Thursday, August 20, 2015

Eccentric Shopkeepers, Nasty Dogs, and Tasty Treats, August 18-20


From Tam´s journal:
August 18th
On our way out of Cajamarca we stop at the bank to exchange our 100 sol bills (approximately US$30) for smaller ones. This is necessary because no one will accept bills this large, not even in the city to pay for our hotel room! It’s next to impossible to buy anything on the street without small coins.
After a short discussion with a friendly bank employee, I come back feeling like a millionaire with a giant wad of 10 sol bills.

Leaving town, the traffic is horrendous.  The strategy is to honk loudly and make your way out into the road, regardless of what other traffic might be coming.  You can imagine what an intersection filled with bikes, moto-taxis, cars, and trucks would look like. We carefully make our way through and out towards the town of Jesus.

We need to buy some bread for lunch in Jesus and, when we arrive, ask numerous people around town where we might be able to buy some. Eventually we are directed to a dark doorway on a side street, where I poke in my head and see that, yes, there are baskets of bread. The older gentleman who sells them to me is quite a character.  He asks me what we do when we reach places on our bikes where there are no stores. I patiently explain that that’s exactly why we’re here buying bread. Prices in Peru, by the way, are excellent. 16 bread rolls for 2 soles (US$0.66)!

As we’re leaving we ask for directions to the next town, and instead of telling us how to leave town, the gentleman at the shop tells us that once we start to climb, we’ll get to a place where there are no people and no houses, and we’ll have to summit the coldest, highest, most terrible mountain. All of this sounds pretty good to us. But, he protests, there is no way you’ll arrive today! We explain that we can camp on the way up, but he is already in an argument with another guy about how long the pass will take us. They decide on five hours. Haha, okay. It will actually take us all afternoon and some of the next day.

Beautiful skies and wheat fields
Local villagers are very cordial as we ride along. One guy stops and salutes us, then makes us promise to stop by his place next time we come through. Kids are always staring at us as we ride by, rarely adventurous enough to do anything more than yell “gringo” and point. But at one point, several small kids start to run along behind us, trying to keep up with us as we ride. At first they’re trying to be quiet, thinking that we don’t see them. But of course we do, thanks to our mirrors. Honestly, it’s pretty cute; we’re probably the most interesting things these kids have seen in a while. Danny yells out some encouragement to them, and they begin to race. They keep up with us for a good while, until we begin to go downhill and they fall back panting. Adios!

Danny here. Everything else in this post is by Tam, but I´m filling in the next story. At one point while we were climbing, a car pulled alongside Tam and asked the usual questions about where we´re from, where we´re going, etc. The driver told us that if we need anything, he lives up the road. This kind of thing happens about ten times a day, so we didn´t think much of it, but about an hour later we recognized his car and decided to ask for some water. We didn´t know if there would be any more water sources farther up the hill. The small adobe house was about 100 feet below the road, and I walked down the uneven stairs with our water bottles. I didn´t see anyone at first, just a small pond, a dozing dog, the house, and the valley beyond. As I approached the house, a dog walked by, looked at me, then kept walking. All the houses have dogs. Still no one around. 
I was about to say buenas tardes, good afternoon, when the formerly sleeping dog got up and started barking. I had hoped to find the people before a dog took issue with my presence, because when one dog instigates, they all follow. Predictably, the other dog joined in, then another appeared and started barking as well. Another came around the corner of the house, and another from who knows where, and all of a sudden I was surrounded by a pack of snarling, angry animals. I started yelling at them as they formed a circle around me, lunging. I took off my helmet and started smacking any dog that got close enough, but one got through my defenses and bit me on the ankle. Right at that moment, people came out of the house and, realizing what was going on, rushed at the dogs, yelling at them and causing them to disperse. I looked at my ankle; luckily the teeth hadn´t broken the skin, only left a red mark. The family apologized profusely, giving me a cream to rub on my ankle and filling up our water bottles with gusto. From now on, I won´t be approaching any houses without people already outside!

Perfect riding
Tam here again. That night, from our spot behind a house, the Milky Way spreads across the sky in its full sparkling glory, and the lights of Cajamarca twinkle far below.

Setting up with some help

August 19th 
We bike up and over some big passes until we reach the town of Cachachi, where it's time to go shopping.  At the first small store, I walk in and ask for six packs of instant noodles. The lady behind the counter is extremely confused. She brings over a pack of noodles and asks if they are what I want. I explain that, yes, I would like six of them. She tells me the price of the packet. I explain again that, yes, thank you, I would like six of them. She still has no idea what to do. At this point her husband intervenes, asking, "you want six of these, right?" As he packs the noodles into a bag, he explains, "I'm sorry, my wife doesn't understand your language."
I find this to be a rather amusing statement because I was speaking Spanish and he clearly understood. Perhaps she didn't understand my accent, but really, how difficult is it to understand the number six?
My conclusion? She was simply overwhelmed by having a gringa in her store.  I'm not the usual sort of customer. The whole family comes out to stare at us as we pack the noodles into the bags on our bikes. 
I never would have thought that buying instant noodles could be so entertaining!

The best weather we´ve ever had at 13,000 feet
Amazing views

Waiting for the traffic jam to clear
Descending into that expansive valley after a stop in Cachachi
More of the descent
At the end of the day, we stop to get water at a house and ask about camping. They direct us towards the sports field, which is flat, but we're wary about camping on fields; there's inevitably a game on late at night. When we ask a lady walking by if she knows another spot to camp, she delivers us to a house further along the road and says some quick words to the people inside. Soon we are being directed to a large, flat field and instructed to camp away from the biting ants. As we start to set up, several of the kids return, their hands filled with fresh citrus fruits, which they pile upon us. What a great post-riding snack! We don't have much to give them in return, but we get out our photos to show them where we've been and tell them some stories.

The one on the left is a lima (pronounced lee-mah). It´s juicy and flavorful, but without the usual citrusy bitterness.

Taking in the sunset with our bikes

August 20th 
In Cajabamba we find a lovely, cheap place to stay. We're taking the afternoon off to rest a bit and prepare for the next stretch. Some exploring in the colorful market leaves us with bread, cheese, fruits, veggies, and garlic cilantro sauce! I'm already looking forward to dinner... the ever-hungry cyclist.

Toque claxon = honk your horn. A sign everyone happily abides by!

Route notes:
Cajamarca to Cachachi: flat, paved roads out of the city turn to a rough dirt climb out of Jesus. Mostly gradual and all rideable, but rocky in parts, especially near Jesus and near the top of the climb. Wild camping options abound near the top. Bring water.
More rocky dirt down to a little village then a climb back up and down to Cachachi. We were aware of this guy´s story, took his advice to blast through the area, and had no issues with anyone. We also downloaded the same guy´s GPS track, as the road was not on any of the maps we had. Turns out the route is very easy to follow, no GPS needed.

Cachachi to Cajabamba: two route options: 1) the ¨mountain way¨ going up and over a pass then down to a river before hitting the main road, or 2) the ¨valley way¨ going straight down to the valley and riding flats for about 10k before meeting the other road just before crossing the river. Both dirt. We took the latter, dropping straight down. It was rocky, sandy, steep, and sometimes all three. If you´re going up and don´t know any better than we do, go the mountain way. The climb might be bigger, but the surface is probably better.
The main road to Cajabamba is paved and sometimes with a shoulder. Some traffic, not too bad. Our room at Hostal Sol Naciente in Cajabamba was clean and spacious for 25 soles per night with slow Wi-Fi and a shared bathroom. It's two blocks uphill from the main plaza.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Northern Peru: Heat, Pre-Inca Ruins, and Big Hills. August 9-17

San Ignacio-Bellavista-Bagua Grande-Pedro Ruiz-Tingo Viejo-Kuelap-Leymebamba-Balsas-Celendín-Cajamarca

Leaving San Ignacio, we had an exhilarating descent down to a big river. Canyon riding was on the agenda, hundreds of miles of it. Though it's not really possible to rush through a section on a bike, at least the same way that motor vehicles do, we were so excited for central and southern Peru that northern Peru, with its heat and lesser mountains (though still pretty big, as we would soon find), was not a place we were going to stay awhile. We were thankful for the flat pavement. Still, the lowland heat made it tough, and we pushed ourselves to make some distance in the cool morning, maintaining an even speed while pedaling by rice paddies and more wide-open space than I thought existed in the Andes.
A rice paddy in a scorching desert
In the afternoon, after lunch, the sun really turned it up a notch. We took a dirt road to Bellavista, avoiding the city of Jaen, and stopped early to take shelter from the insufferable heat and avoid Sunday afternoon rural drunkenness. Our quiet hospedaje with a fan and cold shower seemed like heaven.

We got on the road early again the next morning, applying our hot weather strategy of eating a quick snack rather than breakfast, which would come later. We soon found ourselves at the muddy Rio Marañon and crossed in a little motorboat. The whole scene–the wide river, crumbling canyon walls, a little motorboat–reminded us of the Rio Magdalena near in Colombia. Like with the Magdalena, we would end up crossing the Marañon numerous times.

Is this Peru or northern Colombia?

There was a tiny shack at the junction with the main road that turned out to be a restaurant, so we ate a greasy breakfast there: rice and eggs, of course, with yucca. The temperature soared soon after, and even with our continuing relatively flat road and a long lunch break in the shade, we found ourselves sapped of all motivation. The only reason we pushed on under the afternoon sun was to make the next day better. We were already going up gradually; just a few more miles to cooler air! We were in a new canyon now, the road sharing the narrow floor with the rushing Rio Utcubamba.

Roadside restaurant

Tomorrow´s dinner, probably

Around 5:30, having ascended to cool enough weather to camp, we found a little spot out of sight of the road, did some bike maintenance, ate a filling dinner, and fell asleep to the sound of the river.

Wild camping for the win! Not a single dog, person, car, donkey, or rooster, woke us up last night, and we hit the road feeling refreshed. Soon we reached the town of Pedro Ruiz, where a restaurant served us massive portions of rice and yucca with Peruvian tortillas, basically fried omelets. It was the most expensive meal we had had in Peru by far (20 soles for both, roughly US$6), but it left us feeling energized for hours.

The road continued to parallel the Rio Utcubamba on its winding journey deep in the canyon it had been carving for millions of years. In parts the sheer walls reminded us of Zion, in Utah, only with thousands of tropical bromeliads clinging to the red rock. In other parts there was hardly enough room for the road and the river, so the road engineers had to get creative. 

The day was rainy and cool, a welcome change from the heat of the day before, and with the unchanging scenery and relatively easy riding, our minds wandered. We came up with some slogans for our trip:

• Bikes and Backpacks: providing exercise for your dog
• Bikes and Backpacks: giving the locals something to stare at
• Bikes and Backpacks: unintentionally making "backpackers" feel unadventurous
• Bikes and Backpacks: supporting every bakery in town
• Bikes and Backpacks: appreciating chairs a little bit more since 2014

There's not much to do or see in the little village of Tingo Viejo, but it gets some tourism for its location at the start of the walking trail to Kuelap, a pre-Incan fortress. We ended up there for the night, staying in a clean but barebones hospedaje for 20 soles (US $6.50). The owner, a sweet little lady named Maria, told us we could use her kitchen, which turned out to be simply an open fire.

We took a day off the bikes to check out the ruins of Kuelap, and though the weather didn't cooperate, we enjoyed the beautiful hike and the impressive site, which is well-restored and among Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca as one of our guidebook's highlights of Peru. Even with all that, no one was trying to sell us chotchkes, no guide was required, and we were one of only two groups at the whole place.

One of the hundreds of circular dwellings

Skilled rock art

Guidebooks tell you the ruin is set in cloud forest, but the only cloud forest is at the site itself. Everything surrounding it is farmland.
Colorful bromeliads abounded

A reconstructed thatched roof
One of many colorful flowers we saw on the hike up

Tam and I feel like we're in pretty good biking shape. Unfortunately, our giant leg muscles seem to be unable to do anything else. The 20 km hike to Kuelap left us limping with soreness. Even more unfortunate was the fact that our road was still going up. After a quick lunch and resupply in Leymebamba, we left the gradual river canyon behind and started to climb more steeply. This being Peru, land of well-graded switchbacks, it was pretty manageable, just long. And with our sore legs, we weren't going anywhere fast. A podcast helped take our mind off the physical discomfort (TED Radio Hour is wonderfully thought-provoking), and gradually we climbed into the alpine zone, finding a camp spot in a pasture as night fell.

Beginning the climb up

Leymebamba in the valley below

Beautiful stars from our pasture at 11,000 feet. The shapes on the lower right are half of my handlebars and a bottle cage.

We woke to frost on the ground. With reluctance, because it was cold outside and we knew what was ahead, we climbed out of the cozy tent and started climbing again. What was ahead was the big dip in this elevation profile:

9,000 feet down, 9,000 feet straight back up.

Coming over the pass, we began our 65 kilometer downhill in cold fog. 
The name of the pass means ¨Shut up, shut up¨
Gradually a view of the next valley came into focus, a beautiful vista that kept our eyes occupied for the next few hours. That's not such a good thing when your road is very narrow with tons of blind curves and a cliff on one side, but it all turned out okay. The cars deal with the abundance of blind curves by honking maniacally as they approach the curve at twice the speed limit. We simply did our best to watch, listen, and take the curves slowly.

The descent to Balsas, an amazing road

Numerous hours later we rolled into the town of Balsas at 2,800 feet of elevation along the Rio Marañon. With no more than a few pedals, we had descended from frigid clouds to a scorching desert, from shivering to sweating profusely. Even though we're not big fans of hot weather, there was some good news: Balsas is home to tons of mango trees! We stocked up for later and got some lunch in town.

Starting the climb up from the river
The most important things we did to prepare for the enormous climb were to soak our shirts in the river, which kept us cool until late in the day, and turn on another podcast (This American Life taught us all about contemporary school desegregation in St Louis). We made it to about 6,500 feet before setting up camp in a field.

The river below, the road where we just were, and, in the direct center of the picture, a long switchback that we had come down earlier that day.

You know you're doing a big climb when it takes multiple days. Though we were tired the next morning, the mountain beckoned and up we went. As we powered up the switchbacks, the view got better and better, and hours later, looking down from the top, we could see none other than Balsas over a vertical mile below.

Tough to keep our eyes on the road!

Clouds in the distance

There´s Balsas waaaaay below, that whitish spot by the river in the bottom center of photo.
A downhill brought us to Celendin, where a quick stop at the market and a leisurely lunch led us to our next climb. Despite our ever-sorer legs, we powered up that one, too. By 4:30 we were spent and set up in a pasture.

With aching bodies but only 70 km to Cajamarca, we took to the road under patchy morning clouds. The roadside in this whole area is peppered with various signs saying ¨Care for your environment,¨ ¨Don´t hurt the plants and animals,¨ that kind of thing. The signs seem a bit out of place, as every last bit of the natural environment has been obliterated by pastures and farmland, but at least someone, somewhere, is thinking about conservation. My favorite sign: ¨Washing cars in the rivers is prohibited.¨ Not five minutes after passing that sign, we came upon... you guessed it, some guys washing their truck in a river!

Every house is covered with political advertisements. This one seems to be aimed at the local style. Even tiny old ladies wear those huge hats.

While eating breakfast, we were visited by this beautiful hummingbird, a Shining Sunbeam. Yes, that´s its common name, Shining Sunbeam.

Winding our way mostly downhill past millions of barking dogs and the hectic streets of a little town with a crowded market, we entered Cajamarca before lunch and found a place to stay at the central plaza. Then we set off to find some food for our next few weeks of biking. Not usually being big fans of massive supermarkets, we recognize begrudgingly that having things labeled and all in one place makes finding what you want much easier when traveling. Peru only seems to do little stores and farmer´s-market style markets, but we had heard that there´s a supermarket in Cajamarca. Before getting there, however, we checked out the local market, and somehow found everything we wanted! 

With all our food shopping and a few other small errands done, we´re going to take tomorrow as a much-needed rest and route planning day. 

The view from our balcony in Cajamarca. At $13 a night, we splurged a bit.

Route Notes:
San Ignacio to Bellavista: all paved (as of this year), mostly with a shoulder. The route is pretty flat, hot, boring, and with more traffic than we usually like but nothing out of control.
We bypassed Jaen with a left at the town of Shanango -- the town and the turn are both signed -- and followed the dirt to Bellavista. There are a few little hospedajes there and some tiny stores.

Bellavista to Tingo Viejo: Ask for the desvio to the river, and people will point you in the right direction. There's a bakery at the turn. We heard from people in town that boats run every day from roughly 8 am to roughly 6 pm. We arrived slightly earlier than 8, and a guy took us across for S2.50 each with the bikes. I think the going rate is 1 sol per person and 1 per bike, but whatever.
Bellavista to the river is bumpy dirt. Part of the return to the main road on the other side is paved, with a small bit of loose rocks and the rest being smooth dirt. The highway from there is all paved, usually with a shoulder. Bagua Grande has some hotels and small stores, but we were unable to find any type of supermarket. Pedro Ruiz is smaller but still has some hotels and restaurants as well.

We wild camped about 10-15 km before Pedro Ruiz near a cluster of houses called Tialanco in Open Maps. It was a nice spot, which might be hard to come by in the canyon. There is a big open dirt space on the left with a giant tree and a school on the far end. Some policemen told us we could camp behind the tree, which would have been okay, but just towards the river there's a short descent to a flat bench. It's rocky, but we landscaped a bit and ended up with a flat spot out of sight and with the river to drown out road noise.

We didn't see any reason to go to Chachapoyas, and after the junction the road gets narrower, flatter, and less trafficked. About 5 or 6 km after the junction is a Recreo Campestre on the left – and another soon after on the right – with a flat, grassy area for camping. The Gocta Waterfall (770 m) is in the area, but we did not visit it. See here for info on getting to the waterfall and more great route notes.

Kuelap: Tingo Viejo, along the main road to Leymebamba, is where the well-marked trail leaves from the main road. It's 9 km each way and gains 1,200 m, ending up at 3,000 m at Kuelap. There is a brushy stream about halfway up where you might be able to get water, and food and drinks are sold at the top. The entrance fee is 15 soles per person. There is also a 37 km road that goes up; a taxi costs around S150, or you might be able to catch a colectivo from Tingo Nuevo. Peru's first cable car is currently being built from Tingo Nuevo up to Kuelap, and it is projected to triple the number of visitors when it's finished.
The hiking trail to Kuelap

Tingo to Cajamarca: more river riding to Leymebamba, lots of small villages. Ask for stores; there are some, but they're unlabeled. Leymebamba is a calm place with some stores and restaurants and an extraordinary amount of hospedajes for its small size. Big climb up after Leymebamba, big descent to Balsas (small stores, restaurant), big climb up to Celendin. There are ample water sources on the way up (at least the first half) and a small town, Limon, on the way but slightly off the main road.

Celendin has an easy-to-navigate market with a lot of variety, as well as some banks. After that the road widens and traffic increases slightly but stays manageable all the way to Cajamarca, where there's a bike path on the last bit into the city. In Cajamarca, the supermarket is at the El Quinde Shopping Plaza on the northeast side of town. We didn´t end up going, however, because we found everything we were looking for around the central plaza, the Plaza de Armas. The local mercado is wonderful and is located at Amazonas and Apurimac, about two blocks northwest of the plaza. We also found a mini market with some supermarket-type items on Amalia Puga about a half block west of the plaza. Our base was a spacious room at the Hostal Plaza, which, for 35 soles, is seemingly the cheapest thing around, though there are tons more hostels on Apurimac. There are two bike shops a few blocks northeast from the plaza on Del Batan, Repuestos de Bicicleta and Robert Bike. Neither had brand-name components, but I was able to find what I was looking for.

The whole region covered in this post

Saturday, August 8, 2015

14 Months: The Data

Miles biked: 12,019 (19,343 kilometers)
Countries visited: 11
National parks visited: 23
Bird species seen: 471
4,000+ meter (13,100+ foot) passes ascended: 4
Hummingbird species seen in Ecuador: 14
Time spent listening to podcasts about The State vs. Adnan Syed: 22 hours of 36 episodes listened to over 10 months

We're in Peru! August 4th-8th

Loja (Ecuador)-Vilcabamba-Yangana-Valladolid-Palanda-Zumba-La Balza-San Ignacio (Peru)

Sunset over Loja

August 4th
On the way out of Loja we make a visit to the Supermaxi, an enormous grocery store.  Being inside is a bit overwhelming, but I find all sorts of goodies: refried beans, nuts, couscous, chocolate bars, peanut butter, and even some hydrateable soy protein bits.

We end up leaving later than planned, but it´s worth it; our bags are full of good food.  Amazingly, the road is quiet and almost free of traffic immediately after we leave the city streets.  That was easy! A short climb brings us out of the valley, and then a long descent takes us almost all the way to the little town of Vilcabamba, where we have lunch in the town square. Vilcabamba is known for the longevity of its residents and thus has become a hotspot for retirees from North America. Around the square the foreign influence is obvious; we even find a juice bar that sells gluten-free deserts! Being surrounded by English-speaking people is rather different from the usual, and we wonder how the influx of foreigners has affected the locals. You can hardly even call the town Ecuadorian anymore.

Near the Valley of Longevity
In the afternoon we ride a series of steep hills, which I deem mini mountain passes. and reach the tiny town of Yangana. After asking around for a place to camp we end up in the yard of a house that apparently is on warmshowers! Our accommodations are not what I would usually expect from a host (lots of barking dogs, kids throwing things at our tent until we ask them to stop, dysfunctional toilet) but it's a flat, grassy place to camp and we're grateful to the family for letting us stay here.

On the way up

August 5th
It takes a little while to get going in the morning because we're purifying water and trying to fix the toilet.  We are so spoiled in the U.S. with widespread amenities like functional toilets, drinkable sink water, and abundant toilet paper. I will never again take these things for granted.

Our day starts with a climb that turns out to be a huge pass. As we pedal upwards the sun is covered by clouds and it starts to rain. Even with our rain gear, the weather near the top is pretty miserable: cold, sleeting rain, and only a few feet of visibility.

An upside to the rain: beautiful flowers lining the road
The Ecuadorian cousin of my favorite North American bird, the american dipper. From
Happily, a short descent brings us out of the clouds and we find a giant metal pipe to take shelter in. I'm pretty sure that it is a culvert they are planning on putting under the road to channel a river through. They haven´t gotten around to installing it yet, so currently that river has taken over a large section of road.  After some snacks, we start trying to figure out how to cross the river without getting our feet and legs soaked. It's chilly up here, and wet feet are something we want to do our best to avoid. We ask a truck driver if he's willing to take us across, but he says we don't need a lift, ¨just move that big log over the deep part.¨ I think he was just in too much of a hurry to help us. The log is so big and heavy that even the two of us together can't lift it into position over the river. Next, we try to make a path of stones, but the rocks are unstable and there's no way we can cross with our bikes.  Nothing is working. As we're surveying the crossing, we spot a black and white bird. It's a white-capped dipper!

I take it as a sign of good luck.  We decide that the best option is going to be to ride across.  Danny goes first, and even though he stops in the middle, makes it all the way! I'm second, and a bit nervous, but soon I am across as well, with dry feet! A good biking challenge.

Actually a different river crossing than the one I´m talking about here, but the same idea

A descent brings us into the small town of Valladolid, where we find a small restaurant for a hot, well-deserved lunch. Plantain soup, rice, eggs, potatos, and beans taste amazing. After we eat we are befriended by a small, mentally-challenged child who is convinced that Danny is his brother.  We try to be nice, but he creates quite the hassle as we try and pack up.  I wonder, where is his mom?

It's mostly a descent to the town of Palanda where we decide to stay at a cheap hotel. We'e having some issues with our brakes and need to do some maintenance. The back of a convenience store connected to our hotel becomes our bike workshop.

Part of Danny´s brakes. The arm is mangled on one side and bent on the other. How did it get like this?

August 6th
Olive oil has spilled all over Danny's frame bag, and now, thick with oil, the material has stretched out so that the bag is hitting the pedals. While Danny does his best to fix this up, I run and pick up some lunch food. We're thinking that we might make it to the town of Zumba for lunch (it's only 40 km), but it´s always best to be prepared. The bread is still warm, fresh out of the oven!
A beautiful, quiet, and gradual descent brings us out of town and into the next valley. From here we start to climb again. The road is still paved, but you can hardly tell under the thick slick of mud. Ahead, it seems that the entire hillside has caved in. Big tractors are hard at work trying to forage a driveable path through. We do our best to ride, but soon the road becomes too steep and too muddy and we're reduced to walking. We're still doing better than the buses! We watch one of them attempting to turn around in the mud bath unable to make the next turn. At the top of the ascent we have fat bikes! Our tires are so caked with mud that they appear to be much wider than they actually are.

That´s our road? How do we get up there?
Wide pavement turns quickly to...
...narrow dirt, which then turns to...
...mud. That bus was stuck.
Lots of mud. 
A muddy descent partially covered in more landslides brings us into the next valley, which we promptly climb back up out of. Near the top we stop for lunch. Good thing we brought food! We've only made it about 20 km!

Looking back, the last pavement we would see for a while

A small town marks the top of the hill and the official end of the pavement. Luckily, the dirt road is in good condition and makes for far better riding than the muck from this morning. The sun is out and shining, which makes us hot and sweaty but keeps the road dry.

Great dirt riding

A former landslide area

An incredibly steep descent brings us to the next valley, and then an incredibly steep ascent brings us out of it. Legs screaming in unhappiness, we pedal up the insanely graded road and late afternoon glide into the town of Zumba.  We're able to avoid the town center, just picking up some snacks and bread on the outskirts. Determined to get close to the border, we continue out of town.

Looking back on our road in the lower right of the photo descending down to a tiny town before climbing back up to Zumba
Our road just gets steeper. Down we go again, then back up. I'm tired and take out my frustration with the tough grades by powering up the hill like a machine. We make good time to a tiny town where some nice ladies say we can camp in the communal building (an open space with a roof and a few small rooms in the back.) Nearby we have drinking water and a functional toilet! We are happy to relax and stretch, and although people, dogs, and chickens all wander by, no one comes to bother us. It's a peaceful night.

Quite steep
August 7th
14 months ago we started our trip in Deadhorse, Alaska. How crazy is that! And how fitting that today we'll enter the country that everyone has been telling us about, that we've been dreaming and wondering about: Peru!

We start our day with a downhill, and then, guess what? We begin to climb again.  After yesterday my legs are unhappy, to say the least, but we're excited for our border crossing and so we power up the hill. Near the top we pass a military checkpoint where they check our passports and tell us that it's five minutes to the border. Haha, right. Some more uphill, a snack break, and a flat tire mean that it takes us almost an hour. Ecuador doesn't want us to leave!

There it is: Peru
The descent down to the the river that marks the Peru-Ecuador border is so steep that we can barely stop! On our way down we encounter a French cyclist on his way up. His bike is loaded down with stuff, and he is already quite red in the face from pushing, even though he´s only about 200 meters out of town. We stop to exchange some route information and offer encouragements.

It´s steeper than it looks, trust me.
There's hardly a town at the border, just the immigration office and a few small stores. The police are almost overly friendly, asking us why we bothered to lock our bikes when they're there to make sure everything is safe. Usually we try to get through borders quickly, but here we end up hanging out for a little while, eating lunch and purifying water in the shade. Lunch is supplemented by some grilled plantains for 10 cents each, a delicious send-off!
Fed and hydrated, it's time to cross the international bridge! At the immigration office in Peru we are surprised to find two other touring cyclists! A couple from Quebec in their 60s, Charles and Denise are in amazing shape and have been traveling all over South America for the last 13 months! They are loaded down with so much stuff that I don't even want to imagine pedaling their bikes. I don't know how they do it! We chat for a while and then go our separate ways.

Denise and Charles from Quebec

Setting off into Peru our road is new, smooth pavement, well-graded and almost totally devoid of traffic. Occasionally we are passed by a moto-taxi or a motorbike. These and donkeys seem to be the preferred methods of transport around here. It's fabulous to be riding on such a nice road after the steep, hilly end of Ecuador, and we can´t help but feel a bit sorry for the cyclists we met heading the other way, surely pushing by now on their horrible introduction to Ecuador.
With our good road, the only challenge is the heat. We've lost a lot of elevation and the sun is out in full force. As we begin to climb we take many breaks in the shade and drink a ton of water.
Along the way we pass several small towns. People are generally friendly and wave or greet us. It's clear that we are in the land of coffee. Everyone is drying coffee beans on large tarps spread out on the road (this tells you about the amount of traffic here). As the sun starts to lower in the sky, we watch the locals bagging up the coffee in huge sacks and loading it in the moto-taxis or on donkeys to take home. I wonder about the people in the U.S. proudly drinking their free-trade coffee from Peru and if they know it was sun-dried on a highway.

When we've had enough of the heat and our climb, we start looking for a place to camp. The only problem is that we're on the edge of a cliff! Finally, Danny spots what appears to be a flat area on a hill to the side of the road and goes up to talk to someone at a nearby house. Turns out we've found the local soccer field! There's a soccer game soon, but they say we can camp here afterwards.  All of the local kids have heard that there are gringos in town and come to observe us as we make and eat dinner and set up our tent. We try to talk with them and have some success in coaxing them out of their shyness. They tell us about all the animals they have and all the crops they grow here. There's coffee, cocoa, yucca, plantains, and a whole bunch of things I've never heard of, although it's quite possible I just don't know their names in Spanish. The lady who lives at one of the nearby houses is super nice and brings us out chairs to sit in as we eat dinner, as well as some fresh bananas which look as if they just came off of the plant. As the sun goes down we crawl into our tent to get away from the voracious bugs, and slowly the crowds go home. The night sky is spectacularly clear: we can see the Milky Way tonight!

August 8th
Happy birthday, Mom!
We don't sleep well. In the middle of the night, the dogs decide to start barking and fighting outside our tent. Even though Danny goes out to threaten them with a swinging arrow, they still don't stop. This ruckus wakes up the donkey and the rooster. What happens in small farm communities like this is that once one animal is up, all the others feel like they have to join in. Thus, our rooster woke up the rooster at the next house which woke up the rooster at the next house. etc. In the morning we get up early and pack up quickly, determined to make it to the city of San Ignacio and take a rest day.

Some gradual climbing takes us up over the top of our pass and by 9 am we have a cheap place to stay in the city. Time for errands!
1) Get breakfast. The waiter at the restaurant we go to is extremely confused that we don't want one of the meat dishes on the menu and has to go back and forth to the kitchen three times before it's settled that we can have a plate with rice, eggs, and yucca. Looks like we're back to our Colombian diet of rice and eggs when it comes to restaurants.
2) Re-stock first aid kit.  This is a bit of a challenge when you don't know how to say iodine, band-aids, or gauze pads in Spanish, but we did our best.
3) Figure out cell phone charger.  Peru and the countries south of here have different outlets, but apparently our current chargers still work. Hooray!
4) Go food shopping. No Supermaxis here. Visiting a bunch of small shops and the local market leaves us with a huge pile of fruits and veggies, instant pasta, some pretty good looking aged cheese, bread filled with seeds, and a huge bag of mixed, pre-cooked beans with spinach-garlic sauce. Yum!  We were definitely spoiled by the food available in Ecuador, but I think we'll do just fine here.
5) Avoid moto-taxis. The taxis here are decorated in the same style as Central American chicken buses: plastered with gaudy decals, streamers, and brilliant colors. Since the driver is on a motorbike, I think they forget how wide their taxi on the back end is and always cut it too close.

This afternoon is for blog updating and relaxing. More adventures tomorrow!