Tucked in the opposite corner of Oregon from Portland, lies the stunningly desolate Alvord Desert; a 20 mile long, 7 mile wide salt flat in the shadow of the Steen Mountains. The drive down there takes a solid 8.5 or 9 hours, but it’s worth every minute. As if the quiet isolation of the land itself and the sage perfumed air were not enough, the salt flat is a stage for bizarre feats. When you drive out into the middle of it, it just feels like something amazing is about to happen. We tried driving with no hands and driving with our eyes closed, things that would normally stop your heart. Even Fern felt the romantic inspiration and tried her tiny best at setting a new land speed record (small white dog division). The Steen Mountains tower at about 4,000 feet above the salt flat floor and ducked in and out of fast moving clouds over the weekend, but with an annual rainfall in the low single digits, the flats themselves never actually saw a drop or a flake. To top things off, there are some of the best natural hot springs we have ever had the pleasure of dipping into. Set on the side of the desert, the hot springs are a small concrete pool built at the mouth of a hot stream and have a view that you’ll just have to experience for yourselves.
I pulled my back. But don’t worry – what’s bad for my back, is good for blog updating. And where am I updating from? I’d bet that most of you already know the answer to that. For those who don’t, it’s kind of a long story. The short version? We’re in Oregon. Portland, Oregon. I know, I know, that’s not in Peru, but wait, we’ll explain. There aren’t too many pictures up front here, so here’s one to hint at what’s to come.
West coast mountains are pretty
I believe that when I last wrote we were still in Lima. The part that I hadn’t told you is that we already had plane tickets back to Miami. Sneaky, I know. The big question was wether we were going to use them. The tickets were a hold over from entering Ecuador. Although in the end no border official actually confirmed their existence, the rule on the books is that you must have travel arrangements out of Ecuador or Peru in order to enter them. Now, if we hadn’t also been trying to smuggle a dog across the border, I think we would have felt a bit more confident in our abilities to sweet talk the border agents into letting it slide. With Fern, however, we felt a bit more of a need to have at least some of our ducks in a row, leaving us to negotiate only one issue. We had bought the tickets the night before we left for Guayaquil from Miami. However, we did have the forethought from the start to get tickets with no change fees, so we would just periodically call LAN and move the flight date and city down the coast with us. Fast forward to Huaraz. The tickets at that point had been moved to Lima, departing at the end of June. The big decision was wether we would finally use them or just keep bumping them along.
So there we were, debating what to do with our bike-less bike trip. Peru was amazing, but it had sadly simplified into sightseeing by mini-bus. There just wasn’t as much substance as we had hoped for. Cycling gives you a mission, a self-imposed mission for sure, but a mission none the less. Instead, we found ourselves just traveling. We had been trying to figure out something more to do instead, so we (well, mainly Vanessa) had been applying for long term volunteer positions. They were tricky though. We had a couple leads, but in the end, nothing was really panning out. Additionally, we were nearing the close of the spring/fall sweet spot that allowed us to fly Fern. If we chose to stay, we’d have to wait until the heat broke around the end of September before we could think about flying again. So the choice came; stay and travel around for another three months, or just head back to the US and try something different. The decision was down to the line, even the day before we were heading to Lima we were considering a few options.
Guess what we did.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, because we were thinking it too – it’s got to be kind of hard to get a dog into the country. Thankfully, we’re both wrong. How do you get a dog back into the country? For the answer to that, we turned to the USDA website. Which pointed us to the CDC website. Which pointed us to the state of Florida website. Which pointed us to a different part of the USDA website. Which pointed us to the first part of the USDA website. Seriously. That actually happened. After months of information that was anywhere from spotty to entirely incorrect, we had been excited to head back the fully modernized United States, where anything that you need to know is easily accessed on the internet. There are rules. There is information. Unless, as it turns out, you’re after information about bringing a dog into the country. We did finally piecemeal a prescription of the required paperwork together. We needed an updated health certificate, a current rabies vaccination record and a specific letter from a veterinarian stating that Fern had been tested for, and was free of infection of, screw worms. And how do you pick a vet that is appropriately credentialed to issue these documents? That was our favorite part. As there is no way for the US to regulate the certification of other countries’ veterinarians, the official wording on the USDA website calls for a “full salaried veterinarian”. Want to start a vet clinic in Peru? Well, as long as you pay yourself a full salary, the US government recognizes your authority to make judgement calls on the eligibility of transporting animals onto their soil. Weird? Big time. But we weren’t complaining.
We already had the current rabies paperwork, but we spent a day at the vet in Lima getting the general health certificate and a letter (in Spanish) stating that she was clear of screw worm. As we learned, screw worm is a horrific (and thankfully uncommon) parasite that creates oozing sores all over the dog’s body. We weren’t really sure what the testing for screw worm would entail, so we were a little nervous that they’d tell us they had to send blood work out or something else that would take too long. In actuality, “test” is kind of an overstatement. The vet gave fern a quick glance and deemed her free of screw worm. We asked how she knew for sure. ”Because she’s not bleeding.” That was good enough for us.
Arriving at the airport was like instantly stepping back into a mall in Boston. Polished, clean, disinfected. There were gift shops with more perfect versions of the crafts we had collected over our time there. Things had price tags. Being in Lima for a week had softened the blow a bit, but it was still striking. Then we were flying. Heading home was completely painless. It was sad and amazing to see Peru and Ecuador drift past; our entire four plus months of buses, borders, haggling, sneaking and negotiating, all effortlessly passing under us over three plush-seated hours. The South American continent floated off and before long we touched down. When we picked up Fern at the baggage carousel in Miami, she didn’t have the same horrified shell-shocked look on her face that she did in Guayaquil. She seemed like she understood what was going on a little more this time around. At customs, the only question the officer asked was if Fern had a rabies vaccine. Without even checking the paperwork, we were waved though. That’s it. It took less time than getting into Ecuador. Heck, it took less time than getting into Peru.
We found a motel, showered, ate chinese food (next to a Peruvian restaurant) and took of driving the next morning. With few hitches, and a short detour through the Shenandoahs, we were back in Boston. This is the only picture of our entire return trip.
Seriously. I lugged a 5 pound camera around for four months and this is the only darn picture I took of our return
Our things were in the boxes, right were we had left them in my parents’ garage. It felt amazing to see our friends and family and wear a different outfit. If you ever get bored of your things, just put them into boxes for four and a half months, don’t look at them, only use one backpack’s worth of things, and I promise you, it’s like being gifted an entire life’s worth of material possessions. Everything feels new and interesting. You have bags that you won’t even remember existed. You have pants that will feel like a hug. You just don’t know it yet. We didn’t do too much unpacking though. We had been scheming. By the time we had arrived in Miami, we had already decided to give our trip one more leg. We had been talking about some day moving west for quite some time now, so we finally wanted to make good on the hot air. We loaded our boxes into the back of a 10 foot Budget truck and drove west. That’s how we ended up in Oregon. Here’s there we started taking pictures again. I know, this has been pretty darn wordy. I’ll let the pictures tell the story of the drive. Next time, I promise to tell you a little about Oregon. Until then, we love you and miss you and now own a guest futon with your name on it.
Lima. City of champions. Well, I’m not sure if that’s what anyone actually calls it, but that’s where we are. And you know what? We like it. After having people tell us that Lima is horrible for four months, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Where have we been for the past month? Huaraz of course.
Huaraz proved to be a wonderful place to spend a mountainous month. We settled in easily, and quickly found a volunteer opportunity with Seeds of Hope, an after school program for underprivileged youth in Huaraz. The city, as we learned, has acted as a magnet for destitute farmers from the surrounding mountains, looking for economic opportunity. A great majority of the kids that Seeds of Hope helps come from homes with illiterate parents and without basic utilities. To complicate matters, the Peruvian education system is frustratingly focused on pushing kids though as fast as possible, not having the funding or manpower to actually come to the aid of most of these first generation students with no home support system. In that educational vacuum, a number of NGOs have popped up, trying to bridge that gap and keep kids learning. As Yuri, one of the founders of Seeds says, education is the only way to break the circle of poverty. And without programs like Seeds of Hope, the schools alone are ill-equipped to lift their students up. Helping about 50 of the most wonderful kids in the world, we worked with Seeds, helping with homework, preparing snacks and throwing kids into the air in between. The students of Seeds of Hope are so appreciative to just be there, have a place to work that has lights and running water, and get fed a snack, that while still occasionally off the wall, they are a pleasure to be around. Polite, hard working and endlessly fun. We’ll most certainly be missing them.
It was a tough job, but someone had to play with those kids
In between days at Seeds, having kiddos reaffirm everything good in the world, we spent breaks and weekends exploring some of the most stunning mountains we’ve ever seen. Huaraz is indeed tucked into a few of the most awe-inspiring mountains on the face of the planet. The only down side is that, like all the truly high peaks around the globe, these mountains are almost better when you just look and don’t touch. They’re like a dangerous animal at a zoo; lovely to see, but gosh they’re tough as nails when you challenge them to a wrestling match. Short of mountaineering, the hiking is confined to ascending steep sided glacial moraines called quebradas, derived from the Spanish word for “gap”, as in, the gap or break in the mountains. While the hiking itself would be less than challenging if it were at sea level, or roughly thereabouts, even the modest inclines of the quebradas quickly reminds you that you are a good bit higher. With Huaraz itself at 10,000 feet, by the time you near the base of a quebrada, your feet are clunking along at over 13,000 feet. Then you ascend. The air is frustratingly thin and the sun equally relentless, fueled not only by the elevation, but also by the proximity to the equator. We read somewhere that the mountains in this area are the closest to places on earth to the sun, thanks to their extreme elevation and our planet’s bulging waistline. Twin peaked Huascaran at 22,205 feet is not only the tallest peak in the Cordillera Blanca, but also holds the distinction of being the tallest mountain in the all of the tropics globally. It looks it too. Beautiful to be certain, but these mountain indeed pack a punch. Hikes that should otherwise be simple, leave you creamed, head pounding, and sunburnt regardless of how much cream you slather on. Walking around town it’s usually easy to spot the trekkers who have just returned from a few days in the backcountry, roasted to a crisp. Don’t get us wrong though, they’re worth it. Every painful step, every sunburnt nose, the Cordillera Blanca will wreck your body but you’ll barely notice, staring up at the glaciated 20,000 foot peaks looming above and turquoise lakes below.
In the end we only put in a few weekend and day hikes, opting to work longer with the kids at Seeds as opposed to tackling one of the longer circuits. Even so, just the mountains surrounding the city itself are more than enough to fill your belly. Not more than a few kilometers outside of the city center, civilization quickly gives way to pastureland, and not long there after, pastureland gives way to untamable, glacially sculpted peaks. All you need to do is pick which quebrada you’ll be heading up and hike off. The quebradas themselves, while playing second fiddle to the summits above, are by all means in their own rights things of equally majestic beauty. Generally not more than a quarter mile wide, their steep walls soar thousands of dizzyingly sheer cliff walled feet overhead, punctuated every few hundred yards by cascading waterfalls. I read that the glaciers in the Cordillera Blanca are some of the fastest melting in the world, creating innumerable torrential cascades down the quebrada walls by mid afternoon daily. Then, like a faucet, the cascades slow to a trickle as the ice above solidifies over night, only to start up again by the following noon. It’s a world unlike almost any we’ve seen. Barren and inhospitable, austerely beautiful, and uniquely enticing.
The mountains around Huaraz host a million unique shades of turquoise in their lakes
While we were in Huaraz, they held an annual festival in which traditional dancers wound through the streets in throngs, coxswained by drum and flute ensembles. These groups were dancing to absolve themselves of sin, a tradition that is an amalgamation of both Spanish catholicism and shamanistic holdovers from long ago. The dancers dance their way through the city for seven days once a year for seven years on a colorful and rhythmic path to a good life. The shacshas , as they are called, were beautiful to watch and had a knack for rounding a corner in some distant end of town just when you least expected it, turning the entire city into a spontaneous parade route 24 hours a day.
Shacshas are like flash mobs. Traditional Andean flash mobs
Also around Huaraz are some amazing hot springs, most notably the steam caves at Chancos. Built into a hillside below the Huascaran massif, the ultra-touristified Epcot Village “town” of Chancos is a mecca for ailing Peruvians and tourists alike. The facilities appear to have seen a facelift recently and what’s left is something of a bionic village, half real and half hospitality center. None the less the steam caves themselves are utterly amazing. From the main gate, you enter a courtyard with what look to be a series of changing rooms built along the rock face abutting the complex. These rooms are actually entry ways into private natural steam caves, each marked with a temperature rating ranging from 40 to over 50 degrees celsius. Without any guidance and only poorly remember the upper bounds of celsius, I nabbed the 45. Once inside, there was a small changing area that gave way to an inner chamber of raw stone and stalactites, in which steam would billow from cracks in the rock ceiling, walls and floor. Five Sol bought me 15 minutes of sulfur-odored, skin-melting steaming, although I think I would have been hard pressed to stay in it any longer.
These are some of the least interesting photographs we’ve ever taken, sadly they’re all that survived steamy Chancos
On another weekend trip outside of Huaraz, we visited the Campo Santo on what was once the town of Yungay. In a massive earthquake in 1970 that leveled nearly all cities in the northern mountains of Peru, Huaraz included, a significant portion of the glacier topping Huascaran let go and went plummeting down the west face of the mountain in a gigantic avalanche. Just 15 minutes after the avalanche was triggered, the town of Yungay was completely buried instantly killing all but a handful of its over 30,000 residents. The only few that survived were the few that were visiting graves of relatives in the hilltop citadel-like cemetery, stranded on what quickly became a small rocky island in a sea of mud, ice, and debris. Today the original Yungay is a commemorative field that you can visit to pay your respects and have a picnic. Although idyllic and beautiful, it has the feel of an enormous mass grave, landscaped beautifully with gardens and monuments. Tucked along one side of the field you can even see a bus that was obliterated in the disaster, contorted to the extent that without the explanative sign you would be unsure of what it is. It’s eerie and amazing all at once. Today Nuevo Yungay acts as a launching point or expeditions up Huascaran, rebuilt about a kilometer north of the original Yungay.
Yungay’s Campo Santo gives you the willies. It’s strange to think that you’re walking above an entire town
Then, all too soon, we bid the Benkawasi Hostel, Seeds of Hope, and Huaraz a fond goodbye and embarked on our leg to Lima. After being turned away from a few buses, we finally found one that agreed to take us on the eight hour ride. Since we entered Peru, we’ve been battling against a new law, enacted just this past year, prohibiting dogs and other animals from riding on buses. Apparently, past are the days of clucking chickens and bleating goats providing bus ride entertainment. Although some bus companies will still let you half sneak your pooch on board, technically, if they have a cargo hold, they’re not allowed to and face the prospect of hefty fines at police checkpoints along the highway. With that knowledge setting the stage, we couldn’t have seen the one bus that agreed to take her depart quickly enough. We had arrived early and Fern was, to the drivers knowledge, safely hidden under the seat. A few minutes before leaving, though, a manager of the company saw her and started a stink. The bus driver boarded to speak with us and pretended that he had never seen Fern, scolding us for sneaking her on without their knowledge. When only moments before we thought we were finally in the clear, we found ourselves being escorted off the bus and our money being refunded. Bummer. After looking at some other options, we ended up just paying a collectivo driver named Percy to take us all the way to Lima. A collectivo is kind of a long distance (or sometimes short) shared taxi, each rider paying a fixed price to travel to the common destination. Percy was used to the drive we were about to take. Well, the first half of it anyway, as that’s where his collectivo route normally turned around.
Loaded into the Percy-mobile, we took off. Not more than about a half hour down the road we ran into what Percy promised to be the first and only police checkpoint. Technically, collectivos traveling to distant cities are illegal, Percy just doesn’t have the kind of taxi license. But what’s not illegal would be Percy going to Lima to visit his grandma. Percy stopped about a quarter mile shy of the checkpoint, a group of police officers standing guard on a bridge. He told us that he wouldn’t be able to cross with us in the car, that if the police saw a driver with two foreigners, they would be preeeeetty sure that he wasn’t just going to visit his grandma. So we had to walk. ”Walk? Over the bridge?” we asked. Correct. Then he’d pick us up on the other side. We figured that we had nothing to lose as we hadn’t yet paid him anything, so we shouldered our backpacks, grabbed Fern and walked on. The police on the bridge were duly dubious, as there were no towns within a 20 mile radius, but we just kept smiling and insisting that we didn’t speak any Spanish. Percy had already been pulled over and was waving his hand to us at waist level, trying to indicate unsuccessfully that we either were or were not supposed to do something. We ignored him and passed. On the other side, we continued walking along the highway’s shoulder, onward to our yet to be determined pickup location. Rounding a bend, we finally found ourselves out of the sightline of the police, and no sooner had we arrived did we see Percy whipping around the same corner, coming to a screeching stop next to us. Urging us on, we jumped in quickly and he took off. Miraculously, he was not lying and that was indeed the only road bump for the entire eight hours. We made it to Lima just as night fell, barely making it across the city alive in what must have been Lima rush hour. We checked into the Red Psycho Llama (yes, really) Hostel, a recommendation of Benkelo’s in Huaraz, and have been exploring the city ever since.
What doesn’t suck about Lima? Well, a lot it turns out. Granted we are staying in Miraflores, one of the nicest areas of the city, but still, we stand by it; Lima is neat. The flower covered, park lined sea cliffs that boarder the city to the west, the colonial churches with labyrinths of catacombs below and the beautiful and seemingly endless perfectly manicured city parks and bike paths. There are craft markets of a rarely high quality around every corner, paragliders that hover over the cliffs like raptors, and even a few vegetarian restaurants. We’ve mostly been exploring the neighborhoods of Miraflores and Barranco, admittedly the two most tourist friendly upscale areas of the city, but we still like both of them a lot. We’ve even decided to move here and open a bar in Barranco named “Barranco Bama”. Get it? Hopefully the Limeños will too. To be certain, Lima is a city that’s making great efforts to change its crappy image, and it’s working. Sure it’s still a busy, dirty South American megalopolis, but there are more than enough redeeming factors to keep it safely out of the “don’t go” column. If you’re coming this way, our recommendation would be to not skip Lima. Also, this is where lima beans are from. That’s a fact. Well, they’re from around Peru in general, but we read that when the Peruvians first started exporting them to the rest of the world, the burlap sacks in which they were shipped listed “Lima” as their port of origin. Thus was born the lima bean. Kids everywhere have Peru to thank for crappy dinners. The good news is that they’re delicious down here. As it turns out, we just stink at cooking them.
Colonial libraries, public photo contests in the park, lovely pedestrian ways along the cliffs. What’s not to love?
The catacombs of San Francisco; one of Lima’s finest places to see thousands of dead people
The paragliders soaring up and down the coast are like giant colorful buzzards without the carrion
Hey there. Since we last wrote, we’ve gained some altitude, and the trip up has been fun and exciting to boot. We’re writing from Huaraz, the self proclaimed adventure capital of Peru. Do we disagree? All we’ll say is that this is the view from our hostel window.
But let’s back up. Huanchaco, our beachside home for the past month, treated us well. All in all, we spent a little over 30 days there. It’s funny to think about that after being so migratory for the past few months. Vanessa got some good Spanish lesson time in with yet another teacher named Manuel and is officially twice as good as Fern and I combined; she can say things in verb tenses like subjunctive. Why didn’t any of our Spanish speaking friends warn us that there were so many verb tenses? Where were you guys? As for me and surfing, after winning a few competitions, I retired. Really? Well, no, not really. I did come to a comfortable place, though, where I could stand up the majority of the time and most people weren’t laughing at me. The times I couldn’t, however, I would nosedive hard into the wave and come home full of enough sea water to keep a beached whale alive. All in all, it was a lot of fun, but I think that I’ll leave it in Huanchaco and keep to the bikes and rocks.
Before we left, we had the pleasure of having Mr and Mrs Brooks come visit us. We met them at the airport in Trujillo and spent a fun and relaxing ten days hanging out at the beach, poking around Trujillo, and checking out some of the numerous archaeological sites in the area. We made the trip out to the Huaca del Sol and Huaca de la Luna with them, something that we ourselves had almost skipped. What we were met with put the other sites we’ve seen to shame. Two towering mud brick pyramids stand side by side, each topping out around 100 feet and adorned with amazing frescos dating back to about 2000 years ago. To make things even more (grotesquely) awesome, one of the sites served as a giant sacrificial altar seeing to the death of hundreds of people as offerings. We were told that they would sacrifice people when it was too rainy, too dry, or even too nice. Considering that the settlement only had on the order of tens of thousands residents, it seemed to us like a less than ideal survival rate.
2000 year old frescos? We think that’s neat. We learned, though, that you shouldn’t build your pyramid out of mud if you want it to last
We even made a day trip up to Chiclayo to peruse the witchdoctor market. Yes, a witchdoctor market. Actually, the market in Chiclayo is amazing on many fronts, but our favorite was the witchdoctor section. There were more herbs than you could possibly imagine, potions, talismans, voodoo dolls, charms, swords, elixirs and enough dehydrated animals to fill a zoological museum. Deer legs, vulture heads, whole skunks, turtle shells, and filleted lizards, filled the stalls, all for sale as ingredients. Another section that we hadn’t heard about was the cock fighting corner. There one could buy all of the necessary cock fighting accouterments such as leashes, helmets, carrying cases, spikes for their heels, and, of course, the cocks themselves. Needless to say, we headed back to Huanchaco that night with our minds fully blown. It was rejuvenating to see family from home and get to show them around the town that we had come to love. Costal Peru was probably not perviously on the top of their “must see” lists, but I know they would now agree that it’s a stunning and fascinating place.
From the pastel colonial churches to the seemingly endless nothingness of its deserts, Northern Peru is truly the bomb
So with their departure, we headed out. Looking back on the past month, there are a lot of neat experiences to digest. Having such lenient schedules gave us plenty of time to process our surroundings, so here are a few things that I don’t think we’ll soon forget,
Coming from a place where the ocean is to the east, we really never got used to sunsets over the water. What’s more, these were most assuredly some of the loveliest sunsets we’ve ever seen. Thanks to the consistency in weather afforded by costal Peru’s desert climate, the sunsets were as dependably stunning as the days were toasty. Every day we would look at pictures of the previous night’s sunset and think that the saturation on the camera must have been turned up too high, and every night we’d realize that it was almost not high enough.
Thank you Sun for making every evening in Huanchaco awesome
Man they’re neat. Just when I thought it could not possibly look any more desolate, Peru would prove me wrong. Houses in the middle of nowhere, with the nearest apparent plant life or water source hundreds of kilometers away, roads going off into the abyss, sand blowing across the highway in ways that I’ve only seen snow drift and swirl; those darn roads provided endless things to watch from minibus windows in more ways than one.
Just where is that road going anyway? Maybe if you have a 4×4 with a 1,000 gallons of water, you could find out
One bizarre and striking sight that we came across over and over again along the Peruvian coast were gigantic and fully intact dead animals washed ashore. Seals, dolphins, pelicans, and fish and jellyfish galore. Seemingly once a week in Huanchaco we’d come across the body of some decomposing sea animal. What struck us most was less that we were seeing so many here and more that we never have back home. With all the marine life that lives in the coastal waters, why don’t we see more deceased seals? Where are the dead dolphins? Every morning and night we would watch humongous flocks of pelicans and turns flying southward along the water, migrating with the changing seasons. We could only assume that the dead sea birds we would find so frequently were the old or sick of these flocks. As for the large marine mammals? We read that there has never once been a reported shark attack in Peru; do sharks elsewhere eat old or dying creatures that, in Peru, just pass away peacefully? Hadley also tells us that there is a dolphin disease that’s running rampant down here. Whatever the reason, though, if you ever want to see some humongous dead sea creatures, look no further than Peru. That sounds kind of horrible, but there is an inescapable morbid fascination that compels one to inspect them. After all, when else have you ever been inches away from an elephant seal?
The closest I’ve ever been to a pelican. He seemingly succumbed to the exhausting business of migration. Yes, those are mites in his eyes
Fern on The Beach
We discovered that there are few things more heartwarming to see than watching Fern curl up on the warm sand and nap the day away in the sun. Not being able to bring her to nearly any beach back in the states, we really hadn’t had too many experiences with Fern on the shore. After she worked through an initial fear of the waves, though, she started looking at us like we were terrible owners for not telling her about this place sooner. The beaches in Huanchaco have a number of umbrella and chair rental vendors, our favorite of which was a friendly man named Pedro. After around a week in Huanchaco, Fern would drag us full force, tail wagging furiously whenever she saw Pedro, realizing that she was going to get to spend another day zoning out on the beach. For a dog that often doesn’t love public places, it was fun to watch Fern nearly melt into the sand and forget for a little while about honking cars or six year olds that want to pet her.
Fern is the only one I have ever met that likes the beach more than Jane
But finally, we did indeed made it out of Huanchaco. By the end, we were starting to think about it as a Peruvian version of the Illiad’s island of the lotus eaters; a temperate, laid back, beautiful oasis in the heart of otherwise uninhabitable desert. The mountains were calling us, but life there was so comfortable and easy, the people so nice, the food so delicious and the climate so undeniably perfect. Heck, even just going into Turjillo proper left us ultimately scrambling to get back to the cool breezes and the sound of the surf. It doesn’t help that cities in costal Peru can only be built along the periodic river valleys that create veins of green from the mountains down to the ocean. Because those are the only places hospitable enough to sustain life, even just going to another town is at least a two to three hour bus trip across desert wasteland. Needless to say, there was no one more surprised than us when we finally saw Trujillo disappearing in the rearview mirror of Fidel’s taxi.
After Fern was turned away from a number of bus companies on our hopeful departure date, we finally just negotiated a ride from the cab driver who had been initially just taking us to the station. A few small pitstops for gas later, Fidel gladly drove us all the way to Chimbote. Two hours south landed us immediately into a micro bus that brought us the rest of the way to Casma. We had planned on trying to make the trip up to Huaraz in two days, and arriving in our half way point of Casma by midday was more than we could have hoped for. We checked into the self proclaimed two star “Hotel Vanessa” and grabbed chinese food for lunch. We’ve learned that there is nothing more wonderful to a vegetarian traveling in Ecuador or Peru than a chinese food restaurant. In the afternoon, we grabbed a combi to the nearby town of Tortugas, an idyllic fishing village as close to perfect as they come, and spent the afternoon poking about. We got to stretch our legs on trails over sea cliffs before heading back for an early bed time in anticipation of the potentially long day ahead of us. We had heard just about every possible number put before the word “hours” to describe the length of the journey from Casma to Huaraz. Eight, six, four, three, two, you name it. We weren’t really sure what to expect. It turns out it’s just about two and a half of the most hair raising switchbacks you could ever imagine. Right before we left Vanessa pointed out that over the projected two and a half hours we would be climbing up to around 13,000 feet then dropping down to 10,000 feet. The real kicker, as we came to find out, is that you do almost all of it in the second half of the drive.
By the time we pulled into Huaraz, we made a bee line for what we felt was some well deserved lying on non-moving ground in a park. We checked into the Benkawasi Hostel, run by a Peruvian couple that account for two more of the nicest people we’ve ever met. We spent the afternoon walking around Huaraz checking out our new home for the next month. The city sits in a narrow valley between the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Nega and plays host to some of the best hiking and climbing in South America. The Cordillera Blanca alone has around 30 peaks over 20,000 feet, towering over the town like glaciated sentinels. In fact, it seems that just about everywhere you look, you see an amazing snow covered mountain poking between or over buildings. We had to remind ourselves too, that this is the start of Fall down here, meaning that this is the least snowy these mountains get. Yikes.
One of these pictures deserves a caption more than the other. Guess which one
We’re trying to learn from our lotus eater experience in Huanchaco and be more proactive about seeking out volunteer opportunities, spanish classes and things to do, so we’ve already been trying to pound the pavement and get a sense of what is out there. We have took volunteer positions for a month with Seeds of Hope, a small organization that provides after school homework support for kids all the way from grade school through high school, and will be working with them during the weeks. We have our hearts set on hiking the crap out of these mountains too, so the trail reconnaissance has also begun. So that’s it. That’s where we’re at. It feels great to be getting to know a new place and to finally have some weather that’s cool enough that we can move our bodies between noon and 4 pm and not pass out. We’ll write more soon, but until then we miss you all and think oxygen-rich thoughts for us as we discover Huaraz.
Oh dear. We just did that all too common blog thing where we didn’t write anything for a while and now we have too much to say quickly. A lot has (and hasn’t) happened in the past few weeks, so I’ll try to keep things concise.
When we last wrote we had just set off by bus, and oh how the buses did carry us. Leaving from Baños, we headed southward along the Panamerican. Watching the scenery go by the bus windows, our conviction to not continue onward by bicycle was reinforced by mile after mile of busy and often shoulder-less highway. Certainly the countryside in Ecuador is stunning, especially from Riobamba to Cuenca where the road hugs cliff walls dropping thousands of feet into cloud covered valleys, but the roads themselves would offer a uniquely harrowing ride. We ended up in Cuenca for a few days filled by wandering through the colonial streets and enjoying the street art. The miles of terra-cotta tiled roofs and multitude of monstrous churches were a treat to walk around. Our hostel was a nexus of travelers of all sorts, including a lovely couple from Washington state who are retiring to Cuenca and were in the process of apartment hunting. From there we headed south through Lojah to the quiet but increasingly popular town of Vilcabamba.
A few thousand feet lower in elevation than we were used to, Vilcabamba was pleasantly lush and warm. Tucked into a valley of densely vegetated hills, the town claims to host the oldest people in the world due to its mineral rich spring waters. While we didn’t do any carbon dating on anyone ourselves, we can visually confirm that there were some darn old people there. Because of its pleasant climate, beautiful setting and famed waters, Vilcabamba has also more recently seen a boom in gringo retirees, who have transformed this once quiet mountain town into a wonderful hippy mecca. For the first time since we left ultra-liberal Jamaica Plain, we were able to eat local yogurt, granola, smoked gouda, and drink fair traded, shade grown coffee. It was delectable. We got a small apartment at the Rumi Wilco Lodge and spent a week hiking around and pinning down the logistics for our next leg into Peru. Rumi Wilco is owned by a nice Argentinian couple, both of whom are naturalists and have spent the last decade building an amazing ecolodge and nature reserve. They have their own (small) trail network complete with meticulously labeled plants and geographic features along the way. The apartments were built into an abandoned structure that preexisted on the property and offer water from their well, coffee grown on their floodplain and plenty off good company too boot. At Rumi Wilco we had the pleasure of meeting Ian Moor, a British expat who has been traveling by motorcycle from Miami, by way of Alaska, for the past three years. He had plenty of wonderful stories as well as some handy tips for dealing with customs agents.
While there are a number of trails around the town, it proved to be oddly and unexpectedly difficult to actually hike them. It turns out that the trail network was largely developed by a German couple who own a hostel up the road. We were told that when they first opened their hostel and talked to other hostel owners in town about developing a trail network for tourists, the reaction was enthusiastic. But, when it came time to actually build the trails, negotiate rights of way and map the routes, no one was willing to chip in time of money. So, as a misguided retribution on the wrong demographic, the only people who are allowed to even see the maps are those who stay at their hostel. Bummer. There are some trails that you don’t need a map for, however, like the stunning Cerro Mandango loop, up and over a very aesthetic knife’s edge just above the town. If you want to do it, though, you have to be willing to roll the dice, because officially the trail is closed due to the frequency of muggings (about once a year). That said, if you go and would like to hike it, you may very well be fine; people did it every day that we were there and most had no issues at all. But, on one of our last days, news broke that someone had been kidnapped from the summit and was being held for ransom. We never heard how it was resolved, but needless to say, we felt thankful that we had decided to just appreciate the peak from the valley floor.
All in all, we spent a little over a week of very relaxing days in Vilcabamba but were ready to move on when the time came. We boarded a bus to Lojah, bought our tickets for Puira, Peru for the following day and spent the night wondering if it was going to work. As I’m sure many of you already know, it did. If you ever feel like there are too many rules in life, just enter Peru by land and it will reaffirm your beliefs that there are still countries you could enter on your library card*. The first major hurtle of the day was just boarding the bus. We had heard from a number of travelers that none of the border crossing bus companies would take a dog, even if you were able to get it across the border. But, with Vanessa’s award winning smile and some of her patented negotiating, we were let on and Fern happily settled onto my jacket under the seat. Over four near-walking-speed hours we wound our way out of the mountains for the first time since we arrived in Quito. The air grew thicker and hotter and other passengers stopped complaining as we inched our windows open. When we finally arrived at the border of Peru, it was midday, hot and relatively flat. At the border, you disembark from the bus and cross over by foot, so we climbed down, armed with fistfuls of papers, ready to plead our case for Fern’s entry. We checked out of Ecuador and walked over the bridge. Then, as we were walking, we saw something that alleviated all of the pent up fears we had been slowly accumulating: a beat up pick up truck with no muffler cruised by with three collarless barking dogs in the bed. They passed with no questions. Awesome. If they can do it, Fern can do it. Fern, the most documented, collared, immunized and tested dog in the entirety of Ecuador. The border official appeared to be a teenage boy and Vanessa easily talked him into 120 days on our visas as opposed to the standard 90. We walked out, checked through the police station, boarded the bus and took off. Fern was never so much as mentioned by a single official on either side. With flat desert roads stretching ahead of us and a successful border crossing behind, we cruised on toward Piura, arriving in the early evening.
Seemingly the second you cross the border into Peru the land flattens and instantly transforms into a Mad Max style desert. Endless sand dunes, rocky mountains in the distance and dry, cracked river beds as far as the eye can see. Trees all but cease to exist and, what little vegetation does live here is comprised of a few scattered succulents and hearty looking shrubs. It is beautiful, completely different from anything we had seen in Ecuador, and Piura is in the middle of it. Maybe it was the border crossing high, or maybe just because we had read such crummy things about hot, dusty Piura, that the city surprised us. Although it sprawls into near endless messy urban-ness, the colonial center really is quite beautiful. We had dinner and ice-cream around a stately plaza and listened to a marching band (one of Fern’s most favorite pastimes) play brass heavy latin renditions of jazz standards. While it definitely was hot, it was a very dry heat and there was a nice breeze all afternoon and night. Still, come the next day, we were ready to see the ocean, so we hopped into a minibus and gunned it toward Chiclayo, stopping only long enough to catch a rickshaw toward the beach town of Pimentel. We weren’t really sure what to expect, but we knew, at very least, we could jump into the ocean by the evening. It turns out, Pimentel, while not terrible, is an odd mix of sad beach town trying to regain its identity and industrial fishing depot. The town seems to have been hit had by something, but we could ever figure out what. An earthquake? The tough economy? We still aren’t sure. It appears like it was once grand, but is now in a state of uncommon disrepair, trying to rebuild its status as a tourist destination. Don’t get us wrong, we were glad to be there and the ocean was beautiful, but we knew there were better beach towns out there.
There were some things to be seen though. A beautiful pedestrian promenade along the water front made for nice walking and fishing boats of all shapes and sizes were “dry docked” on the beach waiting for new paint. Traditional fishing rafts made of bound reeds called “Caballitos de Torta” were propped up against just about everything, drying out after the day’s haul. There was no shortage of colorful characters to watch and beachside cafes to sit in, and we got to see some of our first Peruvian Hairless Dogs. They look exactly how you imagine them to, making you simultaneous feel an intense urge to pet them and shiver in aversion. Although we thought she might be fascinated by them, Fern doesn’t even seem to register them on her radar.
But, after just a single night in Pimentel, we hit the road again and headed southward along the coast to Huanchaco. Once again we were met with a bleakly beautiful drive through the desert, ending up in Peru’s third largest city, Trujillo, three hours later. From there we grabbed a cab and headed directly toward the coast, just a few kilometers outside of town, to the once-fishing-town-now-surf-capital of Huanchanco. This time, the coast didn’t disappoint. While not the tropical beaches that much of South and Central America are famous for, the desert beach of Huanchaco is still quite beautiful. There are vegetarian restaurants on every street corner with surf schools in between. The town is a sneaky 18,000 residents, feeling more like there are about 2,000. On the weekends the beach draws large crowds and the streets overflow with street vendors hawking their goods and dangerously tasty snacks. We got a room at the McCullum Hostal, where it’s a true challenge to discern who is part of the family and who is a traveler. We’re two blocks from the beach and up on the airy third floor where the ocean breeze is like an amazing natural air conditioning. This hostel also holds the superlative of having the best shower this side of the equator.
Huanchaco’s bord is lined with guys selling makeshift fishing reels and bait
And what have we been doing with all this time? Plenty of relaxing and swimming. There are no rules about dogs on the beach here, so Fern has, for the first time, discovered the joys of lying under a big umbrella in the sand as waves lap the shoreline. It’s been wonderful. Also, Vanessa found a neat little Spanish school and has been taking lessons there every day. I signed up with Indigan Surf School and have been slowly and awkwardly learning to not drink the ocean as I get pummeled by waves. Fern has been soaking up a little down time and is enjoying the new title of “Princess of The Hostel” given to her by the family who owns our digs here. We started running on the beach in the mornings before it gets too hot, and exchanging a half hour of English conversation for a half hour of Spanish conversation with a fried dough vendor on the boardwalk at night. The sunsets every night are worth the trip down here alone.
Lovely white washed McCullum has been a great home for us here in Huanchaco
Fortune of fortunes, we bumped back into Ian, the British motorcyclist, the other day shortly after he arrived in town. He’s been well and had no trouble at the border crossing. We made a date for the next morning and took a day trip to see some of the pre-Incan ruins around town, including the extremely impressive Chan Chan – a long since abandoned city along the coast between Trujillo and Huanchaco that, at its height, had a population of over 30,000. ”Ruins”, it turns out, is a very accurate word for it. The buildings were made entirely of mud bricks and thatch, so after hundreds of years of ocean mist and beating sun, what’s left is an eerie collection of rubble and mounds of sand. The government has gone to great lengths to rebuild one of the seven “palaces” that comprised the majority of the city and has really done a stunning job of it. The outside walls must be 40 feet high and 10 thick at the base, and house a labyrinth of passage ways, courtyards, ceremonial pools and rooms. We visited early in the day to beat the heat, and as an unintended result, we were the only ones there, getting to wander the open air corridors all by ourselves.
We read that these are meant to be sea otters. We don’t believe it. That, or this was a city of 30,000 terrible artists
So that’s about it. We’ll be hanging out here for another week or so, continuing to work on our sun burns and destroy the Spanish language. In the off chance that anyone is reading this for actual travel information, I promised the Urica family over at Indigan that I’d put a little plug for them in here. They really are great. Run by Santos and his three surf-champion sons, they’re seemingly the most laid back school you can get. The price is hard to beat too. I worked out a deal with them for five lessons and 15 days of rental for the board and wetsuit, for which Santos cut the normal rate in half. At any rate, if you’re coming here and are interested in surfing, I don’t think you could do much better than the Uricas over at Indigan. Just be ready for Santos to tell you that you’re bad at Spanish. Which is likely true.
Those wonderful Uricas over at Indigan will take good care of you
*please note, you can not actually enter Peru on your library card.
Cuenca is lovely. If you have the chance, go. It’s both colonially beautiful and vibrantly young. It seems that almost everywhere you turn you find excellent graffiti, leading us to crown it as the street art capital of Ecuador. Here’s a little sample of what you get when you poke about for 15 minutes.
No Vanessa is not pregnant. It’s called a bus.
What a difference a week makes. If you’re short on time, here’s the reader’s digest version. We tried riding for a week, found the roads to be too crazy for us, sold the tandem, got on a bus and hope to be able to get back onto bikes when the population thins out farther south. The long version? It’s long, but we’ll try to keep it shortish too.
We left Quito early on Sunday morning, taking full advantage of the Ciclo Pase, the weekly closure of one of Quito’s major north-south routes for bicycle and pedestrian traffic. Our aim was to make it out of the city as quickly as possible, but since Quito is shaped like a 50 mile long worm stretching toward the poles, that meant heading east. We rode the Ciclo Pase southward into Quito’s old town, winding past colonial buildings and cobble squares with other cyclists giving us thumbs up and waving as we went. It appeared that riding a tandem in Ecuador, as is does state-side, makes you an international ambassador of good will. The riding was great until that wonderful Ciclo Pase ended, thrusting us into four lanes of shoulder-less Quito on and off ramp traffic.
We found the road to Sangolqui with the help of a few cops and some gas station attendants. It tuned out to be a highway, but that is more or less what we expected for the first day. The shoulder was nearly nonexistent and the lazy Sunday meandering of the bike path was replaced with Nascar drivers drag racing to their mom’s house in the suburbs for a visit. As we rode out of the city, the road dropped from Quito’s mountainous perch on a life-affirming 30 minute descent. The shoulder widened a touch and we were able to enjoy the ride down. Sangolqui clocked in at about 30 km outside of town and proved to be a beautiful, yet busy, mid-sized city. We found a hostel and went for a walk, finding the central square and taking in some of the Carnival festivities. Although the riding hadn’t been great, the city was pretty nice and we held high hopes that as we left Quito’s metropolitan area behind, we would be met by pastoral country lanes soon.
Riding out of Sangolqui the following day, we started climbing up toward the highlands around Cotopaxi National Park. We were quickly met by cobblestone hills far to steep to ride up on a loaded touring bike, much less with a dog. We let Fern out to run, and started the arduous task of pushing 150 lbs of tandem up the mountain. We knew this type of climbing was coming at some point, but what we didn’t know was that even though the road was at a 30% grade and cobbled, cars and trucks would race up it none the less. In retrospect, we had been mistakenly harboring the idea that when a road was this bumpy, steep and rural, we’d be able to let Fern off the leash to run with us. As the morning crept on and we slowly gained inches, the traffic started picking up. Without us noticing, it was actually getting relatively busy, but any standards. As the road flattened out some, we got back on the bike and started riding once again, continuing to let Fern run next to us. Then, unfolding in horrible slow motion in front of us, we saw a truck come rocketing around a corner and hit Fern. We dropped the bike and ran to her as the truck took off. She had been hurtled across the road and looked shocked. We sat there for a long time, holding her, crying and reevaluating the world. By some miracle that we’ve come to attribute to the Madonana del Ghisallo necklace that Derek, Gretchen and Fasuto gave us, Fern was entirely unharmed and unfazed. As we sat and wept, replaying the scene in our heads, Fern was continued to look around trying to figure out why we had stopped. After a few minutes and a several awkward exchanges with the concerned families that kept stopping to check on us, we saw another biker come up the road. We talked to him and decided to give up on this route and head down a different way, just trying to leave this road and experience behind. He recommended a dirt path just a tick ahead and told us to watch as he descended it. He did so for about 50 yards, only to flip over his handlebars, landing in barbed wire. This was truly the Bermuda Triangle of bike touring and we had to get out of there fast. We spent the rest of the day slowly ascending and descending a road not much better than the highway we had come out of Quito on, only to end up on the Panamerican Highway. The Panam from Quito to Riobamba can more of less be thought of as I-95 with no shoulders. Sure it’s more flat than the non-paved alternatives, but after a heart pounding half hour on it we had had enough for a lifetime. We thankfully found a smaller footpath that eventually took us to Machachi. We spent the night in a motel with a mirror over the bed just off the highway, but it was cheap and had a garage for the bike.
The next morning, without seeing any non-highway options, we decided to hire a truck to get the three of us and our albatross of a bicycle to Cotopaxi where we could regroup with a few days. For $40 (which seemed to be the going gringo rate) and two hours of driving, we landed high up in the paramo, the highland plains surrounding towering volcanic peaks. We stayed in a neat little A-frame cabin for two nights, enjoying the thin air, beautiful moor-like scenery and intermittent views of the snowcapped Cotopaxi, soaring yet another 7000 feet above us. It was beautiful, rejuvenating and even though it rained all day each day, we decided to try to continue on, biking farther south. It just felt like we had to find better roads as we continued – so many touring cyclists have had wondering experiences on this route!
If anyone asks us, all we can say is that Cotopaxi looks like a cloud. A really beautiful cloud
We left the park early and headed toward Latacunga. The road was more encouraging, as we traded cobbles for stone dust, winding through pastures and small towns. We had high hopes for Latacunga and were itching to be reaffirmed . What we were met with, however, was another busy mid-sized town, honking cars, freaking-out Fern and sidewalks far too narrow to be of any help. As we found our hostel and downloaded the bike on the curb, it just became too much. We weren’t having fun. We know that biking is fun, we know that Fern is fun and we know that Ecuador is fun, but when we put them all together it just became more than we could handle. We’ve always talked about how bicycles, especially loaded touring bicycles are a mysterious force; when you’re riding them, they’re the most wonderful, liberating and life-affirming devices in the universe, but when you’re not, they’re the biggest, heaviest and most annoying things you’ll ever have to wrangle. What we’ve discovered is that when you’re in Ecuador, those emotions double. When the bike is a tandem, they double again. And, when you have a dog tagging along, they double still again. The other catch with a tandem is that, when you’ve had enough and you just want to take a bus, you can’t. Your bike doesn’t fit anywhere. Put a dog crate on the rack and you barely fit down the street. We still know that there is a world of biking out there to be enjoyed, but our honeymoon had quickly become a giant ball of stress and we came to the breaking point. After an introspective and challenging night, we decided to trade the tandem for backpacks and continue our explorations on bus for the time being. Ecuador has the highest population density of any South American nation, and although that makes for the highest density of nice people it also makes for very busy and stressful roads. We know our roads are out there some where, ones that we can ride and actually enjoy ourselves, but until we find them, this family is going by bus.
We put some of the nicer bike parts and our panniers into storage at South American Explorers in Quito, and sold the frame to Jaoquin at Bike Life in Latacunga (a wonderful bike man if there ever was one). Bouyed by our now svelte backpacked profiles, we boarded the bus for Baños, determined to camp somewhere beautiful. What we found was better than we could have guessed. Half way up Tungurahua, the giant black active volcano that towers over the town, we came into the wonders of El Casa Del Arbol. For $2 a head the proprietors let you pitch your tent (or if you don’t have one, they’ll lend you one for no extra) in the shade of a precariously balanced treehouse, leaning ominously over a cliff. They let you use their wood and sell you provisions or they’re happy to cook three square meals a day for you for a song if you let them. If you ever feel down on the world, go no farther than El Casa Del Arbol and they’ll have you fixed up faster than you can say “Carlos sabe todo sobre el volcan.” We whiled away the afternoon there and, in spite of our best efforts, couldn’t bring ourselves to leave the next morning. Vanessa welcomed 30 with a day of lounging around in the sun, watching Fern happily rub her little face into the grass.
El Casa Del Arbol is the best place so swing in your thirties that we’ve every tried
So that’s where we are now. As I write this, we’re sitting on a bus winding through the mountains south to Cuenca. We’re sad about the loss of the bike, but tandems are like light switches – they’re either on or off. Sometimes a tandem is the most wonderful way to see the world you could ever imagine, but when they don’t work out, they really don’t work out. If you’re reading this thinking about biking southward on a tandem, our one big recommendation would be to make sure it either has couplers or can fold. Having something that is too big to fit under a bus won’t get you very far in Ecuador unless you are ready to exclusively ride it. So we move onward. We have neat new backpacks, a healthy dog against all odds, and a newfound excitement to see what the road holds to the south of us. When the day comes that we once again find ways that are bike worthy, that’s when we will bike. What’s that? We’re a blog about a bike trip with no bike? Don’t worry, we have a few bikes up our sleeves yet.
We have the flying purple people eater. Phew.
And with the odometer set to zero, we roll off.
We’re finally departing Quito tomorrow, starting our ride southward. It’s sad to once again be saying goodbye to (new) friends and our home for the past three weeks, but we’re excited to finally be rolling around on the bike. We finished up our Spanish classes on Thursday. We are now completely and undeniably fluent. Well, not quite fluent, but we can get around without too much trouble. I think we roughly have reached the linguistic capacity of a 2 year old; people ask us to say everything twice, but ultimately can understand our malformed sentences. We both agree that the school was a really great way to start things off. Not only has the language bolstering been invaluable, but it’s been nice to have a set of people on our side helping us as we figure everything out.
Everyone there has been wonderful, but we owe special thanks to Carolina and Isabel, the two program coordinators, for their zen-warrior-like bike liberation efforts. As Vanessa and I grew increasingly unconfident that we would ever see the tandem again, these two waged a passive shogun-esque war with LAN cargo. They have brought honor to AGS.
Other than classes and preparations, we’ve been soaking up a little more of the geography with some more short weekend trips by bus. Last Friday, we took off to Baños (I know how to make a “ñ” now) for a few days. It started on a frustrating note as we encountered Friday rush hour leaving town, turning what is normally a three hour bus ride into five. But, after a late arrival, we spent the next two days hiking the hills above and below the town, taking in the waterfalls and hot springs. It’s an oddly touristy town from what we’ve seen of Ecuador, but it’s beautiful and fun and easy to see why everyone would want to go there.
What’s more, the town is perched on a little shelf, part way down the side of Tungurahua, an enormous black volcano that continuously billows smoke and ash. Don’t worry though, it hasn’t had a devastatingly catastrophic eruption in well over 10 years. It’s fine.
We really enjoyed it there and are excited to go back through on the bike in a week or so.
Hiking, hot springs and bridges of death over torrential rivers. How can you say no?
That’s about it. We’re spending the day today pulling the last few ducks into our long, purple row and come tomorrow morning, we shake like a tree. With a little luck and barring an incapacitating number of wrong turns, we’ll be in the town of Sangolqui tomorrow afternoon. What’s that? You haven’t heard of it? No one has. Hopefully that means the road will be quiet. Okay. Think light thoughts for us as we labor up those hills and we’ll write more when the internet allows.
Quito is a pretty excellent city. Its few million inhabitants live in this mile wide strip that’s about 30 miles long, sitting pretty almost 9000 feet higher than Jamaica Plain. On each side rise mountains, the largest of which, to the west, is the volcano Pinchincha topping out at over 15,000 feet. Yikes. As Vanessa described, there’s a tram that departs from the city and takes you up to a midway observation station. From there you can hike up toward the summit and around the grassy highlands with incredible vistas of Quito in the valley below. It’s the rainy season here, so even though it seems like that only means that it drizzles for about 15 minutes each morning, the summit is almost invariably enshrouded in clouds. It leaves the mountain looking mystical and enticing, but tough to hike. Night or day it’s always in the 60′s, making it easy to understand why vegetation of all sorts love it here. Today marked the eighth day of school and, while I can’t quite say that I’m eight times better at Spanish than I was on day one, I am excited to be improving. We were supposed to have group classes, but because those are often comprised of college kids on breaks, we each have four hours of one-on-one class each day. We’ve already extended our stay here in Quito by a week. You should check out the school – they do Skype classes too. Ask for Manuel (yes, Lilah, Manuel).
La Casa de Sanchez, where we have made our home while at the language school. Guess what grows here? Trick question. Everything.
It’s been a really nice, rejuvenating week and a half since we arrived in Quito. Although we were there for such a short time, Guayaquil left a sour taste in our mouths. There were bulletproof vested guards brandishing shotguns in every storefront. We’re talking even the grocery store. Try to imagine a scenario in which a grocery store would need multiple shotgun-enabled mercenaries. Apparently that’s the baseline they’re working from. We met a peace corp girl the other day who told us about three days a couple of years ago when the police in Ecuador went on strike. She said that no one in Guayaquil was able to leave their houses for fear of being robbed blind or killed. I’m sure that there are nice parts of Guayaquil, and maybe some time, when we know more Spanish, we’ll take the time to find them, but in that moment we felt like we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
Then the drive up to Quito, while kind of pretty, was mostly through sodden banana plantations, cacao farms and depressed villages. All of the towns seemed like they were just barely above the water table and things were muddy enough to prove it. This was mostly expected because we chose to traverse northward through the central lowland farming region of Ecuador – not the prettiest or wealthiest part of the country to be certain. I thought it would be a lot faster than driving up the mountains. Instead of the predicted eight hours (or six if you ask Google), it took ten. As we drove, neither of us could imagine feeling okay riding our bike, much less with a dog, through all of these destitute little mud puddle towns and it was slowly eating away at our guts. There were dog carcasses and other refuse streun about the asphalt and we were going to ride through with our shiny purple tandem, hauling clean little white Fern in a custom built trailer. For a little while there, the more of the countryside we saw, the less it seemed possible to feel good about being a tourist to this struggle of an existence, much less a tourist by bicycle. We drove on and off the verge of tears for all ten of those hours, trying to figure out what we had been thinking while sitting in our cozy little room back in Jamaica Plain. The world seemed like one big bike path from that vantage point, but now that we were here on the ground, we saw it to be a big soggy mess.
We were starting to wonder if we were having one.
The mountains could not have sprung up beneath our little car any sooner. The road, by hour eight, suddenly shot precipitously upward and our engine strained through switchback after switchback. We left the horizontal floodplains, climbing up into cloud forest, waterfalls, and cool air. Although the drive into the mountains made us feel a little better about the world, by the time we got up to Quito, we were pretty desperate for things to be excited about. Luckily, this city didn’t disappoint. In Ecuador, as seems to be the case throughout the known world, things are just a little bit better in the mountains. Our belief in the universal wonders of the bicycle has been tempered and we’ve been relieved to see countless Ecuadorians walking their own clean little white dogs around these city streets (and they all use harnesses like Fern’s to boot). Quito has salvaged our faith in the idea that going by bicycle, even in Ecuador, is the only way to experience a country. I’m sure that our mixed feelings are far from entirely sorted out, and that there will undoubtedly continue to be a great many things that test our resolve in what we are doing with our lives, but, for now at least, things aren’t just once again feeling possible, but exciting.
Since we got here, the one last thorn in side of our trip has been the bike being stuck in customs. Thankfully we were at least able to fly it directly to Quito, otherwise we would have been stuck in Guayaquil this whole time, waiting for the situation to sort itself out. Apparently it comes down to the fact that LAN Cargo, the freight arm of the airline we flew, does not provide a customs agent for package inspection. When I’ve shipped things internationally with FedEx, for example, they invariably have an agent in the foreign country (unless you opt to use your own) that negotiates your goods through the maze of the customs house and sees that it makes it to the shipper depot on the other side. Apparently that’s not the case with LAN, but no one told us that in Miami. Carlos, you’re breaking our hearts. We showed up to the LAN Cargo office, near the airport here in Quito, expecting to have our package ready and waiting, but it was nowhere to be found. In retrospect, the guy at the office was telling us that we had to find and hire a customs agent, head to the customs house on the opposite side of the airport, pay for a package inspection and then collect our bike there. All I heard was “florb blorb gorb morb, blurg ferg.” The language school has come to the rescue though. Different people from the school have made three different trips and countless phone calls to the airport sorting the whole thing out. Now, after two solid weeks of “mañana,” with a little luck and an extra $120, we will finally be collecting the bicycle Thursday afternoon. It’s been a frustrating experience to be certain, and I would be lying if I said that we hadn’t thought about just not collecting the bike at all and cutting our loses, but (fingers crossed) things finally seem to be moving. I guess we’ve learned the lesson that, if anyone ever says that they can get your giant tandem half way around the world quickly, easily and cheaply, they’re lying through their teeth.
This past weekend we took a mini vacation (from our vacation) to Otavalo, an awesome little mountain town that plays host to a huge indigenous crafts market about 2 hours north of Quito. We spent Saturday checking out the wares and then Sunday hiking around the Peguche waterfalls. It was lovely. That trip was also the first time that we tested the theory that we could get Fern onto a bus. In spite of the explicit and ample signage suggesting otherwise, we successfully and overtly brought Fern on four separate buses. I started wondering if people wanted to tell me I couldn’t, but they figured it was too much trouble to get the message across. Score one for the Ferno. Also, Fern met her first full-fledged street dogs. Their reaction? They love her. While they were excited to bark at us, all they wanted from Fern was a nice deep sniff.
If you like anything, you’ll like Otavalo
So that’s where we’re at. We have another week and a half of language classes and preparation time, and then we hit the open road, making our way southward by any means necessary. If we lose faith in the bike again, we’ve started talking about other options. The bus? A rickshaw? Dirt bikes? The world is our empanada and only wonderful things can come of tasting it. Sorry for the dearth of photos in the beginning of this post; we weren’t really in the mood to take any. Don’t worry though, we’re back with it.
PS – They have mini eggs here. They’re amazing.
After spending a night in Guayaquil and surviving a harrowing drive up windy roads, we made it to Quito, a beautiful mountainous city in the north of Ecuador. We have spent the last handful of days wandering the city’s many parks, stumbling through Spanish conversations, and sampling any vegetarian food we can get our hands on (a somewhat difficult task we have found!)
We are staying in a little student apartment arranged by our Spanish school behind the home of Cesar and Mirella, two of the world’s sweetest people. We eat breakfast and dinner with them and they speak really slowly to us using very basic vocabulary which helps boost our confidence in Spanish and makes us think we are better at it than we actually are. Our language classes started today and will continue for the next two weeks. I experienced the first of what I’m sure will be many embarrassing language learning moments when my teacher asked what Fern’s name was. I told him “Fern”, spelled it out, and explained that it was the English word for the Spanish word “herecho” which I had looked up and felt proud to know. Then he explained to me that actually the word for fern is “helecho” and that “herecho” meant something very different. It’s still not entirely clear to me what it means, but he told me that it is sexual in nature. Ha. Oh well.
We have been on two exciting mini adventures so far. The first to the Mitad Del Mundo, the line of the equator and a monument and museum dedicated to it just north of Quito. You can stand with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one foot in the southern hemisphere. Or, if you are Ry, you fly over both of them.
The other cool thing we did is a trip on the Teleférico, a cable car which extends up the shoulder of Pichincha, the volcano that shadows Quito. Although it was a cloudy day, the views of the city were gorgeous and there was a light breeze with even higher peaks beyond the one we were on. We hiked down among purple flowers and grazing cows. All in all, a lovely day.