What! My mind raced. What sort of an animal eats bikes!
"I'm going to take a look." said Tom.
"Noo!" I whispered. Who knew what we were dealing with here. Tom unzipped the tent anyway and peered out.
"It's just a dog -eating our milk powder."
"Oh. Oops". That's the last time I leave our breakfast on the handlebars of my bicycle.
I wore earplugs the following night.
Welcome to the jungle!
11 March 2006
Tulum to Bacalar 07.03.06 - 09.03.06
117 miles, 0 punctures, 51 mosquito bites on Eleanor.
Eleanor: As day broke, we cycled South out of snoozing Tulum and entered the Sian Ka´an nature reserve on a beautifully shaded tarmac road, pleased to be free of the truck-heavy Ruta 307 at least for a while. But as the tree cover grew more tunnel-like, the road narrower, and the pot-holes more frequent, we began to realise this was going to be a whole new cycling experience. Before long, we were absorbed in fierce concentration at the road ahead, plotting paths puzzle-like, avoiding the biggest holes and sandy patches, unremittingly searching for the smoothest ride. And so it went on, stopping occaisonally for jeeps to pass; they seemed to be having a harder time of it than we were.
We made it to the fishing village Punta Allen just as the sun was setting, enough time to assemble our tent for the very first time and cook ourselves up a delicious pasta meal on our stove. And it had hardly any sand in it. An impressive achievement considering everything else we own is liberally coated in the stuff.
The next morning we hauled our bikes onto a boat to take us across the gap to our next section of road.
Bumps this time, lots of them, and they grew more bumpy. And the jungle grew more jungley. Insect groupies swarmed around our heads and snakes slithered out of sight as we approached. The road got even more bumpy, and our jolting brains realised that 44 miles was going to take us a long time. Most of the day in fact. And then there´s the water supply -we´re down to our last few sips, and, where are we?? How much more of this bone-shaking to go?? What time is sunset?? Will we have to bed down for the night here? In the jungle?? Panicky thoughts were assuaged by the discovery of a brown stagnant-looking pond under some trees. Some of that in our water bottles with enough iodine to kill a badger and we were on our way again, with a renewed determination to get to a town for the night, pot-holes or no pot-holes. Just as I thought we had lost the last of the daylight , I took my sunglasses off and was relieved to discover the situation was not as bad as I thought. And then a cockerel crowed. The tree cover vanished and we were approaching Felippe Carillio Puerto, civilisation at last.
We thought we´d reward ourselves the next day with a trip down good old Ruta 307 again, but our tired legs weren´t happy, and even the smoothest of tarmac pained. The highlight of the day was a gourmet pasta meal in a lay-by, with a starter, and a small snooze for pudding. We took a bus for the last ten miles, shock horror, but this is something we may not attempt again in a hurry, as Tom and our bikes got into some terrible tangles in the luggage area and haven't been quite the same since.
We are now resting up in Bacalar with its beautiful lake of seven colours. Tomorrow it´s across the border -to Belize!
Mad dogs and Englishmen...
6 March 2006
Cancun to Tulum 01.03.06 to 06.03.06
108 miles, 0 punctures, 2 Quesadillas.
And So It Begins...
Tom: Well, it was looking touch and go for a while as we circled Horsham as our flight time approached, but here we are; actual miles ridden, and actual sunburn to prove it.
The flight itself was unremarkable, but with a background of queasy tension, having had to sign away all responsibility for our bikes over to Continental airlines (Note to potential bike travellers; soft cases bad, even with all the pipe lagging and bubble wrap in the world). Overall flying with bikes is not to be recommended; the whole thing is now a blur of overloaded trolleys and bemused customs officials. It also cost us a chunk of our precious dollars to get a mini-van at the other end. However a pat-down of our precious bikes, then a night's sleep and all seemed better.
We spent the next day pottering around Cancun town (rather like a dishevelled US suburb), feeling sickly on chloroquine and sampling the local food. The main surprise was the abrupt and fearsome tropical storm that dumped about a foot of rain in half an hour, turning roads into grey rivers. Didn't bode well for the cycling...
We needn't have worried, about that at least. Since then the sun has more than made up, and our pallid Northern European winter skins don't know what's hit 'em. I'm the most unusually branded at present; four red 'commas' on my forehead, a testament to the large ventilation holes sported by my helmet. On most days we get up at 6, and are riding by 7.30, at which point the weather is a beautiful balmy 25C. By 9.30, it's 35C. By 10.30, 40C. It's hard to know whether to ride faster, for the draft it affords, or slower, and keep the sweating down. We settle for using Eleanor's face as a barometer; purple means stop.
We've been working our way down the Carribean coast, on 'ruta 307'. For those southerners among you, imagine the A3, but very hot, very flat, very straight, and with more flattened iguanas. OK, just imagine dual carriage-way with trucks. The sea is inconviniently tucked out of sight, frequently by all-inclusive, 'all you can eat' (judging by the size of some of the guests) enormo-hotels. One provided a special train to ferry its guests from mexican themed hotel to the restaurant (50 metres).
We've now reached Tulum, famed for ruins, and beach-huts. (OK, OK, so we're staying in a beach-hut, but we've earned it, right?). Today is a rest day, for tomorrow we leave the highway behind, heading for Punta Allen, the Sian Ka'an reserve, and our first taste of wild camping.