The Lesson of the Machu Picchu Ticket

I will always look back at this trip with fond memories of our nine weeks in Peru.  When we entered the country, we had no idea of what we would like to see or do, other than we had to see Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, but what about the rest?  Well, as you have read, once we began to look around a bit and talk to locals, we had no end of options to check out.  But once we came out to the coast, we realized that we needed to get to Lima for badly needed bike maintenance and repair chores, buying spares and supplies, and just a rest in a nice place.

It took us two days to ride down the coast.  As we had seen to the north of here, the coast is a dry desert environment, but has a wonderful beauty in the forms and colors along the way.  It’s such a yin-yang thing, so much water on your right, and none at all on your left.  You can get off the bike, stand and face due east, and never be able to imagine that if you simply spun about, all that you would see is endless ocean.  Now try to imagine that behind you is the dry, lifeless face of Mars.  For folks from the rainforest coast of the Pacific Northwest, it’s a bizarre world.

A snapshot from our ride down the coast to Lima.

Lima hove into view by gradations.  It’s a big city, with 8.5 millions souls there.  I had some need of help with bike issues, and so I had made contact with Felipe Miranda at Motos del Peru through the Horizons Unlimited webpage.  Though he owns a Suzuki shop, he agreed to round up all the spares I needed, and to let me use one of the service bays for doing my own work.  In return, I bought all supplies through him.  He and his crew were terrific help to us.  We were able to repair Jalene’s badly leaking fork by wet-sanding the chrome tube, and it seems to be holding still over a month later after the roads of Bolivia.  Both bikes received a thorough once-over, oil changes, cleaning, electrical repairs, brake pads, a new tire for me, etc.  We received some personal maintenance in the form of some needed rest, food, and good company.  We stayed at Backpackers Hostel in Miraflores, just a few blocks from the beach area, and it’s lovely parks.  People here really seem to use these parks, and we saw lots of families and groups of friends out and about.  Remember the swing sets and monkey bars that were everywhere when we were kids?  They’re still here – nobody seems to worry about the occasional broken arm in the growing-up process, and you can find all sorts of fun adult size exercise equipment, too.

Lima is written about as being a culinary mecca these days, and we saw some evidence of that.  Just around the corner were a few fancy places on the roundabout, and the prices warned us of the good food to be had there.  We walked on a few doors and found a cheaper place owned by a couple from Spain, and had a terrific meal for much less.  Later, we went back to the upstairs bar nearby and got a real education on Pisco Sours from a local bartender with only two customers to entertain, which proved handy in the days to come.

Motos del Peru was about a 6-7 minute ride from our hostel, and we also ventured out to Touratech and other shops.  Big city traffic in Peru is hard to describe, but easy to learn.  Many smaller intersections are totally uncontrolled – no signs or lights.  First come, first served.  If the race to the crossing is a tie, then tonnage wins the day (pedestrians are nothing).  If you are on a moto, the bus will majestically steam into your lane, and you will become flotsam in its wake if you don’t find another path.  The courteous taxi driver will wave a lazy hand out the window just before turning left from the lane to the right of you.  Don’t get angry.  We’re still alive and we all got there, didn’t we?  On the other hand, on a moto you can do things unheard of in any western nation.  One-way streets?  Lane-sharing?  For that matter, what’s a lane?  The number of lanes corresponds to the number of vehicles that can fit in the street.  Push to the head of the line at a light.  To make a left, cars going both straight AND left will gas it on the green light.  After everyone slams to a halt, whoever got furthest into the intersection is allowed to proceed.  Turns across multiple lanes are common, and nobody seems upset.  Many say that drivers in Peru have a suicidal gene, but there is a method to the madness once you “learn” it.  Gone are the days of Mexico, and orderly traffic patterns.

Southward along the desert coast again!  We took off refreshed and repaired and made our way out of the traffic and noise, and found the dry desert so peaceful and quiet.  We found a spot in the beachy town of Paracas and checked into a hostel with a pool for a couple of nights.  With no secure parking, they ushered us with our bikes poolside, where we parked them and relaxed a bit in the warm sun.  Jalene took a boat-tour to see the bird sanctuary offshore and came back with some great photos and tales of fun.  Not me, I’m done with saltwater boating for now.  Good ceviche and cheap ice cream kept us going, and after surviving two days of this, we continued south.

Poolside in Paracas we celebrated 1 year on the road!

Poolside in Paracas we celebrated 1 year on the road!

Ica is a town in vineyard country, and we of course had to find out about this.  A visit to the Tacama winery, the oldest vineyard in South America, gave us a great education in local Peruvian winemaking and, especially, the distilling of Pisco.  A beverage much like grappa or cognac, Pisco is a strong grape liquor enjoyed straight or in a Pisco sour.  We had enjoyed Pisco sours already in Chachapoyas, and those continue to be my favorite.  At Tacama, it seemed a shame to leave without a Pisco sour from the heartland, and so we enjoyed refreshing afternoon drinks that left us absolutely smashed in their wakes.  I have never had a single 8-oz. tumbler leave me with a hangover the next morning.  Caution is advised, but I would never discourage you from trying one at Tacama.

The next day we took a short ride south to Nazca.  Sure enough as we neared the fabled site of the Lineas de Nazca, the land opened out onto dry, rocky plains.  The surface was quite flat, and covered with dark stones.  Just under the surface is light-colored substrate, and the lines are formed by scraping away the thin dark surface layer.  From ground level, one can see nothing to suggest any designs or geometry on this vast canvas.  There is a single tower beside the road where one can climb up and see two figures directly below, but we passed it by and headed for the town of Nasca, hoping to catch a flight and see them from the air the next day.  As we checked into our hotel, we learned that flights in the morning are often delayed unpredictably by fog and poor visibility.  The afternoon was perfectly clear and the wind low, so we purchased tickets immediately.  Our flight took off at about 4:30 pm, and in about 40 minutes we saw 13 of the classic figures and many, many geometric designs and lines that stretched for miles and miles.  Most are not as large or easily visible as I thought they would be, and the pilot did a great job of circling with the end of the wing pointed exactly at the target below, so we touristas didn’t have to search to find it.  As with many things found by archeology, we know how and when the figures were made, but the why is still evasive.

Seeing the Nazca Lines from above was spectacular!

Seeing the Nazca Lines was kind of expensive, but it was one of those things that we didn’t want to pass up and regret later.  “We’re never going to be here again” is how we decide whether we really want to see or do something, or are just checking off the box on a place we were told (expected) to see.  Machu Picchu was also going to cost us the equivalent of many days of gas and accommodations, but we both agreed that it was something we wanted to see for ourselves.  What we didn’t realize is that, due to demand, we needed to buy our tickets in advance.  Jalene searched and found tickets two weeks out, and so after hearing tales of having to buy two months in advance by others, we felt lucky and grabbed them.

This led to an important new lesson about life on the road.  Once you have a location and a firm date fixed on the calendar, everything suddenly revolves around that, and options start to disappear.  Suddenly, that flexibility you took for granted is compromised.  Now we must make firmer plans than before, and you may not be able to just stay another day “because you like it here.”  Suddenly the motos MUST make it to Machu Picchu on August 26th.  So many times we started to say something, and the other would say “But we have tickets for the 26th…” and that would end it, or we’d decide maybe we could figure out how to do it afterward.  We came to hate having that limitation imposed by the date and place we had to be, and vowed never to do that again unless there was no other way.

For months before this, we had become excited about the prospect of having others come see us and share a little of our travel life.  We had started to make plans for some of our family to meet us in Buenos Aires in spring of 2017.  But, with the Machu Picchu ticket lesson learned, we began to think twice about this.  We would have to be in Buenos Aires to meet them, and would have that date out there for six months, influencing how we traveled through South America.  Plus, at that time, we would be concentrating on returning home, shipping bikes, re-entering the job market and life at home.  And besides, we would be seeing them once we were back in the US, anyway.  There was disappointment for all, but in the end it was the wise choice to cancel the idea.  Now we are free to make this trip whatever we want it to be, and can travel unhindered by dates and commitments.

Selfish?  Yeah, I guess so, but this is an extraordinary time in our lives and we want to give ourselves the freedom to fully experience it.  Let’s go to Arequipa tomorrow, and see what’s there.  We can stay as long as we like – no, wait, we’ve got tickets to Machu Picchu on the 26th!

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Take a look at the photos connected with the stories in our Gallery and Jalene's post about the dip in our trip.

Outside Of Our Home Context

Written on September 11, 2016

Nine-eleven.  Sometimes it takes a huge event to show us what is truly important.  Yesterday morning Jalene’s bike wouldn’t idle, and the erratic behavior of the electronic tachometer told me to look for a ground fault somewhere.  I began by pulling out my little Craftsman multimeter, but found no life in it. I forged ahead anyway, and quickly found the issue in a poor connection at the negative terminal of battery, always the place to begin.  Problem solved, but the importance of the multimeter was suddenly very clear to me.  Without it, I had no good (i.e. rapid, convenient, reliable) way to test connectors and circuits out here in Bolivia.  I had simply tucked it down where it would fit, not thinking about protecting it.  A plastic bottle of fuel cleaner had leaked, and soaked everything, multimeter included.  This morning I sprayed it out with contact cleaner, dried it out, and put a new battery into it.  This got the voltmeter part working, but the ohmmeter function is still dead.  Without this tool, finding a broken wire out in the desert somewhere would prove much more difficult.  As such, we spent a morning in La Paz roaming the electronics shops until I found a good replacement.  I will revise my tool-packing strategies to protect things that are important.

I doubt Craftsman will replace the multimeter, but I am carrying two broken sockets all the way back to the USA so I can walk in and get new ones.

I believe I left you outside the tunnel high in the Cordillera Blanca, after having escaped the ice-jam inside, an experience that still scares me whenever I think about it.  But I was able to ride away, and came back down to warm Huaraz.  Jalene and I relaxed for another day before we took off for Cañon del Pato to the north of us, and the warmth of the coast.  The day did not start off well, as Jalene had a dead battery and we had to jump it from my bike.  Once we got going, her bike’s voltmeter kept climbing and she finally reported 14 volts.  So we forged our way north, with the faith that her battery would at least get us to Lima where it could be replaced if need be.  After a stretch of lovely pavement following the Rio Santa, we rolled through Yungay, which made headlines in 1970 when an earthquake rocked the region, and a mudslide originating high on Nevado Huascarán, Peru’s highest peak, wiped out the town, killing 20,000 and leaving only 92 survivors, ironically who were in the cemetery or stadium, located above the level of the city.  The danger had been predicted in 1962, but the two American scientists involved were forced to either retract or face prison time, and fled the country.  The government suppressed the prediction, but Huascáran didn’t seem to respect this.  There is a large flat area where you can see the ruins of the cathedral and the old Plaza, and it is an eerie place to be.  Some of our photos of the vendors along the road look up into the area of the destroyed town site with the volcano beyond.  Having grown up under the Cascade volcanoes and their similar tendencies, I didn’t hang around too long.  There is a fascinating preliminary report put out by the USGS in 1970 that you can see here.

We slowly descended all morning, and the land began to dry out as the broad agricultural valley gradually changed into a deeper gorge.  We found lunch in a small village called Yuracmarca, where once again a little girl wanted to check out Jalene and her shiny, well-traveled moto.  After almuerzo, we headed northwest and now descended much more sharply down between dry rock slopes and walls.  Cañon del Pato is traversed by a one-lane paved road with 35 tunnels bored into the canyon walls.  Most are short and straight, but one must be careful of the dirt and sand that builds up in the center of the road in some of the longer tunnels.  We learned to take off our sunglasses to let us see better, and listen for horns.  Although we found the road empty and easy, there are long, long drop-offs and no guardrails or barriers.  Be careful to stay alert, and enjoy the views from a standstill.  In many places the cliff walls narrowed to a slot just wide enough for the river, and we hung above it many hundreds of meters on our little ledge of a road.  Don’t be scared off, this is an incredible road to explore, and we enjoyed every bit of it.  It’s parched country, and the rocks are totally exposed to view, with amazing colors everywhere.  The geology of earth with the appearance of the moon, not a plant to be seen anywhere.  The temperature soared in the canyon as we continued to descend, and we were so glad to have started with full Camelbacks of water.  We dropped over 3,000 meters this day from Huaraz to the coast, and after two hours working our way down the canyon, the land opened out onto irrigated fields along the river as we approached the coast.

I knew that at some point we would begin seeing vineyards, and sure enough, along the river were trellises with grapevines.  What I thought were railroad grades above us were actually irrigation canals running along the hillside, where water had been diverted from the river above.  This fed water to the agriculture along the river, and also carried water out to the cities on the coast below.  We followed the river all the way to Santa, a small town lying just inland of the bigger city of Chimbote.  We were hot, dusty, and tired by this time late in the afternoon.  Neither of us had any desire to go through locating a hostal in busy Chimbote, and so we checked into a corner hotel in Santa that proved to be comfortable and cheap.  Around the block from us was a market area, where we found a good polleria.  These are restaurants that specialize in chicken (pollo), and are usually good fallbacks when you don’t know where to find decent food.  Deep-frying is a good sign of reasonably sterile fare that won’t get you sick.  The church across the street was having choir practice, and there were familiar hymns wafting out the open doors that sounded pretty good after the constant noisiness everywhere.

It’s so funny that a car alarm should go off, blaring in the street outside while I wrote that last sentence – in Latin America, noise is abundant and constant, and no one seems to think it’s annoying but us gringos.  Different, yes.  “Better” or “worse” can’t be applied out of my home context, because I don’t have the knowledge of “why” down here.  To survive, I’ve learned to just accept so much here.  It is the most difficult skill I’ve ever managed, and like so many, I’ll have to practice it daily, hourly, continuously if I expect to keep it.  The other morning I remembered all the damned dogs barking constantly after the sun went down, and then realized I had fallen right asleep anyway.  I hope I can preserve these abilities of acceptance once I’m back home, even if Jalene says that my grumpy old man image will suffer for it.  I sure am happier this way.

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There are more photos in our Gallery and, Jalene's made a video about what failure and extraordinary have in common.

Koronas del Incas

Jalene’s birthday is three days from now – what to do?  We’re hanging out in Cusco, planning our route into Bolivia, and getting over the cold that both of us have caught.  Fortunately it’s high and dry here, so head colds don’t last long.  Skin cracks, throats parch, and your sinuses and lungs always feel a bit on the leathery side at this altitude.  Cusco is just over on the dry western side of the Andes, and you roll out of here to the southeast onto the high Altiplano as you approach Lago Titicaca.  Yesterday afternoon was spent opening up the valve cover on my bike and installing an updated decompression lever on the exhaust cam, which helped cure my bike’s high-altitude cold-start issue.  I’m getting to the point where any paved area is all the shop I need to do engine surgery.  Still, what I’d give for my garage and proper tools…

But back to our journey through northern Peru.  After we left Chachapoyas we rode north a short ways and found our way up a mountainside to the village of Cocachimba.  From our hostel window we could gaze out at the 771-meter high Gocta waterfall.  Strangely, while many people know of this spectacle, we only encountered a few other tourists coming to see it.  The dirt road up to the village is not hard, and so I wondered why there were not more people there.  The waterfall itself is amazing, descending in two steps down into a large pool that you can hike to and swim in.

Now it was time to turn east and then south again.  We had been at altitude in the Andes for quite some time, and were anxious to change our surroundings, and so headed for the Amazonia.  Our path took us to Moyobamba, where we took a 3-day break to soak up some warmth and relax.  We found a very comfortable and inexpensive hostel near the square (as always), and enjoyed some time getting to know an American PhD student working with the local indigenous people to develop the market for an alternative vanilla species grown locally.  I had no idea that vanilla was a species of orchid, and that there are many species that produce the vanilla pod.  The hard part is getting a new species recognized and approved by the regulatory agencies in importing countries.

This is a place with a tremendous variety of orchids, and as we dropped in elevation going east, the desert of the high mountains gave way to lush, wet jungle.  We continued east until we reached Yurimaguas, literally the end of the road, at least the road for things with wheels.  There, one finds a harbor on the big Rio Huallaga, where river boats of all kinds pull up to the bank, serving as truck and bus on the watery highway that continues into Amazonia.  One can hop on a boat here – look at the board on each vessel advertising where they are going and when – and head deep downriver.  In a few days, you could be at Iquitos, a fair-sized city still in Peru where only boats and planes go, or continue on until the river joins into the Amazon itself before flowing east to Brazil.  The noisy “docks” where the boats pull up to the bank is an interesting area to watch, with everything loaded and unloaded by hand, using long ramps and slides.  Large things, even vehicles, are wrestled off onto the bank and driven up the rocky, muddy ramps to the street level.  Bags of rice, fruit, cement, and whatever are sent sliding down long planks covered with tarps, and only once did I see one go off the side.  It reminded me of tales of the Mississippi from long ago.

We have many photos of the long, long canoes that ply the river, carrying people and cargo up and down the river locally.  Some are covered, seat four abreast with an aisle down the middle, and over 20 meters long.  As we rode along the river southward, we could see them moving along through vast areas of farmland and jungle, and in the little towns where the road found the river again, we saw shops with “Yamaha” and Suzuki” over the door, but inside there were only outboard supplies – this area was totally focused on river travel.  This is also timber country, and we were pleasantly surprised when we looked in a chainsaw shop and spotted Oregon brand chains for sale.  I asked the guy at the counter what chains the locals preferred for cutting the hardwood trees here, and he pointed at the Oregon brand boxes.

As we were riding south through the area known as the Mountagnia, that flat band of jungle near the base of the Andes, we found the roads varying between good pavement, bad pavement, and good rock roads.  The good rock roads are much better than the bad paved roads, mainly because a bad paved road has sharp-edged potholes that can bend rims and break your teeth.  It tends to happen in areas where rocks fall down onto the road and punch holes in the asphalt, after which trucks and buses destroy it.  Sometimes it lasts a hundred yards, sometimes it lasts 100 miles.  We are always much happier when the asphalt ends completely and we’re on dirt and rocks, it’s much easier to ride on.  Sometimes when we choose our routes we make choices based on the road surface, especially if there is more than one way to get there.  Google maps will often have enough resolution that I can zoom in and actually see the road surface.

We rode south , and spent nights in towns with names like Juanjui, Tocache, and Tingo Maria.  Finally, at Huanuco, we turned west again and headed back up into the Andes, our goal being to see the Cordillera Blanca with its glaciers and ice fields.  It would take us two days to get to Huaraz, which sits in the valley below the mountain range.  The road rose quickly, and just as quickly deteriorated to a maze of potholes, rocks, and small patches of the road that once was.  Our speed dropped to about 20 mph as we weaved and dodged obstacles and holes, working our way up through switchbacks, trucks, buses, and what-have-you.  We finally topped out in the afternoon at Koronas del Incas, the Crown of the Incas, a spectacular series of rock towers on the mountaintop above.  The pass topped out at 4100 meters, and we took a break on the grass beside the road and soaked in the scenery.  Glen Cochrane, from Australia came by on his Triumph, and we had a nice chat and story-swap.  Glen has been traveling for three years now and filled us in a bit on the area around where we were going.  After a while it was time to ride, and as went descended the clouds closed in and the rain began, coming down harder and harder as we worked our way further east.  Finally, in La Union, we found a clean, cheap place and threw in the towel for the day, muddy and wet and tired, but happy with the progress we’d made.  Some kind of festival was going on, so the streets were noisy and crowded.  We found a place for Chifa, a kind of cross between Chinese and Peruvian food, which is usually a good choice when you have no idea, and are tired and hungry.

When we left La Union in the morning, the road changed quickly for the better, and soon we found ourselves back on good pavement, becoming two-lane once we reached Huansala.  Neither one of us could quite remember when the last time we’d seen a yellow line was.  Now the road rose up quickly, and we climbed to 4,700 meters over Abra Yanashalla, a high pass where nothing but brown grass and bare rock is seen, with jagged peaks and glaciers above you.  We dropped down into a broad valley, looping around and around, and the road passed frigid streams with llamas along the banks and in the fields.  Soon we turned north, and the land opened out onto high, rolling plains, with the snow-covered peaks of the Cordillera Blanca in the background behind.  This was a new and different kind of country to us, and while the huge bowls of brown grass reminded us of Wyoming at times, the round corrals surrounded by dry-stack stone walls that had been there for ages, and the herds of llamas quietly grazing with their brightly-dressed Peruvian shepherds always nearby under the high mountains beyond told us we were far from home.  The air was thin and cold, and we were glad to have good gear to ride in, and heated grips and jacket liners.

We reached Huaraz, a high mountain city at 3100 meters, and checked in at Jo’s Place, a hostel that let us pitch our tent in the grassy courtyard with others, and we enjoyed a nice cross between camping and hotel room.  Hot showers just a few steps out of your tent, near freezing temps a night, intense sun filled days, and fascinating travelers with whom we swapped stories.  Huaraz was a unique city, where we found a creperia run by a guy from France, excellent wood-fired Peruvian pizza, and views of the snow-covered peaks rising above the buildings everywhere you walked.  Plenty of tourists were around, as this is a popular and challenging place for hikers, trekkers, and mountain climbers.

While in Huaraz, I took a ride up to a nearby pass which tops out at the highest tunnel in South America at over 4,800 meters, Tunel Punto Olimpica.  The old road over the top still exists, and of course when I reached the tunnel, I turned left onto the dirt switchbacks leading over the pass above.  Sadly, the old road was badly washed out in one spot not far from the top, and I chose to stop just below 5,000 meters.  On the way back down to the tunnel, I lost the front end in some big loose rocks, no harm, but then got to experience picking up the bike at almost 16,000 feet of elevation.  It was a bit of work, but the cyclists going over the top were doing the real work, wow!  They loved it when I pointed to my GPS and they could see their elevation.  But the scary part was when I entered the seemingly safe tunnel to see the other side.  This is a major highway, two lanes and perfect pavement and the tunnel is 1.3 km straight through.  I swung in behind a car, which proved fortunate for me.  While enjoying the sparkling lights off the icicled rock ceiling, I saw brake lights come on in front of me and slowed to a stop behind.  My front tire slid a bit on wet ice that I didn’t know was there, and then I saw the two-foot deep ice barrier on the road ahead that had fallen from the ceiling moments before.  It looked like crushed rock on a railroad bed from wall to wall, tons of ice about 2 feet deep and maybe 100 feet to the far side.  Cars and trucks came to a stop in both directions, and the glare made seeing extremely difficult.  A big SUV, first in line coming at me, smashed through it and blocked others while I turned the bike around.  I elected to take the safe way back out rather than trying to push through the deep chunks of wet ice.  I never did get to thank the SUV driver that was probably my lifesaver in that wet, slick, glare-filled tunnel with traffic piling up.  I was disappointed at being twice-thwarted to get to the other side, but happy at being able to ride away with some great photos from way up high.

Sometimes it’s best to just accept what we are given, and on a trip like this, that sure is a lot to be thankful for.

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Head over to our South America Gallery to peruse the photos + take a gander at this video from Jalene sharing how this trip is teaching her to Live with More Heart.

Bird Watching in Comfort

Leymebamba was a fun town.  As we often do, we rolled in needing to find a place to stay.  iOverlander, a web app for overland travelers, showed us a few places, and as often happens we had to look around a bit before realizing that it was either go find a place to wild camp or take the hostel that seemed way out of our price range, but had the only room with secure parking for the bikes.  A little bargaining got us a room for almost half-price, so we did it.  There was a festival going on, which led to a very fun evening in the town plaza, but the hostels and hotels were jammed.  In the plaza square, there was a huge Bingo game happening, with prizes of all sorts of locally made things, the cakes being the most popular.  A 9-km race was run, with the finishers coming into the square and circling round before coming to the toilet-paper tape stretched out for every finisher.  All should get a medal just for finishing at this altitude, and the warm applause and cheering for every single runner was something to see.  Nobody left until the very last had finished and been welcomed in.

We met a group from the US who had just returned from a multi-day trek with horses to supply a remote village with solar panels and a computer, allowing them to communicate via a satellite internet link.  I would think this is valuable for very basic reasons, such as medical needs, but also for the kids and education.  I’m no expert, and I have stated that I think it is critical to make sure that your “help” really does benefit the village, but in this case they seem to have researched the need thoroughly, and I hope it proves to be a help to the community.  They have done this in several remote sites, and plan more.  On this occasion they had three foreign students along as well.  We also benefitted from their detailed local knowledge, and as a result got much more out of our visit to the Leymebamba Museum, and also visited the nearby ruins of the fortress city of Kuelap.

Museo Leymebamba is well worth the visit.  Take a moto-taxi (similar to a tuk-tuk) a few kilometers back up the hill to the museum, and after your visit walk back to town along the old road used by locals and horses that follows a straighter line back down the valley.  The museum does an excellent job of preparing you for the mummies and sarcophagi that you will be seeing more of as you travel north along the valley, visiting ruins and burial sites.  You will learn about the culture of the Chachapoyan people, and understand something about why and how the mummies were prepared and positioned, and see many actual mummies and the associated artifacts (ask to turn on the light in the room where most are stored).  Most are seated with the legs drawn up, and the arms wrapped around the body or over the head.  They were then placed in a cone-shaped covering of wooden slats.  After the museo, walk across the paved road to have coffee or hot chocolate while watching the colibri (hummingbird) feeder by the garden table.  We saw no fewer than five different species, some thimble-sized, and others as big as your hand.  The extremely tiny booted racket-tail with it’s long tail, shaped like twin tennis racquets, which often appears at this feeder, was sadly not on hand for us.   Bird watching at 2 meters in comfort with South American hot chocolate surrounded by orchids and flowering trees, an afternoon doesn’t get much better.

Our walk back down the old road from the museo took us through potato fields and then down a dirt path with great views of the surrounding valley.  We passed through a village a short ways above the main town, and soon found ourselves back at the hostel.  While walking down, we shared the old road with a cheerful local woman and child, carrying a gathered bundle of wood and sticks back downhill.

Leaving Leymebamba the next morning, we followed the paved road down the river, which had begun to level out.  We enjoyed a beautiful ride, with the road flowing along and our pace quite a bit faster than when we came down into the valley.  The river was fairly high and rushing along, lined by green fields and pastures alongside, with horses and cattle.  On the advice of others we’d met, we stayed the night at El Chillo, a rather luxurious (for us) hostel along the road just south of Tingo, only an hour or two from Leymebamba.  With thick walls, heavy doors, and water flowing through gardens of orchids and trees dripping with flowers and bougainvillea, it has the protective hacienda feeling to it, and the people and friendly dogs there were wonderful to us. This place was more expensive (again!) than we would have liked, but it was a treat, and they allowed us to drop off all our camping gear and other stuff, and enjoy riding up the 24-km dirt road to the ruins of Kuelap on lightened bikes.

Kuelap is a mountain top fortress-city built in the 6th century, and occupied through the 1500s by the Chacapoyan people.  With its massive walls, the only way in is up through one of three narrow slots, easily defended from above.  To get to the topmost level, a similar slot is barely wide enough for one person up steep, high steps, making it seemingly impossible to fight your way in.  The outer walls surround the remains of roughly 400 circular stone dwellings in various states of decay, once the houses of the people, along with larger structures.  Most houses once had tall, conical roofs over them of wood poles and thatched grass, with what looked like an inverted clay pot over the peak to seal it.  The setting atop a 3000-meter ridge provides incredible views of the valley below and the Andes beyond.  A teleferico (cable gondola) is being built from just above Nuevo Tingo, and should be an amazing ride once finished, but you’ll still have to walk the last 2 km, which should preserve the isolated feel.  You can see the terminals and towers already in place in some of our gallery photos.  I hope this doesn’t lead to big crowds, we loved the silence of the ruins as we explored on our own.

We rolled back down the dirt road to El Chillo, which is a fun and easy ride, and also gives some fairly safe thrills in the way of big drop-offs, twisty switchbacks, and narrow spots cut under overhead rock.  Overhangs are actually quite common in the Andes, and we commonly ride underneath thousands of tons of unsupported stone above us, sometimes extending out over two full lanes of roadway.  Traction is generally very good on these roads, and standing in the tight switchbacks makes the front end bite even more securely while letting you see way down into the canyon below.  We returned to our luxury digs just before dark.  Dinner was in the big dining room, and afterward we were shown into the lounge area, with its unique chairs made from twisted driftwood recovered out of the nearby river.  No worries, that mummy peering out from near the doorway is a replica, it was finally admitted.

After a tranquil night in El Chillo, we continued up the beautiful river road along the Rio Utcubamba toward Chachapoyas.  This is a very cool mountain town, with a wonderful plaza area, where we found a clean, cheap hotel that other moto-travelers had stayed at and enjoyed.  In every town, no matter how big or small, there is the plaza square.  You can always find it by simply looking for the cathedral tower.  The square consists of a park (the plaza) taking up a city block, with the streets around it always directing you around one-way.  The cathedral is always on one side, and often a main government building, too.  Around the square are shops and restaurants, and vendors with carts roaming the area. This is a place for family and friends to meet, and we have grown fond of settling on a bench in the shade with local ice cream, and just watching the world go by.  Many travelers agree that this is a great way to absorb the local culture, and often we stumble into a parade or some sort of ceremony – they always take place in the plaza, it seems.

On the plaza in Chachapoyas is Café Fusion, where Jalene and I had our first Pisco Sour.  It’s a funky little place, popular with locals, too, where we found good food and fine atmosphere for a great price.  We’ve traveled to Pisco itself now, and we still consider the Pisco Sours we had at Café Fusion the best.  Chachapoyas served as our base for the exploration of a couple of notable ruins – the Karajia cliffside sarcophagi, and the ruins deep in the canyon near Wanglic.  We took one of the tourist vans to the trailhead to Karajia, and with several other French guests from our hostel walked down about a mile, dropping below the canyon rim and along under the cliffs above.  As we turned a final bend we were greeted by seven 2-meter tall sarcophagi above us on a cliff ledge, some with paint still intact after 500 years.  In various pockets in the cliff around them, other sarcophagi can be seen, some quite small.  Human bones are on the rocks next to the trail, I’m not sure if they are props or came out of a sarcophagus, but they sure fit the scene.

In the afternoon, the same group of us, with a guide, hiked down a steep trail deep into a canyon.  It narrowed to a slot for the final 100 meters straight down, where we crossed to the other cliffside over two huge boulders that had wedged between the narrow canyon walls, forming a natural bridge crossing the gap.  A misstep meant a long, long fall to the river below.  We found ourselves amongst several circular house foundations and walls, very similar to those we had seen at Kuelap a few days earlier.  There was only sandy bare rock to walk on, which rolled away into the deep slot canyon.  It appeared that once upon a time there may have been a narrow trail hacked into the cliff leading down the river, but today there was no way out but back over the two boulders.  Even at the bottom of this super-steep canyon where only a poor foot-path leads, we found lots of graffiti and vandalism of the ruins.  It’s frustrating to work so hard to see ruins like this, and have someone’s name painted in bright red letters on the walls.  On the hike out, our guide made a special effort to point out rock paintings across the canyon that had not yet been defaced, only because they were almost unknown except to the local guides and nearly impossible to reach.  Tread lightly, fellow travelers.

Once we had crossed again, the rest of the party went upriver a short ways to a pool below a waterfall, while I hung back and photographed the canyon walls and the narrow ledge where the ruins perched.  We hiked out by following the canyon upstream, with the trail rolling up and down until, after five hours on the trail, our van picked us up at the trailhead.  Tired and a little footsore, we were proud of having made this steep trek to see ruins that very few have the privilege of visiting.  Jalene proclaimed a Pisco Sour should be in our future when we finished the hike, and that evening our hiking group met to savor the drinks together.

***

Head on over to our website gallery for new photos + Jalene talks about Travel Tools from an inner perspective from the top bunk.

Down Through A Cloud Layer

Written July 21, 2016

I lied a bit when I left you last, or at least got ahead of myself.  Rather than heading directly onto the adventurous roads I described, we needed to ride further north through the mountainous farm country north of Huamanchuco in Peru, which means high but only moderately steep slopes, where corn and grain are grown, cattle roam, and horses find an ideal home.  Peruvian farmland means adobe houses all around, thick walls of mud and straw, with roofs of corrugated metal, or clay tiles.  The bricks and tiles were made locally everywhere we went, and it was common to see hundreds of adobe bricks laid out on the ground to dry.  Nearby, the curved slabs of clay roof tiles lay in long rows to dry, leaning one against the other like dominoes.  Black smoke would pour out of the wood-fueled kilns where the roof tiles were fired.

We left Huamanchuco and rolled north along a narrow paved road toward Baños del Incas, where we had made an Airbnb reservation at an old hacienda.  Our ride was really enjoyable that day, as it rolled along through beautiful and varying farmland and small towns and villages.  Around lunchtime, we were riding through the streets of Cajabamba, a moderate sized town, and Jalene spotted a sign for a café that somehow pulled her in.  We ended up having a terrific lunch of sandwiches and some of the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet.  Jalene also indicated that her latte was outstanding, and she loved it.  So when in Cajabamba, stop at San Vicente Sandwicheria Criolla, and have yourself a real treat.

After Cajabamba, the road opened up onto a two-lane again, and we made tracks through somewhat drier country, rising into a semi-desert terrain of brush and grasses, and we found ourselves climbing and falling through fun switchbacks and wraparound roads.  On afternoons like these, I often find myself wishing I could magically transport some of my sportbike friends here, so they could see it for themselves.  I think there would be some emigration south, or at least some serious vacation time booked.  Bring extra tires and brake pads.

In Baños del Incas, named for very old thermal baths used by the locals for centuries, we found our way to an old hacienda outside of town.  We were ushered inside the thick walls into a green grassy courtyard with leafy trees providing shady areas.  The welcoming rooms surrounding the courtyard were built along the outer wall.  Ours was large and comfortable, with rippled wood floors obviously laid down long ago.  The ceiling was of wood beams, crossed by bamboo slats, upon which were laid the roofing tiles visible to us from below, open to airflow.  We had the use of the kitchen, and the family invited us to breakfast with them in the large, formal dining room.  There was also a long, open living room, where one could relax and imagine the ladies and gentlemen in all their finery, entertaining guests a hundred years ago.  That’s how long this hacienda had been in the family of our hostess Rosario, and she and her husband made us feel welcome and comfortable in their home.  Out back, of course, were the horses and cattle, and we were treated to freshly separated cream each morning for Jay’s coffee and our hot harina de avena, or oatmeal.  Nothing like it.

People down here are incredibly helpful, and will go to great lengths to try to take care of you.  For example, Jalene and I decided to go into nearby Cajamarca from the hacienda to hit a cash machine and then have a nice dinner.  We wanted to just take a taxi, but our hosts would not hear of this, so Rosario’s husband drove us into Cajamarca, and dropped us at a restaurant of his approval.  To make sure we would make it back safely, he talked to a friend in an office next door to the restaurant, and gave specific written instructions that we would need a taxi to take us back, and here was the address, etc.  We were then told that when we finished dinner, we were to come back here and that a taxi would take us home, etc.  How we made it all the way down through Central America to here, heaven only knows.

After reluctantly departing Rosario’s family and Baños del Incas, it was time to head for the area where we had been told we could see the Peruvian mummies, and the associated cliffside sarcophagi and the ruins of ancient dwellings.  We rode northeast to the jumping-off point of Celendin.  The road that day was not difficult, a paved two-laner, but we did cross over a high pass that had us adding a layer under our riding gear.  Eventually we dropped down again into warm air, and a valley containing the town opened before us.  Celendin is a very cool town, with a great vibe and very nice people.  It’s sits in an area like the cupped palm of a hand, but with the valley dropping away steeply on one side where the river exits and falls away.  We found a fairly new, comfortable hostel on a corner of the main square, where other moto-travelers have stayed and recommended.  Wi-fi was not so hot, but the water in the shower was.

We hung out in the square for a while and soaked up the sun, with our ice cream cones.  In Peru, the ice cream tends to be much softer and lighter, full of air, and you have to eat it really fast in the sun if you want to avoid disaster. For the more solid, dense stuff, get an ice cream bar from the freezer that’s in every little store, and you’ll be happier.  Dulcetto is my favorite, rich chocolate with peanut butter inside, usually 2 soles, about 66 cents.  Grab one, find a shady bench across the street in the square, and watch the world go by.  Dinnertime found us in the restaurant adjoining our hotel, and the owner came out and introduced herself in perfect English.  No surprise as she had lived in New Orleans for years.  This kind of thing has happened several times now in Peru, where suddenly someone will speak to us in perfect English, and we find that they have lived in the US or abroad for a time.  These meetings tend to be particularly valuable to us, as these people can quickly help us understand local customs, where to find things, or just tell us about our surroundings.

Celendin sits just west of the Rio Marañon, a very deep canyon that runs northward between the two parallel ranges that form the northern Peruvian Andes.  Our ride from Celendin to Leymabamba took us on a path directly crossing that canyon, and then continued over another high pass before dropping into a sheltered valley up in the Cordillera Central range.  As we reached the edge of the canyon, we found ourselves looking down through a cloud layer at what, from that point, looked like the descent to a valley floor visible to us some distance below.  We could see the road wrapping back and forth around steep terrain, forcing its way where it could.  It was obviously a very old path that had been widened again and again over time, and it was now wide enough for one truck to drive on, about 4 “giant steps” across.  The wind coming up the mountainside swept the clouds upwards around us.  We could see a bus slowly making its way down the road behind us some distance, and so we made our photo stops short so as not to get stuck behind the slow moving turtle.  We also admitted that if we were following that bus, we’d have to watch if it tumbled off the side of the road and crashed down thousands of feet below.  It was incredible to see that full-sized buses and trucks were coming down this narrow, steep lane, portions of which were often missing.  The photos will help explain, but they don’t capture the bad parts, where we did not want to stop on the bikes, even for a just a photo, for fear of someone coming around a blind corner and hitting us, or worse, knocking us over the edge.  As it turned out, traffic was very light on this amazing road and we were fine.

But where we looked down through holes in the cloud layer, and thought we could see how far down we were going, that was all an illusion.  We could only see to where the slope temporarily flattened out a bit, and the road left our view.  It turns out that we rode switchbacks down for about an hour, dropping from one hanging valley to another, seemingly without end.  Once we got below the cloud layer, an immense canyon opened out for us, and only then did we realize how far down below us the river was.  As we descended more than 2,000 meters, the air began thin and cold, with winds that carried fog up to us, but changed surprisingly quickly to hot and thick and dry.  Just before we reached the river, we were stopped at a barricade, where we were told the road would not be open again for an hour due to blasting operations.  While in line, we had a nice chat with a botanist from one of the Peruvian universities, who was engaged in studies of the local flora with assistance of some other universities in the US.  We had a great discussion on the merits of collaborative research, and how it enables funding from our National Science Foundation for work in Peru.  For a while there came a light rain, but it was so hot that none of us took notice other than to comment that it felt good.

Finally the barrier was lifted, and we found ourselves along the Rio Marañon on a road hacked into the cliff, eventually turning to cross a bridge and enter the town of Balsas, just a few streets along the riverbank.  In the hot canyon-bottom, we cooled off in the shade of a few trees and got some water back into ourselves.  Leaving Balsas, we did a little dirt-biking along the river bank where they detoured us, and then we were once again on pavement.  For a short time we rode along a tributary through irrigated fruit trees, and then once again it was up into the dry desert surroundings as we rose out of the canyon, climbing for mile after mile, seemingly forever, to find ourselves once again high in the Andes.  This time we climbed right up into the clouds, finally topping out at 3,600 meters (11,800’) in fog and rain before descending into the steep-sided valley where the town of Leymabamba is found.  It was here that we found our first mummies.

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Check out all the new photos.

Desert Beaches

Written July 20, 2016

With the slight nervousness we always feel when crossing into a new country, we approached the border into Peru.  We were stamped out of Ecuador with quick efficiency, and rode across the bridge over the Rio Macara.  Peruana Migracion stamped our passports with 183 days of time to see the country, after which we moved across the street and purchased the mandatory seguro (insurance) for the bikes.  After that it was up the road another 100 feet or so to the Aduana office to import the motos.  Sadly, the bikes were only given 90 days in Peru, even though I kind of begged, so that will be our limiting factor.  We took our time and made sure all the numbers were correct before signing the documents.  Friends have experienced trouble when exiting countries, especially Peru, because mistakes were made at entry, often simple typos, and so we are very careful about this.  Once we were satisfied, we rode south to continue our journey in the land of the Incas.

Peru was immediately different from Ecuador.  The coastal region dries out as you move south from the equator, and there is a fairly abrupt change in the border region.  On our route south, angling toward the Pacific, the land flattened and dried out drastically.  We were down in the coastal desert now, and in a much poorer country.  Visually, it looked much like northern Mexico deja vu.  Cactus, brush, sand and rocks.  Hot and dry.  Garbage was once again all around us.  But it was somehow liberating to be back in a place where things were simpler, choices in the little stores were fewer, road rules, or enforcement anyway, were nearly non-existent, and people just seemed happy in such a simple way.  Indeed, while having a flavor all its own, Peru has that old familiar loose feel and attitude, where most things are tolerated as long as we all get along.  Or don’t crash.

We stayed our first night in a little village called Chulucanas.  From here, we had a choice - go straight as an arrow across the Desierto de Sechura, or skirting inland along the base of the Andes.  The inland route seemed more interesting to us, a little windier and going through several towns along the way south toward Chiclayo.  Our route was desolate but quite beautiful, passing across great fields of sage-like brush, sometimes winding up and down to penetrate low hills sticking out from the mountains like troll’s toes.  There were places where water turned a valley green around us for a brief time, then we were back into the rock and sand that dominated.

Eroded pyramid at Sipan ruins.

We stayed at Chiclayo for 3 nights, after having been on the road daily since Vilcabamba.  I did a little work on the bikes (Jalene’s water pump is starting to leak coolant again), and we visited the site of the Sipan ruins and spectacular treasure excavated from the tombs there recently.  The treasure recovered and displayed now at the museum in Lambayeque rivals Tutankhamen’s, and is of finely crafted gold, silver, copper, and turquoise.  We rode out to the Sipan site itself and saw the eroded pyramids, which were made from adobe bricks.  Over several hundred years, the periodic El Niño/La Niña rain cycles had turned them into ordinary-looking worn-down desert hills, but when you inspect them closely the faint horizontal tracings of the rows of adobe become visible.  The excavation pits were still there, and they have recreated what was found in the pits, allowing you to see just how things were laid out in the tomb.  Well worth a visit if you are in the Chiclayo area.

After leaving Chiclayo, we headed south along the coast to an area recommended by an Ecuadorian friend, and we found our way across the flat, baked rocky sands to Chicama, a tiny surf village on Punto Malabrigo.  We were hot and tired after this day, and welcomed the cool breeze off the water.  We treated ourselves to a hotel costing more than our “limit,” but we struck a bargain and got a great deal on a really nice room for the night.  Our view was of the “Chicama surf spot,” which a friend in Oregon tells me is one of the longest left surf breaks in the world.  Indeed, one could sit and watch the waves continuously peeling, row after row, as they bent around the point and came toward the sandy shoreline.

Chicama surf spot and our treat for a night.

Waking up in Chicama was like waking up in Newport, our home in Oregon.  It was cold, the wind was blowing, and the sky was gray.  Who signed us up for this?  Breakfast was outside on the patio, not exactly what I was looking for, but we got fed with some great food and juice, packed up the bikes, and went inland just a bit before finding warmer air.  We were bound for the metropolis of Trujillo that day, and didn’t have far to go, so on the way we checked out some river valleys inland a little ways, and found incredibly dry, rocky plains between ridges where water comes down only during flood times.  We rode up a ways to get a feel for the country, over the sandy, rocky road leading literally “upriver” in the riverbed.   We could have continued if we wanted to and looped around into Trujillo from another way, but our hungry bellies won out and we went back down to the highway, where we ate at our typical little roadside restaurant stop for almuerzo, which is almost always a great lunch of soup, some chicken or pork, and maybe rice with yucca or platano, with a glass of fresh juice.  Usually it’s the equivalent of just 2 or 3 dollars, a heck of a deal for a good hot meal.

We only stayed one night in Trujillo.  We found ourselves in a crummy hotel and just didn’t like the feel of the town.  Later we found out that Huanchaco, just outside of Trujillo, was a much better place to stay, but our choice had been made, and so we packed up and headed inland to explore the northern Peruvian Andes.

After heading inland along the Rio Moche, it didn’t take long for the land to begin rising, and we found ourselves in green farmland along the bottom of a narrowing and steepening valley.  Beautiful, lush crops of potatoes, grains, and a little coffee grew alongside the road in small plots, and it took on almost a storybook feel to it as we were lifted through several small villages and the road snaked up and around like a roller-coaster.  We stopped to take a short break at a nice overlook, and a dog came barking up at us from a house just below.  With the steep drop-off, you could almost literally step out onto the roof of the house.  Soon a woman came up after the dog, and just as loud, whacking it with her cane and apologizing to the two gringos beside the road.  We had a pleasantly broken conversation with her.  She was a friendly, happy, comfortable person who was pleased to meet us, and let us get a photo with her and her lovely farmland valley.  Even if we only half knew what she was saying, it was obvious she was welcoming us into her land, and was pleased to meet us.  This is a place AND a face I’ll always remember.

Keith's roadside friend.

Soon we were high in the Andes again.  The air dried out, the land dried out, and it got cold.  We crossed a pass over 4,200 meters just two hours after leaving sea level, and found ourselves amidst huge mines, where they extracted gold, silver and copper.  Gigantic piles of mine tailings were around us at times.  But more often we were riding through starkly beautiful mountain tops covered with thin bunchgrasses and brush, no trees and little sign of rainfall.  The air was thin and cold and the wind never stopped.  Coal was piled outside some of the houses we passed.  Breathing was a purposeful exercise, getting what oxygen out of it that we could.  We endured this for couple of hours before coming into the town of Huamanchuco. 

As we came near the town, we were famished, so we stopped at a building that looked empty except for the chalkboard almuerzo sign out front.  We stopped and had a great meal of the usual soup, chicken and rice, skipped the salad, thanks, and a glass of juice.  A few other people were eating there, which was a good sign, and as usual, everyone was friendly.  The baños here were typical, in that they were clean enough, but one had to take a bucket and dip some water out of a barrel to flush the toilet, which was not plumbed to a water source.  The sink had cold water, and even some soap, which was great.  As is normal, no towel for your hands.  Bathrooms in more frequented places will almost always have the toilet working normally, but soap and towels are always hit or miss.  Seats on the toilet are sometimes not present, and hot water in the sink is very rare.

Huamanchuco is down in a bit of a valley and sheltered from the surrounding weather.  We found a great hotel with secure parking for the bikes across the street in the compound of a car repair place.  The décor of the hotel was unique, I must say, with color and flair, but you really have to go to the photos to grasp the “style.”  Still, it had hot water, so we were totally happy.

We had crossed over a significant divide in the mountains, and we saw this immediately in the people we were now surrounded with.  We found a unique culture here, with different clothes and especially different hats.  Now most all of the ladies wore a broad-brimmed hat with a tall center and flat or dished top, made of woven plant fiber, very distinctive and attractive.  Their hats were all nearly exactly the same, and a few of the men wore them too, but it was obvious that any lady worth her salt never left the house without that sombrero.  Over the next few days as we worked our way north, we continued to see that hat, but watched the style change from place to place.

So far, the trip in Peru had been a whirlwind of places and faces and varying climates, cultures, clothes, and food, and we had only been here about a week!  We decided to slow down our movement across the landscape, and so we chose a long valley to the north of us known for it’s Peruvian mummies and sarcophagi in the high cliffs and deep canyons.  As well, the roads were narrower and more broken, traversing extremely rugged canyons and mountains in a way we’d only seen in photographs before this.  Now we were planning on roads where we could literally fall thousands of feet if we went off the side, and where trucks or buses could not pass each other.  The trip was going to get really interesting.

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Plenty of photos to see in our South American Gallery.

Road Luck

Written July 18, 2016 

Photo credit: Alvaro Fau, www.facebook.com/alfventuras, a new friend we met at Scott Nelson's place in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

Where we are in northern Peru, a little south of the equator, the stars go straight overhead, and it’s like you’re inside a rolling barrel, with the axis ends on either side of you to the north and south.  As Jalene and I passed down through Central America, more and more of the familiar features in the night sky were disappearing, and new southern constellations rose.  I had begun to think “my” northern sky was gone, but last night I got a surprise.  I wandered outside at about 10 pm.  The moonless sky was full of stars, and looking northward I suddenly saw the Big Dipper!  It looked huge, looming just above the horizon with the handle pointing up.  The North Star was just below the hills on the horizon, with everything wheeling around that point.  Turning around, I could see the Southern Cross and all the “new” stars revolving around a point due south on the horizon.  I realized that the northern sky is not all gone - my sky here is now half of the northern hemisphere, and half of the southern.  But compared to the sky I have viewed all my life, the relative positions have shifted 50°.  Only when we get much further south will the sky be truly all-new for me.

Thinking further on this, at the halfway point on our trip, we have now traveled from the 45th parallel in the northern hemisphere to the 5th parallel in the southern.  That means we’ve only gone about 1/8 of the way around the globe.  Not very far when you think about it in those terms.  Compared to some people we know that have circled the globe multiple times on motorcycles, we still haven’t accomplished much, have we?

And yet look at what we’ve learned, and the people we’ve met, and all the stories we can share!  One doesn’t have to go very far from home to learn and experience an awful lot, do they?  So why not make that tiny step, and just go to the country right next door to wherever you are, and meet new people, make new friends, and maybe see a new star?

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Look closely. See the soil is disappearing from beneath the road?

Back to our regularly scheduled story:  After leaving Baños, in Ecuador, we ventured down the canyon to the east, and I showed Jalene the old cliffside roads and the narrow wooden suspension bridge I’d found when I was out for a ride by myself the day before.  As we reached flat ground, we came out into the basin of the Rio Pastaza, which would eventually join the massive Rio Marañon in Peru, destined to find its way to the Amazon.  These are big rivers coming down out of the Andes, becoming much, much bigger as they gather together and make their way eastward.  That night found us in Macas, a hot, humid town along the Rio Namangoza.  During the night, we heard the raindrops begin to fall, and dawn found us with slumped shoulders as we packed the bikes and climbed into our riding gear in the steady, warm drenching.  For the next few hours we cruised south through the flatlands in a constant hard rain.  Water ran in rivers along and across the road, pushing mud and rocks into our path.  Cars, trucks, and buses all plowed big wakes, but it was relatively safe for us, as the road-builders had done a good job at allowing for drainage.  Eventually we turned west and began to climb back up into the mountains, making our way toward the city of Cuenca.  Once we gained a little altitude, the rain stopped, and eventually we climbed above the weather.  In the warm air, we dried out and soon were able to take our rain-mitts off.  We wound our way up and down through the ridges and valleys, seeing big waterfalls in places where last night’s rains were coming down out of the high valleys.  We had to slow in many places where mud and rocks had been pushed out across the road.  Here, where the rains can be sudden and of huge volume, roads are made with low spots, where water (and any slide material) is allowed to simply rush across, rather than try to gather it into a big culvert.  It works very well, and they “harden” the road at these low spots to take the abuse.  Usually the water just flows right across and the road is “self-cleaning”, but if necessary a bulldozer scrapes it off after a really big rain.  They work like snowplows here.  On the bikes, we can just pick our way through the mess that often stops cars.  At other times, we might look back across a narrow valley to see that the concrete we had just ridden across had lost most of the ground supporting it, and was likely not long for the world.  A bit un-nerving, but we made it across each time, so what the heck.

Cuenca is a very urbane, civilized town with quite a few gringo ex-pats.  A big surprise was walking down the sidewalk in such a large city and running into a woman we had become friends with while on our trip two years before!  We stayed in Cuenca for two nights and rested a bit, then rode south again along the cold, high ridges until the road passed through Loja, where we descended into the dry, warm valley of Vilcabamba.  We met up with our friend Scott Nelson from Oregon at his place along the Rio Catamayo, which lies in a valley that gets little rain.  The climate has made it something of a haven for people from all over, who want to live a quiet life away.  We spent a couple of weeks there while waiting for the package (yes, the package we were waiting for during our stay in Quito) to clear Customs, and helped Scott out by doing a little handiwork around the place, painting, plumbing, and building a table.  I enjoyed my mornings with Scott’s dogs down along the river, a great spot to sit and clear your head in the sunshine.  We went out for a day ride to Zamora with new Vilcabamba friends Charlie and Kay, negotiating several big landslides across the road.  At one I watched basketball-sized rocks bounce and fly just a few feet in front of Jalene’s bike, and prayed that another slide was not coming down onto us.  Once again, road luck was with us.

Hallelujah! - We finally got word that the package in Quito had cleared Customs after 52 days, and our friend Felipe had picked it up.  At last we felt free to leave Ecuador and head into new territory - Peru!  Felipe has coworkers that travel to a branch office in Lima, and so it will await us there.  We headed southwest on a beautiful ride along mountain ridges to Macara, where we would cross the border.  Macara is a sleepy, dusty little town, but we found a clean and cheap hotel with underground parking for the bikes.  We walked through the warm evening to find some dinner, and talked excitedly about getting moving again after so much waiting and concern over Ecuadorian Customs.  But we had succeeded without any payoffs or bribery or dishonesty, and so we felt really good to have “beaten” the system completely above-board.  The most important thing we learned, from Daniela, a wonderfully kind and helpful woman who worked at the Ecuador Post Office, was that by walking in and asking worriedly about our package when we first arrived in Quito, we probably drew attention to it that resulted in scrutiny and the delays.  If we had just quietly waited for it to appear, the long wait and accompanying hoops we had to jump through would likely not have occurred.  Travel is an education, isn’t it?  Be humble, quiet your mind, be patient, things will work out.  Relax.  Tranquillo…  But to all who helped us, Daniela at Correos, Court, Sylvan, and Ximena at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental, and to Felipe and Mila, thank you so much for your generosity and assistance.  We have learned much from you.

From our hotel window, we can see the hills of Peru!

We left our hotel in Macara early in the morning, so as to be at the border first thing, with the whole day ahead of us.  We went to gas up the bikes, only to find a long line at the gas station reminiscent of 1974.  All but one of the pumps was broken.  As we took our place at the back of the line, imagining a long wait of at least an hour in the rapidly strengthening sun, a guy on a backhoe came by and waved at us to follow him.  He took us to the head of the line and pointed to the pump emphatically, and so we just pulled in behind the car getting filled.  The guard motioned to us that it was okay, and the attendant waved us and another motorcycle up as the car pulled away. Nobody in line seemed to notice or care as we quickly fueled up the bikes and took off for the border.  Travel by moto in Latin America rocks!

We're in Peru! Yes, that's a polica. No, we weren't in trouble. They pulled us over to check documents but, instead, we took photos of them and they took photos of us!

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For photos, head to our Gallery page, then scroll down to "Macas to Cuenca, Ecuador" and view the photos up to "Vilcabamba."

Take a look at Jalene's thoughts about how we're "Experience-ing" this trip.

Northern Ecuador

Written July 14, 2016

We arrived at the Ecuador border early in a soft rain, and were stamped out of Colombia in about 10 minutes flat.  We were stamped into Ecuador just as fast, though we had to wait for the Aduana guy to get back to his desk.  We learned that insurance is not required in Ecuador, nor available at the border, so off we went, into the land we had visited two years before, the country responsible for triggering this whole episode in our lives.

Ecuador is a different place from Colombia and most of Central America.  There are abundant road signs.  The margins are largely free of garbage.  The farm fields seem a little cleaner and greener.  Drivers at least obey red lights and are generally well behaved (motos still do largely as they please, thankfully). The whole country just seems more organized and together.  This day took us to Otavalo, a town well known for its local indigenous markets on Saturday.  We stayed at a place just outside of Otavalo at Hosteria Rose Cottage, a beautiful setting perched above corn and grain fields, with horses, llamas, and goats all around us, on the flanks of an old volcano.  We took a two-night break here, and used our day to have fun in both the Mercado Artisano and the Mercado Animales, where one can go to buy and sell any and all forms of farm stock.  Need a huge pig to take home?  This is the place, and don’t forget to grab a dozen chicks while you’re there.  Nearby can be seen every type of fruit and produce found in the area, of both the familiar and strange.  It looks, sounds, and smells like you’re right there in the orchards, fields, and barnyards.  In the artisanal market a few blocks away, I searched for gifts and found fine, super-soft alpaca wool scarves and shawls of all colors imaginable.  I also began my search for a Panama hat, taking a little time to learn about the quality of weave, shape, and so on.  Throughout my time in Ecuador (which is where the real Panama hats are made), I never did find one that grabbed me, but came close in a few places.  Maybe next trip.

After a day of market sampling, we had a quiet evening with our hostel hosts, and met a couple from England, while enjoying a postre (dessert) of baked tomate de arbol, which is “tree tomato”, a sweet orchard fruit that looks much like a tomato on the tree.  It was simply baked in a small dish with some red wine and sugar, much like a baked apple.  The wine reduced to a thick sweet sauce, and the hot, softened tomate could be spooned up.  Absolutely delicious!  After a good night’s sleep, snug on our hilltop, we packed up the bikes to head for Quito, but started our day’s ride by heading up the hill to Laguna de Mojando, a lake in the top of the old volcano above us, about 17 km up the bumpy cobblestone road.  We climbed all the way, and found it gray, cold, and windy at the top so early in the morning, so we stayed only for a few photos and to make friends with a dog, and then headed back down the road.  On these cobblestone roads I find myself marveling at who took the time to set all those millions of stones by hand, and at how they somehow stay in place while motos, cars, and trucks drive over them, although is does take maintenance.  Let’s see, if the road is 50 stones wide, and each stone averages 20 cm, and the whole Mojando road is 20 kilometers long…  And there are lots of these roads in Central and South America.

We had reserved an Airbnb place in Quito, but needed to burn up a few hours as they were not expecting us before about 2 pm.  So we headed up to Mitad del Mundo  (Middle of the World), the big monument tower at the Equator.  We had lunch at Subway, then walked over and found out that tickets were $7.50 each, so satisfied ourselves with photos from the gate, knowing we had already crossed the Equator many times in the last couple of years.  What cheapskates we are sometimes.  We headed back into Quito and forged our way through the traffic to find the big football stadium, where our host Felipe drove up to meet us and lead us to the house.  We soon felt at home with Felipe and his wife Mila, and loved the separate downstairs apartment in their house, which they had worked hard to convert from a storage space.  Kitchen, hot water, wi-fi, very secure parking for the bikes, even NetFlix for us to use.  And then I saw Felipe’s Yamaha Super Tenere parked in the entryway to the living room to make room for our bikes in the garage. We were friends immediately.

It was a good thing we had struck gold with the place to stay, because it turns out we were there for a while.  A long while.  I had asked our friend Mary Kay to send down a re-supply of my migraine meds, which are not available in South America.  She had boxed them up with a few other things, written “Miscellaneous personal items” on the Customs form, and sent it off to our friends at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental in Quito.  They had arranged our two-week tour two years ago, and had agreed to receive mail for us.  One box from home had already come, and we were awaiting the second package with the meds in it.  We went down to the local officina de Correos del Ecuador, the post office, and asked about it.  To cut a very, very long story short, the package was stuck in Ecuadorian Customs.  We gave them all the paperwork they asked for, and then waited.  And waited.  We wanted to continue exploring and traveling, so our friends Felipe and Mila agreed to pick it up if and when it ever appeared, and had a way to forward it to us in Peru.  We hadn’t given up on it, but after 26 days of waiting in Quito (while doing bike repairs as well), we were ready to see a little more of Ecuador before heading south into Peru.

So we took off south, wanting to explore areas of the country we had not seen on our prior trip.  We went south along the PanAmerican as far as Latacunga before making our way west and climbing up to the incredible Quilatoa Crater, which is like a 1/8-scale Crater Lake, and just as stunning.  Snowy Volcan Cotapaxi and Volcan Quilindaña towered in the background, making you realize that you were in a land of volcanoes and fire.  We spent the night in a comfortable hostel at 3,900 meters (12,800’).  Our room, like all the others, had a little woodstove, and as bedtime neared, the staff came in and lit it, and left us some wood to stoke it with.  We stayed comfortable and warm that night, snuggled under thick wool blankets, and slept well.  We had arrived in a cold light rain, but in the morning we were greeted by a dry overcast sky, and after breakfast rode down, down again to the highway taking us southward.  At Ambato we turned to the southwest and climbed up again, way, way up and across the skirt of Chimborazo, the tallest volcano in Ecuador, and, like two years prior, we were cheated out of the view by clouds enveloping it.

Quilatoa Crater Lake

Northwest of Chimborazo, we found our way to the little mountain town of Salinas, which is known for its cheese making.  Apparently a French guy settled there some years ago and started a cheese tradition, and they still turn it out in broad variety.  We found a hostel with a big fireplace in the lobby, and after walking into town for pizza and watching the locals play pickup games of volleyball in the town square (it’s popular down here), we lit a fire and toasted our feet for a while, enjoying a glass of wine and getting sleepy.

Morning found us riding under bright sunny skies through beautiful mountain farmland, climbing up again directly toward Chimborazo, but this time to pass over its south flank, where the road gets up to 4,500 meters (14,700’).  As we neared the mountain, we met two riders on big bikes coming the other way, and flagging each other to a stop, it turned out to be our friend Laura Buitron from Spain, and another fellow who was riding with her along this part of her journey.  We met Laura in Quito after she flew in with a part for my motorcycle.  She had come back from a month-long travel break to the US (her bike was stored in Quito).  My fuel injection had gone all wonky, and she brought a new idle control valve from the US for me, saving me a lot of time and a ton of money.  Laura rides a BMW 800, and travels mostly alone into incredible and difficult places – she is a brave and crazy woman we both admire - check her out on FaceBook.

This time Chimborazo gave us a good view before the mid-morning clouds began to form, and rapidly shroud the peak.  We got a few photos, but by the time we were right up next to it, it was only peek-a-boo from time to time.  Still, we were thrilled to be able to look up through the clouds at that immense volcano beside us.  Here we were on a road as high as Mt. Rainier’s summit, and we were looking upward at a volcano towering another 6,000’ above us, topping out at 20,700’.  We were constantly stopping and gawking at it, amazed at the glaciers and cliffs, and shivering in the cold air flowing down off the mountain at us.

After coming down in elevation and warming up in Riobamba, we turned to the northeast and made our way up a river valley toward another volcano, this time Volcan Tungurahua.  Erupting when we saw it two years ago, this time it was quiet, and we passed around it and down into the semi-bohemian eco-tourist town of Baños.  This is a town noted for its many thermal baths, especially the big public bath where the whole town gathers.  We paid our $2 and went in, where we found a wonderful public gathering place, very similar in feel to the beer-gardens in Germany, where whole families can gather with other families from the neighborhood, and there was a relaxed, welcoming feel.  I entered the hot pool about 3 minutes before Jalene appeared, but by that time enough strangers had spoken with me that I had to introduce everyone to Jalene, and before we knew it we were feeling welcomed as total friends.  I think that if we lived in Baños, we would be in the baths with the locals regularly.  Not to mention that the super-hot green mineral water felt terrific, and after 20 minutes it was enough, and time to cool off.

When we left Baños two years ago, we rode down the Rio Pastaza canyon in torrential rain.  We could see it was incredibly beautiful, but in the bucketing-down water the fun was spoiled, and there was no stopping to pull out the camera.  This time, I went for a day-ride alone to explore the canyon in better weather, and just to get away, while Jalene took the day to do a volunteer project she had been looking forward to.  This time the weather was dry and partly cloudy.  The road down the canyon has several fairly new tunnels, and the old road, running along the canyon wall, can still be found around most.  I poked along down these narrow, one-lane roads that hugged the canyon wall, often cut into the overhanging rock, and found spectacular vistas of waterfalls and sheer cliffs down to the river.  In many places there were frighteningly high and narrow suspension walkways over the river, across which people made their way to houses high on the opposite side.  I found places where the road cut completely underneath the cliff wall, forming a rocky roof over me at times, and other places where a small waterfall came down directly onto the road, making a dandy bike-wash.  Just remember to close up your jacket vents before the dousing.  Further east, I found a place to ride down to the river, and there was a suspension bridge that leaped across.  Though wet and slippery, it looked pretty sturdy, so I ventured out onto it with the bike, and soon was getting near the middle, so I went ahead and rode all the way across.  On the other side I pulled the camera out and hung it around my neck and shot some handheld video on the way back.  The boards on the bridge looked fairly new and about three inches thick, so I quit worrying and had fun with it.  When Jalene and I came down the canyon the next day on our way down to Amazonia, we stopped there and she took pictures of me from below.  Shortly after, we saw a guy leading a massive bull across, and I knew that motos were entirely safe on that bridge.  One thing to note is that if you pull your earplugs out before crossing a wooden crossed-decked bridge like this, you can hear every crack and creak and pop and crunch as the boards move under your tires, high above the madly rushing muddy waters below.

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Since Keith is playing catch-up with the blog posts, our photos and posts are out of synch. The link I'm sharing here is the same link I shared in the last blog post, which will take you to our South America Gallery. To see the photos specific to this blog post, scroll down to the photo gallery named Otovalo Ecuador and and then continue up through the one named Banos to Macas. (The newest photos are at the top of the Gallery page.) Thanks for coming along on our journey with us! We truly love knowing you're out there reading about our adventures.

Catching Up On Our Stories – Southern Colombia

Started June 24, 2016

Hola! Jalene (aka Web Mistress!) here. Keith wrote a long “catch up” blog post and, as travel luck would have it, we’ve had super-slow wifi in the places we’ve been staying lately in northern Peru. What does that mean for you? It means there are no photos below but don’t fret, you can see photos through Ecuador in the Gallery on our website.


We rode out of Salento, in Colombia, and headed south to search out a tiny patch of desert high in the Andes.  It seemed a strange place to find desert, up in the mountains of Colombia, renowned for the green hills and fertile valleys we’d seen everywhere, with rivers and waterfalls all around us.  We would take a couple of days to get there.

We rode south for a short distance before turning east to cross a high Andean pass, which would then take us down into the town of Ibague.  As we climbed, twisting and turning in ever-tightening switchbacks, we began to pass more and more big trucks grinding upward.  Eventually we climbed into the thickly forested elevations, where the road really started to writhe, and then we were over the top and descending in a never-ending procession of trucks and tight switchbacks.  Passing would get us past this truck, only to be on the tail of the next.

When Jalene and I tried to describe Andean roads after returning from our Ecuador trip two years prior, I remember explaining that there were no straight roads, and never would be because a straight road would have to go from tunnel to bridge to tunnel to bridge, endlessly.  Crazy expensive!  Well, it seems the Colombian economists got together with their engineers, and they decided that this particular route Jalene and I were riding was so commercially important, connecting Bogota to Cali and other major cities, that it penciled out to spend the money.  And so, as we crossed the pass, we saw a series of tunnels connecting bridges (or vice-versa) for about 25 miles, I’m guessing.  One place had no conventional roadway at all for at least 10 miles, just alternating tunnels and bridges coming down the valley.  Other places had incredibly positioned bridges looping out from the steep slope and back again to dive once more inside the mountain.  I couldn’t believe my eyes at times the engineering was so spectacular, with spidery bridges sailing high overhead only to disappear and then jump out again from the next fold in the mountainside.  Sadly, I was unable to take any photos, because we were in such heavy traffic on a mountain road.  My Dad, the civil engineer, would have loved seeing it all.

Once we reached lower elevations and the valley opened out, we stopped for the night at a cool eco-touristy hostel outside of Ibague.  A retired professor of agronomy owned it, and he had labeled all the unusual trees he had collected and planted around the well-manicured grounds.  I enjoyed the platform where I and some other kids could climb and look straight down into a pond, watching huge koi and several tortugas (turtles) swim around.  The platform was of thick bamboo, and put us level with the big lower branches of the trees, where the birds and big dragonflies were buzzing and circling around.  Rain threatened, and thunder boomed at times, but we didn’t get any drops on us.  We were pleased when an overlander couple that we had met in Salento roll in and join us.  They were driving a Toyota LandCruiser truck with a camper conversion, and parked under a kind of barn-shelter common here.  After dinner, we all gathered around the map with glasses of wine and, of course, traded stories of our travels.  Talking with other overlanders is always wonderful, and these two had traveled Africa, Australia, and were now in South America heading north.  It was late that night for us when we all finally yawned and headed for bed – about 9 or maybe even 9:30.

The next morning, we rose and pointed the bikes south down the Rio Magdalena, a big river that flows northward to the Caribbean through a very broad valley between ranges of the Andes.  In central Colombia, the Andes are about 400 miles wide east-to-west, as broad as Oregon.  The Magdalena Valley is maybe 50 miles across, and we turned and headed south once we reached the river.  We were heading for the small area of Desierto de Tatacoa, a microclimate about 30 miles in diameter on the eastern side of the valley, where rains rarely fall.  All around can be seen tree-covered mountains, and within an hour one can be on jungle slopes, but in this little basin is nothing but sand and rocks and a little sage and cactus.  The wind blew hard where we stopped at a little lunch place, and we saw tourist busses belching out gringos, who were loaded onto burros and taken out to see the sandy arid hummocks.  A TV commercial was being filmed while we were there, a bit surreal in a strange little place.  After some soup with corn and a meaty bone in it (yum!), we headed back toward the river to a hostel.

After a night nearby in Villavieja, we turned south along the Magdalena once more.  From desert dryness we transitioned to darker clouds near the town of Nieva, and then the rain began.  For the rest of the day, we rode into heavier and heavier rain, passing out of the valley and into jungle gorges where the Magdelana gathered its waters.  The road ascended up toward our destination of San Agustin, a tiny town in the mountains.  We wanted to see the much-heralded Parque Archeologico San Agustin, with its many pre-Columbian stone statues unearthed in the surrounding region.  As well, the area is known for its beautiful mountains and for being the birthplace of five of the biggest rivers in Colombia, many of which we had already followed on one road or another.  The rain by now was falling so hard that it was hard to see ahead.  When we got into town and the GPS map did not show the road to the hostel, we flagged down a taxi and followed him up the muddy track to our destination.  Soaked, we pulled our gear off and enjoyed steaming ourselves by a big, hot fireplace.  The next day was warm and sunny, a fine reward for persevering through the heavy rains.  We walked up to the Parque and, after getting schooled in the museum, wandered the trail along which were displayed many varied statues carved from stone so many years ago.  Some were people, some were birds, and all were interesting to see.  We also saw the places where tombs were excavated, with some of the sarcophagi still in place.  I don’t really remember the who or when of the people that carved the statues, but I loved the artistry and variation in them, and as we live in a Google world now, I can instantly read again about the who and when.

After enjoying the warmth and sun on our day off in San Agustin, we again packed up the bikes and headed out to cross the western arm of the Andes to the city of Popoyan.  Our road took us up a rocky, muddy road, with few other vehicles except the occasional truck or motorcycle.  We rose up and followed a high ridgeline, as roads here often do, and we could look out across huge valleys of unbroken jungle.  We encountered military units spaced out along the road every 10 kilometers or so, but here it was easy to understand how for decades the rebel factions had been able to exist in these endless jungle tracts.  We were suddenly nervous about stopping for long when nature called, or to grab a quick photo.    We’ve been good about paying attention to our “radar”, and for me, it was tingling here.   Eventually, of course, it began to rain again.  We followed the rocky track for about 30 or 40 miles until we came down into a high valley containing the Popoyan.  We found a nice hotel near the center of town after learning that the hostel we had reserved had no secure parking nearby, and spent another evening drying everything out from the rain.  It was here in Popoyan that our decision to buy new, more waterproof gear was vindicated for us, as we were thoroughly tired of being wet and miserable in the Colombian rain.  Our new gear would meet us in Cali, only a day’s ride away to the north of us.

The next morning we rolled out into sunshine and decided to take a secondary road that paralleled the busy main highway, and were we ever glad we did!  It turned out to be a small road, following the ridgeline northward among farms and scattered houses.  Variably we were on asphalt, hard dirt, gravel, and a little mud, but it was the views that made this road so memorable!  We looked out across fields and jungle, and down into river canyons with an immense dammed reservoir of water.  Later on, the road dropped down along a river below the big dam, and we followed that for a time, enjoying the warm sunshine again.  We stopped at a little store and took a break, sharing the bench with the locals, and laughing at the dog tied to the horse, as it kept wrapping the rope around the poor horse’s legs and generally being a nuisance.  But they seemed to be buddies, and so the horse would step out of its canine bonds and the dog would be free again to circle anew.

Shortly after our session with horse and dog, we took another break when Jalene complained that her bike was handling awfully strange, and that she could put her feet down flat on the ground.  Sure enough, she had a flat tire in back, but we were super lucky as we had come to a stop right by a moto shop, and within a half hour we had a new tube installed, and were back on the road.  We couldn’t find anything in the tire after searching inside and out, so concluded it was a sharp rock, as sometimes happens.  Less than $5US for the whole repair, but I should have checked that tire one more time while the guy was patching her tube.  As we rolled into Cali, she again felt the bike was handling oddly, and sure enough the rear tire was looking pretty low again.  We were in the city by this time, and so we parked the bikes up on an island in an intersection, and I inflated her tire again with the electric pump I carry.  The next morning I found a tiny piece of stiff steel wire in her tire, and it only poked through into the inner tube when the pressure of the ground pushed it in.  I did the job again, and it’s been holding fine since.  Luckily they were able to put a hot-patch on the old tube, so I had that to use. 

I so admire the creative nature of mechanics down here.  Their hot-patch machine was made from a big C-clamp and the base of a clothes iron.  The C-clamp was welded upright to a post, and the clothes iron hot-plate was fixed to the screw side of the clamp.  A small steel plate was welded to the other side of the clamp.  The patch was applied to the tube, and then two pieces of thin aluminum from a can were sandwiched on either side of the tube.  The whole affair was clamped in the “hot press”, and the iron plugged in.  A wooden match was placed atop the iron, and when it ignited from the heat, the iron was judged hot enough and unplugged.  A few minutes were allowed for the patch to melt into the tube, and to cool for a few minutes.  The tube was removed and the job was so perfect that I could not see any edges to the patch, just a slightly thicker spot on the tube where the hole had been.

Cali is a big city in southern Colombia, and we stayed there 8 nights waiting for our new riding gear to arrive.  In the meantime, we explored a bit, found some excellent places to eat, and met Zoe, an Englishwoman who works at Motolombia, whom we had ordered our gear through.  As soon as we met in person, we became instant friends with her.  Zoe gave us a bit of a walking tour of the area of town we were in, and that was terrific fun for us.  She also introduced us to the local passion for salsa dancing, which she has studied intensely, and showed us videos of her in action.  Pretty impressive stuff, Zoe!  We also took a side trip out to the Cali Zoo, which I thought was very well done, especially the huge variety of monkeys they had there as well as the big mariposa house, a kind of aviary for butterflies.  It was a bit disappointing to see both grizzly and polar bears, obviously never coming out of their pools in the heat, but in all I thought it was well-done as zoos go, and worth the trip to see and stroll through.  The tropical fish building was fantastic, and that alone made it worth the ticket.

After picking up our gear, we shipped our old jackets and pants home.  We inquired at Servientrega first, and were shocked at the quote of about $260US, but they also steered us toward a private mail agency called 4-72 (can anyone guess what that name means??) that shipped it back to Oregon for only about one-third the price, about $80US total.  Off it went.  A few days later, after I had a haircut and a few other necessary things taken care of, we headed south out of Cali along the PanAmerican, making tracks for Ecuador, which would take a couple of days.

Heading south, we targeted a town called Silvia, known for it’s indigenous market, and we weren’t disappointed.  In the town center, people in distinctive blue shawls, black hats, and a kind of dark gray skirting had come in for the Saturday market day, and we had timed it just right.  It was difficult to get photos of the indigenous folks unless I was far away and zoomed in.  I asked several people, and was universally but politely turned down, even after talking with some of them for some time.  That’s okay, I don’t need to be the pushy gringo.  Here in Silvia, we found a bakery/restaurant that had hotel rooms upstairs and parking for the bikes in the back.  The interesting part was that they had me bring the bikes through the restaurant and the kitchen/bakery and park them in the little walled area out back where the laundry was hung.  Nobody seemed to take much notice as I rode by inches from the table where they were eating.  Trying to be polite and add a little levity, I made sure to wish each table “Buen provecho” from the saddle as I worked my way by.  Next morning at breakfast it was the same scene, with no surprises as the guy on the motorcycle came out through the restaurant.  Happens all the time.

After Silvia it was south again, and this day took us to Ipiales and the Ecuadorian border.  Ipiales is the home of what must be the most photographed cathedral in Colombia, Las Lajas, being built on a stone bridge deep inside the canyon of the Rio Guaitara.  Photos look amazing, and being there is even more spectacular.  It is built directly over a spot on the riverbanks where a woman prayed for her dead daughter, where the Virgin Mary appeared and restored her to life.  The cathedral itself is stunning, and is not very old compared to many others we’ve seen down here.  It’s the construction that’s the amazing part, and I love how the back wall behind the alter is the actual cliff face, and on it is a faint image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that appeared after the miracle occurred.  Las Lajas is a must-see for anyone travelling in this area of Colombia, and a spectacular way for us to bring our trip through Colombia to a close.

Postscript – While parking the bikes for the walk down to Las Lajas cathedral, Jalene complained that she didn’t have a lightweight raincoat, and it was starting to drizzle a bit.  I pointed out what looked like a nice coat on a nearby woman, and Jalene yelled “Yoon! TB!” and sure enough it was our friends on bicycles from Korea, whom we had camped with in Costa Rica.  We had a wonderful time catching up while we enjoyed the cathedral, and hearing about the time they spent in Venezuela.  It was such a wonderful surprise, and we hope that wherever they are now, that they are safe and happy, and gathering more fantastic stories from their journey.  Maybe with just a little bit of luck we will see them again along the road.

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Head to our Gallery for photos and check out Jalene's post about being stuck in Ecuador.

Colombian Rain

Written May 20, 2016

View from the cable care up to Arvi Park.

We’re still in Quito for now - but let’s go back.  We were in Medellin (the locals say Med-e-zheen) a couple of posts ago, and much has happened between there and here.  Medellin is a place that people my age remember well from the newspapers 20-odd years ago for the murders and other horrifying things that the drug cartels were responsible for.  Unfortunately the news media doesn’t keep up on the good news, and the good news is that Medellin is now a city that wins awards for urban design.  After Pablo Escobar was killed, the general population had had enough of the drug cartels in Colombia, and real reform started.  As well, the Havana negotiations with FARC rebels are resulting in an end to the constant military struggles in rural areas.  Of course, it’s more complex than that, but today Medellin, along with most all of Colombia, is a very safe place, and we felt secure. 

Hiking tour in Arvi Park.

The day we spent on the transit system was a marvel.  We hopped on a bus, and bought a ticket that took us to the Metro terminal, where, on the same ticket, we boarded the elevated rail line that runs north-south through the city.  The Metro has many stops along the way, most with wide elevated pedestrian bridges fanning out on both sides that allow passengers to walk well out into the city unobstructed by traffic and other obstacles.  Near the north end of the line, on that same ticket, we just walked from the train onto a teleferico, a cable gondola that took us up, up, up to tops of the mountains above town.  But instead of going up over rocks and trees, we flew over more streets and buildings, and houses as the city climbed up the mountainside, steeper and steeper, until we were far above the narrow valley floor where the Medellin river runs and the city spreads alongside, sloshing way up the sides of the bowl.  Only the photos can convey how they build right up the mountainside, and the streets zig-zag their way as they crazily climb.

The top of El Peñon.

We rolled out of Medellin to the east, climbing steeply up the main highway, slaloming around trucks.  Eager young men on bicycles hung onto the backs of the slow-moving trucks with their hands, sometimes three and four to a truck.  We had a short day of it and arrived in Guatape, a town on a man-made lake filled with islands and undulating shoreline.  The big attraction today is El Peñon, a huge chunk of granite over 700 feet high.  El Peñon has a deep groove running vertically up one side, in which a set of concrete stairs criss-crosses in a dizzying climb.  Seven hundred forty steps to the top, and the view is just incredible out over the rolling hills of the area, and the lake and islands.  The steps are numbered, which may be a hindrance or a help, depending on your frame of mind; we took a break to look around every 50 steps and found ourselves at the top in a surprisingly short time.  You are climbing at about 2000 meters of elevation, so pacing is the key.  The big surprise was when I learned that the original steps, years ago, were built of wood…

Guatape, Colombia.

We stayed the night there in Guatape and walked around enjoying how the houses and shops all had a painted strip of wall above the sidewalk with bright colored figures, some symbolic of the house, some seemingly just fanciful artwork.  Whatever, this was one of the most brightly painted towns I’ve ever seen.

The next day was an interesting mix of terrain and weather.  We needed to cut southwest back to the main highway running south, so followed a path over ever-narrowing roads until we hit dirt, and continued about 25 miles over ridges and along deep valleys rich with coffee farms and fruit orchards, gorgeous country with beautiful views along the road and across deep valleys.  The road was good, and there were even streetlights on every power pole, with a farm house every mile or so.  It was the weather that deteriorated, and our sun turned to clouds, and clouds then lowered to fog.  Soon drops were appearing on our shields, and we pulled on raingear.  This day was our first baptism in Colombian rain for us, and it did not disappoint.  Within a few miles it was coming down steadily and firmly, but it was a warm rain, so we didn’t worry about it too much.  Ten miles along in it, and the road started to collect water coming off the hillsides.  Soon we were riding up a small creek of a road, but it was a good solid rock road, and so traction was fine.  (Jalene here: Dodging the water and rocks was scary. I had to repeatedly remind myself, “Look where you want to go!”)  By the time we neared the main highway and pavement again, it was dusk-like, and getting hard to see very far ahead.  Rain was bucketing down at a terrific rate, and we were rolling in 4-6 inches of water, with islands of rock where the road poked through.  When we stopped, water did not drip off the bikes, but ran like faucet streams.  We headed south down the highway sifting through torrents of rain, again slaloming around trucks backed up and stopped, riding up the yellow line until we came to a broken-down wreck blocking the highway.  After that it was clear road, thank goodness we were on bikes.  Anything with four wheels was stopped in the backup for a long, long time of it.

We eventually rode out of the rain, and found ourselves in La Pintada along the Cauca River.  We found a hotel with heated floors (!), and peeled off our wet things and hung them on chairs and doors to kind of dry.  While the Olympia mesh riding gear had been a godsend in the heat of Central America, it was here that we realized that the “waterproof” liners just weren’t going to cut it in South America.  Friends ahead of us to the south foretold of rain everyday for weeks, and we knew it was time to upgrade.  While warm, we were plenty wet through seams and zippers designed for occasional “commuter rains”, not all-day tropical monsoons.  Further on, we had another all-day drenching on our approach to San Agustin that cemented our decision to spend some serious travel money.  We chose Klim riding gear, because many travelers we have met tell us it is truly waterproof.  It’s another compromise, since it’s not mesh, and so is significantly warmer in hot weather.  But as we head south, keeping dry at high elevations in south latitudes will prove to be a safety concern.  Klim, out of Idaho, is regarded as about the very highest quality riding gear for moto-travelers.

On the leg of our trip that took us south toward Ecuador, we had some seriously beautiful days on the road and stayed at some wonderful hostels.  After our drenching day to La Pintada, we rewarded ourselves by riding to Salento, and La Serrana Hostel.  So far, this is my favorite place of the trip.  Located up the mountains, this is horse country and deep in the coffee lands.  With a brilliant view all around from a ridgetop, at a moderate altitude of about 1900 meters (6,200’), the climate is cooler than the valley floors, slightly chilly at night.  Weather moves through, as on the coast, but most days enjoyed fine dry weather with broken clouds taming the fierce sun.  A few days had brief thunderstorms with bursts of heavy rain in the afternoon, but these always were preceded by plenty of rumbling and flashing to warn you under cover.  We spent 6 nights at La Serrana, the first two nights in a big wall tent and the remaining in a private room.  I’d have spent all of it in the tent if that were possible, as it was snug and quiet, and the cool air over warm blankets made for perfect sleep.  The tent was on a platform off the ground, and we had our own little balcony with a lovely view out over the broad valley to the high Andes peaks beyond.  Horses and cattle grazed in fields of deep green grass all around, with rich gardens and heavy fruit trees along the roads.  One day I took a horseback ride down a very old trail, crossing creeks, traversing ridges, and even riding through old tunnels to a fabulous waterfall where we swam in cold water right off the peaks.  Our stout, strong little horses made their way back up the steep, muddy trail without a pause; they are such good athletes.  Though the heat was pouring off the neck of my horse, her deep breathing slowed almost immediately when we made the top.  This is just everyday rambling for them, I suppose.

Keith picking coffee cherries.

While in Salento, Jalene and I walked to a coffee plantation where we were schooled fairly intensively in selecting land, growing, picking, and roasting coffee.  It was quite a surprise to learn how many varieties there are, and some of the issues facing a coffee grower.    Coffee prefers a specific band of elevation to produce the best beans, 1300-1900 meters (4,300-6,200’).  Only the dried beans are shipped off the farm to be roasted elsewhere, the rest is all composted into a rich soil, and spread back around the plants.  Nothing is wasted, and it would be much too expensive to have waste hauled away here, anyway.  After we picked some coffee “cherries”, we learned how to extract the beans, then how roasting, drying, and grading is done.  Grading is by hand, and watching the women work at the grading screens reminded me of long days in place on “the line” in the seafood plants I worked at years ago.  My back hurt just watching them.  We learned that it’s the lighter roasts that are higher quality and have more caffeine in them, and that the darker roasts tend of be of a lower grade, as more defects in the beans can be hidden that way.  Finally we all learned how to brew – hand grinding the beans, then filling small cloth filter bags with the ground coffee, and finally how to pour the hot water in – just a little at first, a single circle to wet the coffee down.  Count to ten and then slowly pour the rest of the water through.  I’m a dedicated tea drinker, and haven’t drunk any coffee in probably 25 years.  I had a cup that day.

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Our photo gallery pages are more up-to-date than our stories so, you can either view all the South American photos (the most recent are on top) or here are the links for the areas talked about in this blog post: Medellin, Guatape and El Peñon, and Salento.