Saturday, August 8, 2015

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!


  1. Hi! Tamara and Danny!
    It was great meeting you at the border! Even if we were aware of what was ahead, it was a shock to start pushing the bikes uphill!!! But we made it to the first village and camped under the roof of the soccer field...and were lucky: no dogs fight, only roosters at 3 am, but we are so used to them now that we go back to sleep easily. We did pedal a total of about 55 km that day, which is good considering the hills!
    Today, we made it to Zumba for lunch...but decided to stay here for the night, our legs needed a rest.
    As we read your blog, it's a good decision considering what is coming.
    You seem to enjoy Peru so far, we wish you a lot of fun there.
    Denise and Charles
    P.S.: Thanks for the "amazing shape", but if you would have seen us at the end of the day, you would have think differently! ;-)

    1. I can understand how you needed a rest! Luckily things get better after Zumba, as you now know. Enjoy Ecuador!