|Jul 08 2007||Monteverde, Costa Rica|
|Aug 20 2007||Seattle, Washington|
|Nov 01 2007||In the pipe, five by five|
|Nov 20 2007||And it’s hard to hold a candle|
|Nov 20 2007||FAQ|
|Dec 02 2007||Holed up|
|Dec 17 2007||The rest of Oregon|
|Jan 03 2008||Northern California|
|Jan 03 2008||San Francisco|
|Jan 03 2008||Christmas Calamari|
|Jan 03 2008||Big Sur and SoCal|
|Jan 14 2008||Email Issues|
|Jan 14 2008||Los Angeles|
|Jan 14 2008||Mexico bound|
|Jan 14 2008||A word about Ortlieb|
|Jan 19 2008||Viva Mexico|
|Feb 06 2008||Baja Norte|
|Mar 06 2008||Baja Sur|
|Mar 11 2008||La Paz and The Sea of Cortez|
|May 12 2008||Mazatlan to Oaxaca|
|May 12 2008||Location ambiguity|
|Aug 07 2008||Mexico|
|Aug 07 2008||Central America|
|Dec 12 2008||Ecuador and the Galapagos|
|Jan 09 2009||Northern Peru|
|Feb 01 2009||Road Reactions|
|May 18 2009||Southern Peru|
|Jul 10 2009||Bolivia|
|Nov 11 2009||Northern Chile to Patagonia|
|Nov 25 2009||Patagonia to Punta Arenas|
|Dec 03 2009||Tierra del Fuego, the end of the road|
I awoke early to leave Punta Arenas, reaching the boat at a chilly 8 AM. The crossing took a couple hours for the ferry to rock and roll across the Strait of Magellan. I disembarked and was immediately met with possibly the strongest winds I have ever felt while not flying my hand out of a moving vehicle. I rolled out of the town of Porvenir onto the dirt track that would take me across the Island of Tierra del Fuego and back into Argentina. The route traced the west coast of this rock, rolling up and down and bringing back memories of Big Sur and Michoacan. Heading inland, I rode through the nicest pampa I have ever seen, golden hills covered with stiff windswept grasses glowing in the bright sun. Clouds blazed overhead at breakneck speeds, their shadows slinking around hills and ducking into small valleys.
I flew down these good but sometimes treacherous roads, spinning between 35-42 kph with a well deserved tailwind. Around each bend the wind might change, and could easily blow me over or into a passing car. I managed to keep the rig upright, although I had several near misses, one of which left me fishtailing wildly down the road and dabbing one foot several times to avoid disaster. After 161 km (~100 miles) of dirt, I reached the border station, and said goodbye to Chile for the last time. I made a quick stop for an early dinner and eagerly headed off onto smooth pavement. The winds picked up, sometimes constant at 60 kph, and gusting to what a weather report would later tell me was 79 kph (49 mph). I rode along the Atlantic shore until the sun went down, with just enough light left to throw myself and my gear over a barbed wire fence and pitch my tent behind a very small dirt pile, the only shelter in sight. Having waited out the winter in the North, I enjoyed 17 hours of sunlight a day and warm mornings inside the tent. The day had been productive, if not also the most dangerous cycling I have ever enjoyed. I crushed my previous fully-loaded one-day record of 164 km (102 miles) with a new one of 220 km (137 miles). Had I been headed in the opposite direction, it might have taken me four days to cover the same distance.
It may seem as though I was in a hurry to finish, but in fact I was savoring the moments. There is a satisfaction of riding until the sun, pain, hunger, or exhaustion does not allow you to continue. I savored my last days, wringing out every last drop of energy and time that I could.
The next day, I continued South, and unfortunately wasn’t quite as lucky with the winds. As I was blown about the road, heavy traffic had me worried about being run over so I spent some time walking. On one gusty, unrideable stretch into the wind, I walked for two hours, making only six kilometers. At times I staggered about like a drunken sailor, buffeted by the gale. When I was able to get on again, winds came at me on a 45 from behind and I turned my back to meet them, a Biker Bernoulli. I watched the oil wells pumping along the pampa, sucking petrol from the ground for my flight home. Distance signs cruised by, stating unbelievably short distances until the end. Bright green trees appeared, and snowy mountains slowly walked over the horizon, meeting me at the end of the day. I resupplied at a gas station and camped on a ledge just off the road.
The next day, I turned to the West, partially protected from the wind by the mountains. The land was littered with lakes, big and small, gawking tourists, and cyclists just starting their own expeditions, my replacements. I looked forward to climbing over the last pass, to breathing hard, and busting out a performance I would be proud of. Paso Garabaldi, unfortunately, was much smaller than I had imagined, and by the time I thought I had just started it was over. The precipitation alternated between pouring rain and blowing snow on the descent into the valley on the other side. I thought about taking it easy; I didn’t want to crash so close to the end, but then again, I didn’t want to waste the last good descent. I cut all the corners, pedaled to the end of my gears, and played my favorite downhill game, called Brakes are for Babies, grinning like a mental patient in some sort of manic episode.
The surroundings were strikingly similar to those around El Chalten, which I had passed through just some weeks back. Equally stunning, huge snow-topped titans stood guard, rivers meandered down from the glaciers, and plants sucked up what life they could from the ground while bracing from the wind and cold. I followed the river, passing under towers of rock high above, until water appeared on the horizon, the Beagle Channel. Entering Ushuaia was a momentous event for me. The name Ushuaia (ooo-shwhy-yuh) I had spoken so many times when asked where I was going. I could scarcely believe I had arrived. I spent a sleepless night in town, then rode off at 7 AM towards the end of the highway. Despite my reluctant pedaling the short 26 km began ticking by and I feared for the moment that was approaching. My legs continued despite my thoughts. The pavement ended and I began the last dirt stretch, the occasional tourist vehicle passed, the passengers gawking at the cyclist in the rain. Some 10 km from the end of this dirt track, snow began to fall through the gaps in the trees, forming white columns in my route.
As the tears streamed down my cheeks I thought of what I would do without my trusty steed, The Trucker, under me to carry me onward, and what I would do without El Carnicero at my side to protect me. What would I be without this life, living under bridges, going showerless and smelly for too long, riding on top of vehicles to avoid checkpoint fees, and surfing dumptrucks up hills? My mind wandered through the immense concentration of events in these last two years and 13 days. Such beautiful memories of people, places, accomplishments, and hardships. It has been so much more than I could ever have imagined it would be. Often, I was asked what I thought it would be like when I was preparing to leave Seattle. I always answered that I envisioned a great and terrible expedition. I have found that both of these states are largely subjective, and as such it was almost always great. I feel that I have lived so much in this short time. The 18,766km I rode over 743 days flew by, but my head is filled with memories worth so much more. I lived five years of making new friends and overindulging, ten years of sorrow, tears, happiness, and laughter, 20 years of sunsets, landscapes, exhaustion, and endorphins, 30 years of daydreams and adventure, and a lifetime of freedom and bliss so light and ethereal that superlatives fail to describe the true joy it brought. It was an amazing way to live, to pass some of the time I have, and it was beautiful.
Suddenly, that sign I have seen on so many cyclist blogs came into view, the moment arrived, and my heart panged for more road. I rode on the boardwalk to the end, still amazed at the view of the clouds whipping by, and snow blowing sideways. Tears sopped up, I took my photos and lingered for a while despite the cold. Luckily, I had arrived before the crush of tourists that soon pulled up to check the “end of the world” off their list of two-week vacation to-dos. I slowly rode back to town in the falling snow, feeling elated for completing my goal, a project that consumed more than four years of my life with preparation and pedaling. It had become my identity: I gave up almost everything material I owned and chose this difficult existence. In some ways it was one of the easiest things I have ever done. Looking back at the same forests and mountains I passed on the way in, I marveled at their beauty from this strange new direction. I looked North, and seemed to see through the mountains, to the road my tires had buzzed along, and the people, places, and things that had crossed my path. I remembered so many stories, some funny, some epic, some sad, and smiled at them all. Some time ago, I was bidding farewell to some friends I had made and one of them told me, “never look back,” as I crossed the threshold. For me, I now see that looking back is sometimes where the best views are, and that, in the end, was what this was really all about.
I rode through the rain, finishing the remainder of Parque Nacional Alerces in one day. I entered Trevelin as the sun set; a soggy little town surrounded by flooded farmlands and newly formed rivers washing away fertile soil. I took some time to dry my gear, and stared hopefully at gray skies. Eventually, after a couple days, I gave up and wondered why I had waited in the first place. I crossed a “pass” back into Chile, no climb at all. Yet another bittersweet sign I was nearing the end.
The border guard laughed as columns of rain blew by and he bid me farewell. From there I rode down, some 70km or so, to the Carretera Austral. That name had spun itself into something larger than life in my mind. For so many days, I had dreamed of what it would be like, the stories and images given to me by so many Northbounders I had encountered. The romance quickly dissolved when I first saw it laid out before me; another gravel road, much like what I had largely been on for now for some hundreds of kilometers. Despite the rain and snow, rough road, and the undulating hills, I soon saw and came to know the Chilean Patagonia, and too was enchanted by it’s beauty. I rode up and down, through Pine forests, past hanging glaciers of indescribable blue, past fingers of saltwater grasping inland from the Pacific, and rivers with colors rivaling the Caribbean. I re-supplied at the occasional hamlet, passing cautiously any cows along the route.
Two days North of Coihaique, I encountered the rarest of cycling anomalies, but one of the most welcomed. Surprise pavement. It is that $20 bill you find in your pocket when you are broke, that candy you find in the couch when your sweet tooth is acting up, or the raise your boss gives you without request. Well, maybe two of those three things exist. Fresh virgin blacktop stretched out before me, ready to buzz under my balding tires and provide relatively frictionless transport. These sections came and went, unbenounced to my map. After a surprise climb, also unbenounced to my map, in the pouring rain and the driving wind I arrived in Coihaique. A touristy town with services to fill my stomach with something I didn’t have to personally cook and an opportunity to dry out and clean my gear; almost all of which now smelled of fungus and mud. I took a day to rest and let the foul weather pass.
Two days later, I awoke to a cloudless sky; a windy, but good day for cycling I thought. I gathered my things and headed for the gas station fuel for my campstove. As I chatted with the attendants and answered the same, “Where are you going?”; “Where did you come from?”; “How much is you bike worth?”, questions I have become so used to hearing, the snow arrived. I rode on anyway, eventually donning piece after piece of gear, gripping my handlebars tight to prevent the wind from turning me into traffic, and laughed at the snowstorm as I pedaled through. The snow screamed past me horizontally most of the day, I wondered what it would be like at the top of the 1,100 meter climb I had coming up. Thankfully, it was still just above sticking temperature there as well, and I passed over and down to Puerto Ibanez, chilled but still rubber-side down.
I missed the ferry across Lago Carrerra, the largest lake in Chile, by just 30 minutes. I waited until 18:30 the next day to catch the next one and enjoy the views of the sunset over the immense lake. From Chile Chico, the port on the South side, I rode down the lake shore past deep blue waters that mouthwash manufacturers and toilet cleanser executives can only dream of. I moved slowly, battling a brutal headwind, the worst to date. One morning I awoke from my hidden river campsite to an amazing view, clear blue skies, and the gurgling brook. I thought of taking a day to enjoy it, but precious good weather in Patagonia is to be ridden.
Several long days later, I reached Puerto Yungay. The rivers and lakes transitioned from saffire blue, to pastel green, and finally mineral red. The road led over rocky climbs, down into flat wide river valleys, and through skunk infested peaty swamplands which had me dreaming of both single malt and lager at the same time. I had hoped to encounter services along the way, my map showing many villages, but I saw none. By the time I reached the ferry at Puerto Yungay I was hungry, but not ready to eat my scrap of bread. I spoke with the ferry crew, exuding the best starving waif look I could muster, and was given a hot meal in the galley before we departed.
One soggy, snowy day later, across large valleys and under the gaze of soaring condors, I was happy to make Villa O’Higgins. This small village marked the end of the Carretera Austral, and a peaceful resting point while waiting for passage across Lago O’Higgins to the South. I was lucky to find the boat was making an extra run for the week, just two days after my arrival and half the price. I met up with two cyclists I had met in Peru and Santiago, Christian and Edu, and we made the crossing together.
We took the boat across in the morning, finally leaving the border station around noon. Pushing and pulling, I hauled the bike up the rocky, unridable road to the top of the hill. From there a short section was rideable, and I remembered my love for mountain biking. Bobbing and weaving, lifting the front wheel over obstacles, and sprinting up steep semi-technical slopes, all the more exciting on an unsuspended touring bike loaded to some 100lbs. My usual pattern resumed; I wondered how I would ever get to help if I had a crash here, then indulged in the fun and cast sanity aside spitefully. Eventually, a sign came into view stating I had entered Argentina. Only a rough hiking trail served as a guide to lead me to Lago del Desierto, to the border station, and to the boat back to a road in the South. The path, sometimes rocky, sometimes heavily rooted, sometimes disappearing almost entirely into a swamp, provided distinction of direction. The heavy Trucker sunk into the soft mud many times, sometimes up to the hubs. Near the end of the most remote 21km border crossing I traversed, the trail narrowed to about two feet wide and a depth of about three feet. Unfortunately, the front bags did not fit in this earthen slot and I was forced to carry one on my back and the other was clipped atop my rear rack. I had read, many other cyclists made two trips for this section, one for the gear, one for the bike. I suppose they just weren’t stubborn enough. I eventually manhandled the rig to the bottom, covered in mud, heavily scratched from the bushes, and frequently bruised from pulling the bike up and over obstacles into myself. I stamped into Argentina and waited for the boat to arrive that would take me into yet another anticipated region.
After crossing the lake, a large valley opened up in front of us. So many times since entering Patagonia I have marveled at it’s beauty, and constantly I was surprised to find increasingly amazing sights. The trees here, shone bright green in the sun. The surrounding mountains , white peaks covered with blue glaciers. The next day I rode into El Chalten, under the watchful gaze of Mt. Fitz Roy.
Just a short 5 km from town my pedal let out a squeal. It was a noise I remember from almost a year earlier, it was the death throws of my pedal bearing. The bolt holding the platform together quickly spun itself off, binding on the seized and shattered bearing parts, allowing the platform to come off the pedal spindle, still clipped to my foot. These pedals had been a replacement pair from Crank Brothers from my earlier problems. They had been replaced for free, the only apparent surcharge, unreliability. Unfortunately, just like in Peru, my repair kit was useless, unable to extract the outer bearing casing from inside the pedal platform. I eventually used a part from my brake assembly to secure the platform back to the spindle and rode on bearing-less and squeaky.
With each passing day, I noticed another piece of gear becoming tired, worn, ornery, or just giving up. My tent zipper now frequently separates, my mid layer jacket takes immense force to seal, the pad in my bike shorts literally hangs on by a thread, fierce winds have all but peeled the gore-tex patches from my rain jacket, my rims are dished to the point where I fear any downhill could be their last, several spoke nipples are split vertically, and the inserts in my shoes have worn through while the crease near my toes has fatigued and large holes on either side now let rocks in daily. As I packed up one morning, my tent stuff sack let out a cry of desperation, tearing almost into two. I took a deep breath, looked at my aging kit, and wondered if I would soon see mutiny. I spoke softly but firmly, letting all nylon, steel, plastic, aluminum, and rubber know, we were going to make it. We would walk it if we had to and no amount of tearing, ripping, fracturing, or shattering would deter me from my goal.
I took a couple days to view the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. This monster flows some 30km down the valley, finally terminating into the lake. Massive chunks frequently fall from the 200ft high face into the water, splashing even higher and booming like thunder through the forest.
My compulsion of the road soon had me feeling restless and I cranked back out onto Ruta 40, towards the south. After leaving the glacial valley, the terrain turned back into the pampa I had ridden through so many times in the north. Hardly a house in sight, let alone a tree, I passed the time driving flocks of sheep, troops of nandu (rhea), droves of rabbits, surfeits of skunks, and herds of guanacos down the road, feeling almost biblical at times. I couldn’t help but think of the impending conclusion of my journey looming. With such a compulsion to ride, I felt like an addict must feel getting his last fix before entering rehab.
I took a direct route to Punta Arenas, enjoying the pedaling, and savoring the suffering. I easily killed some 430km in just three days, and crossed back to Chile from Argentina. This would be the last time entering Chile, and the fourth of the expedition. One day, crouched on the side of the road behind The Trucker for shelter from the wind, a bus stopped and the driver approached to talk with me. “Let’s go”, he said, inviting me to load my bike into the luggage compartment. I laughed, thanked him, and told him I was fine, just taking a break. An astonished look came over his face, and he shook his head. “You’ll wish you had come with me!”, he shouted through the roaring wind as he walked back to the waiting bus and passengers. I laughed as he drove off; if he only knew what he was missing, he would be the wishful one.
I spent a lot of time thinking about the relatively short stretch of road left. Thinking about the day I will finish and join the alumni of those who inspired me; Alistair Humphreys, Gregg Bleakney, and my hero, Heinz Stucke. I know that each night, as I get into a warm, comfortable bed that all around the world cyclists will be tucking tents into ditches and drains, sleeping on fire station floors, in bathrooms and under bridges. They will continue to choose a life that many would say is uncomfortable and difficult, and they would say is beautiful. They will revel in the help of others and give back something intangible to many they encounter. If you should ever see a long haul cyclist on the road, you would be well to stop and offer food, water, a cold beer, or a place to sleep. The richness of their stories will repay you many times over and if you are lucky their experiences will become your dreams as they did for me. One day you could even find yourself atop an overloaded, wobbly, bicycle, and would learn that the colors are brighter, the food is more savory, the often unnoticed is often beautiful, and that life is richer when you pedal through it.
I consider myself oh so fortunate to have taken this journey, to have found that spark of interest that grew into something inextinguishable. So lucky for friends and family who encouraged me. For, dreams are slippery things. Without support, it can be hard to get a grip. Many who helped me along may not even have known it. When a mind is set and a heart falls in love, they search for confirmation. Nay saying is seen as a challenge, and encouragement, validation. Perspective obscuring some views and highlighting others. A dream is an immensely personal work of art, shaped, warped, and blurred. Like the photographer’s lens, the painter’s brush, or the poet’s pen, it proves it’s point and makes it’s case in the most biased, self-serving way.
With a smile and a sense of glee, I rolled through rain, snow, sleet, and hail along the Strait of Magellan and eventually into Punta Arenas. I basked in my satisfaction of nearing completion of this journey across continents and continental divides. Not so much for the completion itself, but for what it’s been, for what I’ve seen, and for what it will. Just a short 450km awaits me on the Island of Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world, and I can’t wait to see it.
A cold chill ran down my neck as the crisp mountain air entered my jacket. I rode around the border gate, they had stamped my passport and not even bothered to leave the warm confines of the station to lift the gate. I marveled at the dirt road; one of the last for a long time I thought, but assumptions are always broken. The first buttery smooth Chilean pavement quickly began rolling under The Trucker as I descended a monstrous decline. I wrapped two scarves around my face in a futile attempt to keep warm, gritted my teeth, and squeezed the handlebars hard in the cold; warm air was waiting in the desert below, I thought. A huge expanse lay before me, Salar de Atacama, the driest desert on Earth. The border station awaited me upon entering San Pedro de Atacama and for the first time of the trip my gear was searched. Twice they attempted to take my machete away, and twice I convinced them otherwise. I promised to stow it while in Chile, being illegal to carry in public, and I did so … until rounding the corner out of sight of the customs office.
Sticker shock quickly had me thinking about getting out of the very touristy San Pedro and back on the road. I planned on taking Paso de Jama to Argentina but asked about Paso de Sico as well at the tourist office. The attendant told me: “You can’t do Sico on a bike this time of year, you would be crazy to try”. That was all I needed to hear. One quick look at some weather satellite images to make sure I wouldn’t get snowed in and I was headed South toward Paso de Sico. The road skimmed the wide valley floor, paralleling a long chain of ominous volcanoes, before beginning a steep climb and the end of the pavement. Horizon after horizon came and went, in a succession that felt as never ending as ocean waves. The road sported a mix of nauseating washboard, loose gravel, and strong freezing headwinds. More volcanoes surrounded me as I cranked past yet more and more salars of varying colors and immense expanses of sand, rock, sand, and rock. I had planned on reaching the only refuge for the next few days, a small mining camp, by the second night, but with the wind and the climbing I made just half the expected distance. I assessed my water situation and found I had drank much more than my days ration, sucking wind in the dry air. I pitched my tent next to the only windbreak in sight, a pile of dirt which provided protection until the wind changed directions in the night and pushed the tent here and there, shivering the night away at -15C / 5F inside the tent. I melted snow from some small patches but found it to be strangely viscous and murky. Surrounded by mineral mountains of such strong and unusual colors, I was cautious of drinking it. I reserved my pasta water for the next day, later lamenting the oil I had added to it.
Shortly after leaving camp, I flagged down the first of three vehicles I would see all day. A group from a mining company was out scouting mine locations in the area were eager to talk to me and load me up with snacks and water. Yet more epic headwinds came to meet me, a constant roar in my ears. I passed yet more salars and lagunas, the bluest lakes I have ever seen. One of which was named “Salar de Aguas Calientes” (hot water / hot spring salar ). I dreamt of taking a dip most of the day until I saw it, no steam rising. It was a lie. Unmatched desolation persisted, and I occasionally rested my weary legs, lying in the ditch for a break from the wind. The only prevalent vegetation, a short, brittle, yellow, grass. I had learned the night before that when pulled, the stalks break into sharp pieces and lodge themselves in the attackers hand. The wind whistled eerily through these plants. In the afternoon, the same miners returned, showering more bottled water, juice, crackers, cookies, avocados, candy, and chocolate on me. Shortly there after I came upon a mining camp, one of the two refuges in this long stretch. A man came out to meet me on the road and explained that I could sleep at the encampment, in a bed, and would be fed. The next day I passed the last refuge on the Chilean side, a small police station; truly in the middle of nowhere. My documents were checked, and I was fed breakfast. I didn’t bother telling them I’d already eaten when they asked if I would was hungry. I watched an apparently important tennis match with them, and answered the many questions they had the any girls I had encountered along the way.
I rolled off toward the pass and Argentina. Vicunas abounded, the softest of the llama-like group of animals. More climbing, more red, yellow mountains, and more baby blue water over salt flats. Eventually the “pass” came into view. The sign in the middle of a huge, windswept, plain indicated I had entered Argentina. One twisty canyon later and even worse roads and I found the border station. Water resupplied, I pedaled onward, flanked on each side by an Andean Fox, escorting me into this new land. Yet more difficult with even worse roads, and worse winds. I have ridden some pretty heinous stretches in the past, but this was by far the worst. Upon reaching the first town, I found no services for money exchange nor anyone able to assist me. I filled my water and continued on towards the next two climbs I would find before finally reaching the downhill that would take me out of the mountains and into Salta.
After picking up some more bike parts and gear in Salta and resting a bit, I headed off to the South; excited to begin the Argentinean wine tour. I passed through the valley of Cafayate, a red rock canyon with more resemblance of the National Parks of Utah than anything you might think you would encounter in Argentina. After dropping down from Paso de Sico , I was now at a lowly 1,152 meters. My red blood cells now of relative gigantic proportion after more than four months around 12,000ft / 3,700m, I enjoyed the thick air that lavished my lungs with decadent oxygen. I passed the days lazily spinning along, still riding for 8 hours or so. The canyon wound with the river around bends and through cactus stands eventually arriving at Cafayate. I spent a few days, staining my insides purple with grape skins before leaving. To the South, the road alternated between long stretches in wide valleys, and more small, sometimes steep, red rock canyons. The winds persisted, but did not bother. Camping was easy, and for the first time I became accostomed to making a fire at night and watching the stars.
I arrived in Mendoza, another wine region, and repeated the same coloring procedure as the North. I stayed a month in this town, killing time to avoid the winter in the route ahead. I took wine tours and enjoyed the local food. Unfortunately, the casinos and many bars were closed due to swine flu scares. One restaurant I entered required each patron to have their temperature taken prior to being seated. A state of emergency had been declared in the region,with a few cases having already been discovered and the worldwide death rate of swine flu at an astounding 0.01% (according to oh so reliable wikipedia.org).
It was a few days ride to re-enter Chile. Upwards to Uspallata, where I ended up walking for more than 10km as the wind had almost succeeded in pushing me off the narrow road several times. I stayed a few days, waiting for the pass to be cleared of recent snowfall. The road gradually climbed up, up, up, until finally I rounded a corner and entered a large, snow covered, valley. I pedaled ahead in the cold wind, and stayed the night at a running ski resort close to the pass. The next day more jaw dropping Andean views laid out before me including Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere and outside of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the road over the top of the pass to the border was closed for the season, more than two meters of snow at the top I was told. So I was driven through a long tunnel and dropped on the other side by the local police, bikes not allowed in the tunnel.
A short distance down and I was stamped out of Argentina and back into Chile. Once again, I was told that my machete was not legal to carry in Chile, and once again I was able to smile and talk my way out of it. I also talked my way out of submitting to the infamous agriculture search, where one cyclist was reportedly fined $1,700.00US for failing to declare some fruit he had and many others lost their spices.
I descended, drawing many looks from bus passengers, disembarking and unloading skis for a day of leisure. One ski lift passed directly over the clear, dry, pavement I rode down; my substrate of fun. I descended the long series of switchbacks and met with warmer air at the bottom. Back to the lowlands, it was only one day to Santiago, through the farmlands and one long tunnel. The highway was littered with large signs stating illegal vehicle types, bicycles included. I reached a tunnel, a large no bicycles sign presented prominently. I searched for another way around or anyone to question in the guard shack, but found neither. Poorly lit, narrow, heavy traffic, and not able to see the other end, I considered my options. Eventually I decided to wait for a lull and take a run at it. It was downhill afterall . I turned on my tail light and sprinted in. I only hoped that no potholes or obstacles were in the way, I could barely see the ground in front of me. Half way through a siren came on, flights flashed above, and something was said over the intercom several times. After traversing this 1.5km or so tube, I received a tongue lashing by the firemen waiting for me on the side . They eventually calmed down and asked why I didn’t have the attendant in the guard station drive me through; there had been no attendant. I apologized profusely and rode off smiling.
I stayed with some friends, also cyclists, who I met in Peru and have since settled for a while in Santiago. They very generously offered their spare room to me, where I lived while catching up on the culinary delights only a big city can offer. I killed more time, waiting for the season to change. A few friends came to visit, and I passed my 30th birthday during the stay. Culturally it seems, for many turning 30 is a wake up call, a “what am I doing” or “what did I do” with my life moment, a seed for a midlife crisis, or a checkpoint to regret the past. I looked back, chuckled at where I was and what I was doing, and smiled. Eventually after bidding farewell to the oh so generous Kirsten and Seth, I rolled out. The road had been calling for some time and the compulsion to pedal was too strong to ignore.
The winds came to meet me, approaching head on. The scenery a bit dull, more farmlands, the Andes only a silhouette in the distance. Finally, the vegetation changed, pine trees became abundant, and lakes appeared as I entered Parque Nacional Villarrica. The landscapes reminded me of the cascades, a reminder that I would soon near the end of the road in the South. I climbed over a small pass, probably the last of it’s size I would encounter, a mere 1,500 meters or so. I camped a short distance from the border, among the strange bamboo like underbrush the clogs any space that it can. The next morning, I rolled through the morning fog, the forest eerie and silent, moss hanging from every branch and snow covered peaks hiding among the clouds. Monkey Puzzle Trees exchanged for Pines under the watchful eye of the emmense and pointy Vocan Lanin. After an uneventful border crossing, I bombed down the road, hoping for a tail wind on the buttery smooth pavement, but none came. Two days later, I entered San Martin de Los Andes and the first picturesque area of Patagonia. Predominant marketing culture forewarned, I was still aghast. Never before had I seen so many North Face, Mountain Hardware, and Columbia clothing stores. It seems the new traditional clothing of this region is Gore-Tex.
I took a route which wound through the massive lakes of the region, calm and quiet, only the Patagonian birds breaking the silence. I had spent quite a bit of time just getting through some of the terrain since Santiago, and here I remembered something I hope to never forget. I remembered how to relax. I lay there on a log on the shore of Lago Espejo and stared at the water, took a short nap, marveled at sunlight on closed eyes, and re-energized my batteries for the next push. I had enjoyed a fairly dry week of sunny weather, something that would change soon.
As I emerged from the park and back onto pavement, sweet pavement, the wind and rain arrived. It soaked me as I cranked onward, then when I turned north around the bottom of the lake it stung my face as I pushed against it. Patagonia is known for it’s extreme winds and I chuckled at this weather, fore I knew it was just a taste. I spent a couple days in Bariloche, waiting for the newly arrived snow flurries to leave. I heard many say something which I have heard many times over the length of this trip: “For this time of year, it’s strange to see this weather.” I eventually left despite the weather, not able to resist the call of the road more than a few days. I rode through yet more lagunas, snow covered mountains, pouring rain, and chilling wind. On one such cold, clouded, soggy day I encountered one of the most frightening things of my life.
I woke up late, futilely hoping the rain would subside for at least a few moments to allow me to pack up without yet more soaking. Eventually, when noon rolled around, I donned my heavy, soggy clothes, and shoved my muddy tent into the stuff-sack. The surely magnificent mountains that surrounded me, were cloaked with clouds, yet the snowline still visible just a short distance up from the lake. Still, these lakes, green as seawater and reminiscent of Puget Sound, were a beautiful sight.
I passed cow after cow along the route, grazing at what plants could be found between melting patches of snow. I have passed livestock while riding with great frequency since leaving the US, and never had any issues. A cold rain fell as I spied a young bull in the middle of the route. Turned slightly to my direction, he blocked my route. His breath was forceful, billowing clouds of steam from his flaring nostrils. Typically cows will get out of the way when I approach, but this brazen bovine stood his ground. Something inside me took hold and my actions seemed to occur without thought. I like to think it was some sort of instinct rooted into my brain by ancestors eons back, but in hindsight, I think it was the characterization of an angry bull from all those Looney Toons cartoons that dictated my response.
I came to a stop, maybe 15 feet away. My eyes widened as he hooved the ground furiously. I was sure of one thing, he had an axe to grind and was all the more pissed off with no opposeable thumbs to hold any grinding apparatus. On the one side, some estimated 700 or so lbs of rippling grade A prime Argentinean beef, sure to make any agricultural inspector’s mouth water. El Toro. On the other, the pitifully outmatched, cold, tired, but road worn and well equipped adventurer with will and steel on his side. Me. I reached for my machete and as I drew, he lept. First the jump, then the best run he could muster in a short distance, from my 10:30. He charged. With just enough time, I whirled the machete overhead like a chopper blade, reached, and came down just behind his head only one moment before impact. With the last planting of his hooves he changed direction and turned his head slightly, stunned by the blow or maybe just shocked I was fighting back. I took the impact in the shoulder rather than directly to the chest and was thrown to the ground, the trucker still under me. I scrambled to my feet as quickly as possible, no time to check for injury I thought, as I looked up to see him circle and square up for another run. I prepared for the charge, machete gripped tightly, standing between the fallen Trucker and the ditch. A suspenseful moment passed, our eyes locked in a dead stare. I decided to take the risk to bend down and pick up a rock, considering that this could be seen as a sign of weakness and trigger the beast’s attack. As he huffed and puffed, I eventually nailed him with a rock to the head, sending him fleeing through the bushes.
I took a moment to check for damage of both the trucker and myself, none whatsoever. I had worried that he may have stepped on my wheel as he careened into me, but I was lucky. I chuckling about the experience and thought that since my blade had stood by me and proved itself beyond the usual tasks of preparing wood for a fire, or carrying dried cow chips at a safe distance for burning, it deserved a name. A name that would strike fear into the oversized, tasty, marbled, hearts of it’s enemy and one fitting of the triumphant victory over a foe many times our size. A name that cows would use to make the little dogies behave and make them quiver in their beds at night. And thus this simple blade, made by some unknown soul in the jungles of Peru, became known as “El Carnicero” (the butcher).
The rest of the day I kept a sharp lookout for more agitated agents of the army of bovine, but no more hostiles were encountered. Still, I’m left with a cautiousness from the experience and now consider if the beasts I encounter are planning on trampling me before I pass. I may never look at a cow the same again.
I quickly made my way from Copacabana to La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia (they have two capitals). This city lying in a huge gash in the earth, situated high in the altiplano, and in the poorest country in South America, turned out to be one of my favorite so far. A diverse selection of food from far off lands, including American donuts, helped persuade me to take some time to get to know this metropolitan side of Bolivia and wait for quality parts. I rented a small apartment and spent time getting to know the card rooms, restaurants, art galleries, and new friends in the almost two months I spent there. Although the campstove makes a wonderful hollandaise, having my own kitchen meant I could easily cook recipes requiring more or larger cookware.
After receiving my resupply package, I fitted the new shifters, cables, brake pads, chainrings, and bar tape to the trucker. I had replaced many of these parts after the crash in Peru but couldn’t find exactly what was needed. These shiny new objects, sheltered in my hands like a child who just received the very thing he wanted for Christmas, would allow me to reach all my favorite, ridiculously luxurious gears, after months without them. The first moments with these newly oiled parts were a dream. No clacking or squealing, no clinking or rubbing, only silence and that smooth buttery vibration shimming it’s way oh so subtly up the crank arms and into my cleat, gently whispering the image of neatly greased metal perfectly meshed and sending a warm feeling up my spine. Bliss.
Trying to loosen my load, I set off southward through more of the same altiplano I now knew so well. The landscape dulled and a cold wind blew northward. The impending Andean winter insisted on being noticed. Still, I’m glad I am here and not further South toward the Antarctic winter. The wind pushed hard against me, laughing in roaring tones at my struggle. The path into Oruro boasted views of immense curtains of dust devils towering along the valley walls, hundreds of feet high. Eventually the tops of buildings came into view and the city approached as the earth rolled under my wheels. I filled my afternoon there with very welcomed Api’s and Chinese food.
Two days south of Oruro, I left pavement, crossing below the huge, but apparently dry Lago Poopo. I had found directions from other cyclists and much mentioning of a directionally difficult route in this area. With little to no road signs, many roads joining and leaving almost any route, and locals who I found sometimes didn’t even know the names of the towns adjacent to their own, it was easy to get lost. At one point when things didn’t seem right, I went against the advice of many I came across and headed in my own direction, finally following my gut. The road I chose was very sandy, but in the end led directly to my destination, Quillacas. From there I had planned another two days to reach Salar de Uyuni, but as things turned out, three days would be necessary.
The next day, in the afternoon, I encountered two Canadian cyclists, heading North. We decided to camp together and share stories, a precious pilsner I managed to talk off a passing motorist, and some route information about what lay ahead and for both parties. Since leaving La Paz, these two made six cyclists in total I had run into, all northbounders. All mentioning I was going the wrong way for this time of year.
The next day, I found my way around the other side of the ominous Volcan Tunupa, but failed to see any crossing to the salar. Again, following much bad advice and directions I found my gut telling me I was going the wrong way. Searching for another way around I again inquired at many mud brick houses and found what should have been a more direct route to my destination. I climbed up and up, on the worst road I had encountered so far, through a maze of rock walls and past farmer’s gate after gate. I expected to reach a road which would take me along the flanks of the volcano and to the Salar. What I found in the end of this terrible road was a closed gate. Now high on the side of Tunupa, I looked back to see the sun set and feel a heavy blanket of cold instantly settle in my bones as darkness started to fall. I considered pitching my tent right there on the rocks beside the road, but in a last ditch attempt I surveyed the landscape below and above, searching for the route I needed. I found none. I walked up further, down, left, right, I found none. There on this desolate hillside, surrounded by small cactus like the indecision surrounding my next actions, hope arrived. The farmer, in his van, coming down the hill in my direction. “I think I’m lost”, I told him. “Yes, I believe you are”, he replied with a chuckle. A short chat later and I realized the mistake, the road lay well below me in the valley, my previous advice had been completely wrong. “I’ll take you down there” he told me. So, the trucker was loaded with care into the back of this vehicle and chauffeured through the maze of gates and rock walls down to the road and the village just a few kilometers below. Now dark, he asked my plans and I explained my usual tent setup and cooking regiment. A mattress was hauled from his house and placed in the van where I was told I would sleep. I was taken inside for two warm bowls of soup, tea, bread, and many curious questions before crawling into my bag and trying to sleep despite the cold like many nights before. Like each morning before, I awoke to temperatures around 20F and water bottles completely solid. After more soup for breakfast, I thanked my host and headed up over the hill, my hands and feet completely numb in the shadow of the mountains.
Salar de Uyuni presented itself first as small triangle of white between two plunging hills, then a huge sea of jaw dropping nothingness. I had dreamt of riding across these flats for years now. The most marvelous of photos had been taken here by so many other cyclists, the romance of this place courted and wooed into something completely magical in my mind, the wonder of what it would be like, and the stories it would bring, all ran through my head as I raced toward the shore to marry tire with salt. I glided out, in awe of the expanse, and amused by the novelty of crunchy salty crust under my wheels. My destination appeared ahead of me, Isla Incawasi. Rather, the reflection of the top of this island was demonstrated to me in the mirage on the horizon, upside down of course. Eventually as I rolled toward it, this upside down triangle grew smaller and the top of the island appeared above the image, forming a messy diamond shape. With little to no visual references to follow, these hours dragged by. My odometer still not working since Peru, despite the magnet I pillaged from a Garfield refrigerator ornament in La Paz, I had no electronic distance feedback either. The temperature remained right at freezing, the scorching Andean sun left me hot on one side while my own shadow left my other side numb. Once reaching the island, I enjoyed a llama-burger (sorry Juliette), signed the libros de oro (logbooks of cyclists who have passed), and setup camp among the cacti. A warm wind blew that evening, giving me a much needed break from the shivering nights of days past.
The next day I made for the town of Uyuni, a flat 100km away, most of which was on salt. I watched as dots of jeeps and trucks scurried across the flats, half a horizon away, and wondered many times if I was going in the right direction. The surrounding peak made good features for triangulating, and reassuring my course was correct. The last stretch of dirt into Uyuni reset my “worst road ever” memory and left me riding off road to avoid nausea.
I had planned on cranking through the National Park to the south, past the lagunas into Chile, but it turned out a friend from La Paz wanted to meet me to see those sights as well so I opted for a tour instead. It’s become a strange thing to ride in a motorized vehicle. The velocity seems frightening and exciting, the distance covered ridiculously fast, and the casualness of the passengers at the convenience of such a machine almost startling. The tour took us back to Salar de Uyuni, past a few more small salars, many frozen lagunas, and the occasional group of flamingos. Once at the border, I donned my riding wardrobe, assembled my gear, said goodbyes to new friends and old, stamped my passport out of Bolivia, and rode off onto some of the nicest roads I have seen in a long time.
After acclimatizing in Huaraz for a few days, I rolled out feeling winded and cold. Three months on the coast had sapped my acclimatization. My head doubted my daily distances but my legs remembered what they once were and begged to run. I pedaled through the high mountain paramo, gliding between massive white curtains of rain falling thousands of feet. At times they gave encores to the magnificent glaciated mountains that are the Cordillera Blanca, parting to allow the view. I kept to the pavement, skipping a stunning but hardcore “shortcut” to the Pasturi glacier. I knew the altitude in the next couple days would be a challenge without choosing the most masochistic route. Traffic light, views forever expanding, and dogs ever chasing, I experienced some vey frigid nights.
I found my new bike mounted machete to be of great use. Many dogs run at the sight, but it most amazing utility is the yelling of the canine’s owner upon seeing a crazy gringo on a strange looking bike wielding a huge knife. Moments before, no weapon drawn, they make not even a whisper toward the enemies in hot pursuit.
A few days in, I climbed for hours into freezing pouring rain and eventually in snow to the top of a pass. There I set a new personal altitude record at 4700 meters (15,400ft), but it wouldn’t last for long. Winds howling and bones chilled, I lingered at the top to quickly put on every usable layer I had. Bundled like a child cursed with an overprotective mother I donned: three pairs of gloves, two hats and my helmet, a bandanna over my face, sunglasses, four layers on the bottom, and five on top. I then started the long cold descent down. Wind cut through me and rain stung the small areas of flesh still exposed as I controlled my fall for thousands of feet. I locked my arms tight on the bars, frozen in position, and hoped for warmer weather below. I was both rewarded and cursed. I found a small town where I could fuel up and take a break. The sun shone down on me and I baked in my sumo-like getup. I strolled into a restaurant for a well deserved lunch. Stripping my clothing off, I ordered my meal and shed my garments on the nearby chairs to dry. Feeling good, I continued on, beginning a section of rough road that would last for a few days. The recent rains had flooded some of the road, leaving me cruising through deep puddles, sections where the river had overrun onto the road itself, and once a fairly raging torrent crossing the road where I worried my feet or the Trucker’s tires might be swept and taken into the river. So much for drying out.
I found my way to the next town where a hostel served to dry out my clothes and spend the night. The next day I left, back into the dirt along the valley wall, through roads less visited by tourists than most in this country. Large maguey plants lined the road, as locals screamed “gringo” repeatedly until I waved. Several mud laden sections hindered my way; soft ruts so deep my front panniers shaved furrows of brown that would bring warmth to any woodcarver’s heart. It was near here that I awoke to the trouble that had been stalking me for days. A small rainstorm approached; a simple wall of white, gliding along at the end of the valley, and seemingly on a collision course. I opened my bag, reached in my hand and faltered. I expected that slightly plastic synthetic feel of Seattle high-fashion; my rain jacket was missing. Where could it be? Every bag was inspected, a long haulers most hated chore. It wasn’t there. Where could it be? A few moments of frustration were followed by retrospection and ultimately memory tricks to ascertain the whereabouts. The image became clear in my mind. The jacket sat there on the chair in the restaurant days before. I made my way down to the next town, stashed my bike in a hostel, and hopped a van three hours back to the restaurant to find it closed. I pounded and pounded on the door until a Senora arrived, and there, demonstrating a very real look of desperation, laid out my plea. She smiled and told me yes they had kept it for me. She handed it over and was rewarded, or maybe punished, by my very grateful obligatory hug. When I noticed her outstretched arms in that “Uhhh, what are you doing?” sort of stance I let go and thanked her profusely before boarding a van half way back to the bike. At this intermediate town I was told that there was no transportation in my desired direction after 4pm due to robberies on the road. So, a night passed before the Trucker and I were reunited, somehow I don’t think the bike worried about me like I worried about her that night. The next morning she was safe and sound. I owed one night for the room she stayed in, $1.60.
Glad to have all my gear reunited, I continued. One day up and another over a pass where dropped more than 6000ft down into Huánuco, blistering my hands badly hauling full steam down this rough, sometimes terribly muddy road. I blasted past cars and trucks not able to negotiate turns with the agility of my rig. Looking out for running children while passing through one puebla at 45kph, I missed seeing a speed bump and for the first time ever caught and landed big air with the fully loaded trucker; much to the amazement and enjoyment of the local spectators. Closing out this section meant that I would enjoy that sweet sweet welcomed gentle glide of pavement. Sometimes it’s not until you lose something then find it again that you realize how amazing it really is. Pavement, rain jackets, or people, you decide.
I climbed for days back up to 4300 meters (14,00ft). In Trujillo I had replaced several parts, but could not find everything I needed. My gears were now bigger (more difficult to climb), heavier (steel rather than aluminum), and both my front and back shifters were now ailing and refused to enter my small ring or the two big rings in back. In layman’s terms, all my climbing gears were unusable. Luckily the climb to Cerro de Pasco didn’t get too steep until the very end where I met a local on the way back from the mine. We rode together until the rain got too cold and he opted to hitch the rest of the way. Half way up I shared an unfortunately foul can of tuna and bread with him as he recounted the story of how his brother made his way north to the US / Mexico border. Just before attempting to cross with a coyote he sent a final email to saying he would get in touch once on the other side. That was the last thing he heard from him, now two years ago.
After a few days of being sick in Cerro de Pasco, I was eager to head out into the altiplano which lay to the South. The golden-brown grass covered landscape was littered by llamas and alpacas. I cranked down from the shallow edge of the pass into a giant plain, ringed with the menacing teeth of small peaks in all directions, and watched as rainstorms swept the land like wood shop push brooms at closing time. I skirted Lago Junín, cruising into the headwind, stopping occasionally for a fried or grilled trout to fuel my now strengthened legs.
Days south I began a section avoided by some, but one I had dreamt about years. From Huancayo, I again left the pavement, and began climbing. Roads wound upwards with serpentine grace, ultimately leaving the bushes and eucalyptus trees behind. Only mosses and small plants grew among these high rocks. I had planned on splitting the ascent of what is probably the highest point of the trip into two days, but didn’t see any good camping along the way and my legs still moved easily until there was no turning back. I reached Chonta Pass and the turnoff to Huayraccasa Pass late in the day after seven hours of riding. Hungry but no time to eat, too cold to stop moving, exhausted, terribly winded, sunlight waning, and able to see two approaching storms, I headed for the top. In times when my body tells my brain I can’t go on, I answer with my mantra: keep cranking. Huffing these words through my breathing, too cold and tired to actually speak them, I continued. Vischacas scurried about, but with little energy and little time I barely lifted my head to look. The surrounding mountains, red, green, orange, yellow surrounded and my lungs ached as that famous sign came into view. 5,059 meters (16,558ft), and new personal record. I parked the bike, snapped my photo, bombed back down to Chonta Pass, and down the other side; finding a semi-exposed but passable campsite just after sundown. I was discovered the next morning by a local farmer and his dogs, rousing me from my tent to see the half foot of snow that had fallen in the night and brought a cold wind down from the pass. I cruised down, again toward pavement. Speeding around corners, many times, to find sheep, llamas, or alpacas in my path. Twice I was inches from crashing headlong into a giant filthy woolen pillow that is the rear end of a running llamas as I chaotically parted these seas of livestock.
The next day, I was punished for the descent the day before with yet another 4000+ meter pass. However the views on the other side, and the bar gripping descent more than made up for it. I came around the last bend to the summit, soaking wet from hours of rain riding, a cold wind blowing across the snowfields and over my neck. Cold, tired, hungry, but smiling, I was ready for my close up.
A film crew happened to be at the top shooting some footage for a daily national music show. They were excited to see me and interview me, even in my frigid state. Many cyclists I know have had this experience and many more have local newspaper articles published about them along the way. I had avoided them up until now, but looking back they do make interesting memories and if in print, nice keepsakes from the expedition.
There are descents and sights that are just too beautiful to stop and take a photo. I know this may be hard to understand but sometimes it’s the technical thought that is inevitably needed to take a good photo that will spoil the perfect moment and rip me from that bliss that is the wind in my face, a view so vast a beautiful it has brought a tear to my eye, that glide of smooth pavement, grip of the turning switchback at velocity pulling downward, and the tightening of my stomach, that the word “enjoyment” doesn’t even begin to describe, that keeps me, from taking those photos that I know would be some of the most beautiful of my life. It’s only those moments which are so much more beautiful, that can’t be spoiled, that warrant this selfishness, that create such an addiction and compulsion, that drives me onward and denies you the reader from anything but a mere glimpse, or perhaps, I hope, the seed of a daydream, of what those moments are. This descent was one of these. Huge sweeping mountainsides ran stained with minerals of colors I haven’t seen elsewhere other than the Andes of Peru, capped with snow, and nestled in green blazed by in a gorgous smear of adrenaline and joy.
Direction finding, especially leaving big cities, can be trying at times. After almost 18 months on the road I seldom get lost or backtrack. Ayacucho, however got the best of me. On the way out of town I received eight distinct directional answers from 15 different individuals. The problem lay in my decision to take the road less travelled by, and as you will read, that made all the difference. Toward the end of the day, I realized I was on the wrong road. Instead of a slow steady climb up to 4300 meters, I would yo-yo for two days then finally make the climb up, just to drop down the other side. The morning before the pass, I packed up from the small ravine where I had nestled my tent the night before. As I loaded my front bags I noted my balding front tire; the second layer of rubber showing through in one section. Focused on the task at hand it didn’t even occur to me to change to my spare, my desire to get on the road pulling. This would be my undoing. This section, from Ayacucho to Abancay is generally thought of as one of the most difficult in all of Peru. Some of my friends went out of their way to avoid the suffering, and almost everyone else I personally know ended up bussing it. Rough dirt roads eventually morphed into deeply rutted mud. Near the top of the pass, the steep route became unridable, my tires slipping and sliding as rain and then hail poured down. I crested and flew down the descent, hands aching from gripping the brakes. I hooked a section of tube from my handlebar to my brake, sort of an auto-brake, to slow my rapid descent and give my digits a rest.
I graced the valley walls, finally finding a smooth section of hard packed dirt. The valley dropped down ~500 meters (1600ft) sharply to my left. A pothole approached ahead as I flew at what my speedometer would later tell me was 48 kph. In crossing over to the right side of the road toward the other track, in that split second I noted the steepness of the crown, and in that fraction of a second when my eyes widened, I noted in zen like detail the grittiness of the sand on the side of that crown as my front wheel began to slide and I realized what was happening. Those nanoseconds multiplied into minutes watching my front tire slide sideways, lubricated by speed, wet sand, and enjoyment of fear. Somehow instinct kicked in and as always I clipped out of my pedals. It’s not a choice I make; it’s a reaction that seems to come directly from the muscles in my feet. In an instant I was flying, free of the trucker and gliding towards new adventure. The feeling of impact brought back that smell. That indescribable smell of trauma that I know does not exist and is gone in an instant, but if experienced enough will be remembered along with all the previous adventures where it was found. The feeling of rocks scraping over my front teeth was unmistakable and went on for much longer than possible. Finally, I skidded to a stop, dazed but aware of what had occurred, and opened my eyes. My vision was partially obscured by a roll of skin that had been peeled from the top of my nose and neatly bunched at the end like . My knee was shredded and that usual intermediate period where no pain is felt didn’t arrive. My handlebar bag had opened, a yard sale now blocking this narrow, remote mountain route. Several times I attempted to get up and walk the seven or so feet I had launched from the bike to the bike to take a photo. Each time I was met with excruciating pain from my knee that dropped me back to the dirt. Ten minutes later a truck arrived, picked up my bloody broken body and gear and dropped me at the health center in the next pueblita.
As I walked to the health center, blood seeped from my knee down my leg, from the palms of my hands through my shredded gloves, my elbow, and from my face, streaming into my mouth and down my chin, inviting gasps and coos of “pobrecito!” from the senora’s in the street. Small towns in the mountains in Peru typically have only a nurse, no doctor. This was no different. When I arrived the electricity was out so a dying flashlight was employed as the nurse scrubbed my wounds with alcohol, then iodine. Flap after flap of skin was cut from each wound before they were wrapped up with white cotton and secured with tape. My facial wounds required three stitches, flashlight held high.
Moments of desperation, disappointment, confusion, and panic often pass when first beginning a tour. As a trip like this continues and this “life in concentrate” is experienced one learns quickly that things will be ok. They always turn out ok so there is no use worrying. Eventually you chuckle at the situations that might have phased you in the past and see them with amusement. I am ashamed to say that during this experience I had a moment, there on the ground, looking at my knee and wondering if that was bone I was looking at (it wasn’t) and if it was fractured, where I gave in to despair. It was only a second, immediately followed by a shot of anger at my own thoughts; no point in worrying yet. With luck I would be back on the road in a week. Still the disappointment of taking a bus the rest of the way to Cusco to find more sophisticated medical services stung a bit. The road to Abancay had conquered me and claimed my blood and tissue as it’s prize. My reward is the story, the small scar on my lip, and the many fractures in my two front teeth, I now proudly bear.
After a week of hardly leaving the bed in Cusco, I was able to walk up stairs and took the train to Machu Picchu. Since I was around nine years old I had dreamt of visiting this wonder. Longing for physical exertion I made my way up Huana Picchu in 27 minutes before grabbing my photos and viewing the rest of the sites that is this tourist trap.
After purchasing yet more inadequate mediocre parts and fitting them to the bike, I began the three day climb into the strange land that is the Southern altiplano of Peru and Lake Titicaca. The sun scorches leaving the white skinned lamenting lack of sunscreen and what little shade you find will leave you shivering and wishing for a sunburn. Frigid nights were illuminated by billions of stars blazing through uninfluenced high altitude skies. I rode on, days and days of the same scenery and headwinds passing me by. The mountains of Bolivia loomed across the lake and again I daydreamed of the road ahead. My mind drove my legs with the realization that my visa would soon be running out. 181 days after arriving in Peru, I arrived at the southern border; I paid my one day of overage and crossed into Bolivia.
On the road, I am a spectacle. An anomaly in places that are very accustomed to normal. I draw looks, shouts, handshakes, barks, smiles, and sometimes awe. I answer the same questions all day: “Where are you from?”, “Where are you going?”, “How many hours have you ridden to get here?” (I like that one), “How old are you?”, “How much money do you have?”, and of course “Why are you doing this?”.
I have had some of the “best” times ever and the “worst” times ever traveling. I have also had some of the best-worst times on this journey. I have met many varied individuals, many of them itching to know what it’s like going from place to place in this manner. I spew ramblings of the road behind me and watch eyes light up, cardiac palpitations, hear exclamations of all sorts, and have heard every, always surprising, discouraging word. I tell of the hardest times as if they were the best and the easiest times as some of the most beautiful. I hear my words pass my lips and watch in the reflections of their eyes as they grow larger than life. The vagueness that is inherent in the telling of human experience, especially those understood as foreign, leaves gaps in the puzzle for the mind to fill in how it sees fit. A romance follows the stories for sure, but I don’t use hyperbole. How I tell the story largely influences how it’s interpreted, but part of the listener is added to the picture as well. Those with a disliking of discomfort, distrust of the fellow man, a propensity to seek financial security, or a lack of self confidence tell me: “I could never do that.”. Those with who have tasted adventure and hunger for it, those that hate the words “I can’t”, those that fancy themselves romantics, and even those with something to prove, often give exclamations of amazement and excitement. Brief conversational pauses pass and clouds form, precipitating dreams, collecting and emulsifying desire and wonder into one. Still, many of the latter who cling to the trappings of the so called “safe life” still dream to give it up, and those who often appear free are unwilling to give up the small gains or comforts they have to make a leap. Of course all of this is my perspective filling in those same missing puzzle pieces from my side of the fence.
Over time I have grown weary of toiling to present a convicting case to motivate those who are far from the edge. Maybe in time they will find other experiences which will help them see that if they truly “want” they can “do”, and if they take the time and effort to “do”, they can be free. There are no superheros, only those with time and motive. There is nothing about what I am doing that is any more complicated than a 1040EZ. The cyclists I’ve met on long hauls in their 70′s will laugh at any mention of age limitations. I have seen photos of whole families touring complete with babies in trailers. A simple search for “amputee” on crazygguyonabike.com will tell you others are empowered despite their current circumstances. Then there is the famous Lion Pushkar Shah who reportedly left Nepal on his bike ten years ago, with only five dollars in his pocket. Whatever the circumstance, I can only tell you that I know that there is almost no one out there that “could never do that”, almost no matter whatever that is.
I rolled into Peru, pushed by clouds of mosquitoes across the border at sunrise. My legs lubricated by some Johnny Walker Red offered to me in the street as I asked directions along the way. Stamp out, stamp in, and into the unknown. Dry rolling hills persisted as my eyes longed to see the desert ahead. The northern stretches of the Peruvian deserts of Peru are often fabled by cyclists as infamously dangerous, incredibly dull, and sponsor howling headwinds that double riding hours and cut egos down to size. This information, had me longing to traverse this stretch. I quickly found my way out of the hills and into the flats. Baked sand radiated heat and everything that once lived seemed brown and crispy. I took a unfortunate but epic shortcut which led me through town after town, mired in sand, choked with goats, dogs, and windows with peering eyes watching the gringo pushing his bike through the deeper patches. I had hoped to make it all the way to Piura from the border that day, but planned for camping just in case. I thought I had hauled enough water to carry me through, but in the end, I had drunk all 6 liters or so and my throat parched. After pushing my bike for an hour straight, I sat and waited. No traffic had passed for hours but I didn’t fear; it doesn’t serve me anymore. Eventually a van came by, picked me up, and offered to drive me the remainder of the way back to the pavement. My only option, I accepted. It took another hour by car through the sand, an impossible task by bike that day. Thirsty, tired, covered in dust, I rolled into Piura for the night. Welcome to Peru.
I met Japhy the next morning, having caught up with him by using my “shortcut” the day before, and headed into the wind. The roads fair and traffic predictably seen minutes before its arrival. We cranked almost directly southward, making nearly one degree of latitude per day. The roads incredibly flat and the scenery alien and bleak. Never in my life have I seen such a quintessential desert. At times there was absolutely nothing to be seen. Only huge expanses of featureless sand stretched to the horizon. At night, camping meant hauling the rig over long stretches of sand to find any sort of shrub or tree to hide the tents from the peering eyes of the passing motorists. In the day, we drafted on grinding 2km intervals to keep us moving at a consistent pace.
This area boasts some of the most extravagant archaeological finds of the Moche culture of Peru. I was fortunate enough to be riding with an anthropologist who studied under the man who discovered some of the sites. On one occasion, we even camped at a dig site. The grounds keeper gave us a private tour of the area, showing us where the huaqueros (grave robbers) had dug into the tombs casting aside ancient bones and shattered pottery which now litters the grounds.
Ever southward, through yet more desert until the final stretch where I opted to take a bus rather than ride and Japhy headed in a different direction into the mountains. This stretch, past the city of Paijan, in the past has offered several obligatory robberies to cyclists. Not offering my patronage, I arrived in Trujillo by bus and headed to Lucho’s Casa de Ciclistas.
Lucho and his family have been hosting cyclists for around 25 years now. The house is sort of a free place for cyclists to stay as long as they want. Cycling paraphernalia litters the rooms and walls, causing travelers to refer to the place as a temple of cycling. I penned my name in the logbook, the 1027′th visitor. I rested for a week, catching up with friends I’d met in Ecuador, and meeting new cyclists ask they passed through.
I eventually headed out toward Huaraz. Yet another climb from sea-level to 3000m (9000ft) awaited me. With new friends to draft with, Soren, Brent, Sven, and I headed back into the wind before turning into a canyon and upwards into the Cordillera Blanca. This leg is accented with hot dry valleys followed by ~90km of gravel. The grade, save one short climb, was gentle and the mountains astounding. It was however steep enough to let me know my current drive train was done for. My new chain jumping teeth as I climbed and eventually had me walking a few sections. The trucker, ailing, let out hysterical screams from a pedal; sending looks of worry in my direction from my riding companions. I pedaled onward, enjoying the scenery. Barren mountains, mineral rich, striped with red, yellow, orange, and even green coloration passed us by as the earth turned under our wheels. Passing miners, riding on top of trucks loaded down with coal, grinned with pitch black coal dust faces that would make any Avon rep or dermatologist shudder.
Passing through the Cañon del Pato, we made our way through around 30 dark tunnels, chiseled into the face of the steep canyon wall, before again reaching pavement. The landscape opened up. Greenery abounded in the form of farming. For the first time in a long time, I cruised easily with a wicked tailwind to propelling me into the valley. We made Caraz, where I bid adieu to the fellows, taking a different route, and headed easily into Huaraz.
Huaraz, the center of the tourist industry in the Cordillera Blanca, is choked with gringos, pedallers, guide shops, and overpriced restaurants, internet cafes, and hostals. However, it’s setting is beautiful. The real attraction is the high snow capped peaks, many above 20,000ft, circling the area.
I again met Japhy for a short backpacking trip into the mountains. With a pair of rented books and a backpack we headed down the trail. Most passers by carrying only water and camera, rented mule trains bearing the load. Several peaks showed themselves along the way, including Alpamayo: the most beautiful mountain in the world (according to UNESCO anyway). I have seen mountain scenes as spectacular as these. I was fortunate to have some clear weather to see these peaks, as many others were not so. Two days of gentle grade upward to Union Pass (15,558ft) and two days down and out.
After returning to Huaraz, I searched high and low for bike parts. None were to be found and every greasy bike mechanic’s finger pointed toward Lima. I opted instead to head back to Trujillo by bus, to the Casa de Ciclistas and see if Lucho could help me out. The sealed bearing cartridge inside my pedal had partially shattered. When I opened the end cap a wind blew past me; my pedal had given up the ghost. Bearings fell out and I shot some quick emails to Crank Brothers asking them what to do. A month or so later, a brand new set of Crank Brother’s Mallet pedals arrived. They also sent me a repair kit for pedal rebuilds. I love these pedals but I will probably rebuild them every 8000km or so if I have the opportunity. Drive train parts were partially brought from Lima. And the others? Well, I haven’t gotten around to ordering them.
I have had a lot of fun here in Trujillo, making new friends, taking in the local sights, tuning up my Spanish for $1.50/hr, helping Lucho with projects, building silly websites, and generally relaxing. I have been off the bike now for a couple months and am looking forward to the acute realism the suffering I will undoubtedly endure when I do leave. With more than one year of travel under my belt I find I want one thing more than anything else. I don’t want to stop.
It’s a beautiful life.
I flew in to Quito, Ecuador on the 9th of August. I was pleasantly surprised with the cool climate; an awaited contrast from Central America. I spent the first few days relaxing, making Galapagos travel arrangements, and getting to know the Rodriguez family. They graciously offered a room in their home, many meals, and their warm Ecuadorian hospitality. Maria Rodriguez had stayed with my grandparents as an international exchange student while my Aunt came to Ecuador and lived with her family just a seemingly short 40 or so years back. I was shown the city several times, taken to the equator, visited some ruins, and spent a little time in a casino playing a style of poker I have only previously seen in Slovakia.
A couple friends of mine joined me in Quito to travel to the Galapagos Islands. We flew to Baltra, an island just north of Santa Cruz. Upon arrival we could see the tropical marine green waters from the plane window. We spent the next week traveling from island to island over rough, seasickness inducing, passages of water to see different sights and animals up close like no where else in the world. Huge land turtles and iguanas roam these islands, while sharks, rays, and sea lions teem in the waters. We had a few opportunities to snorkel with these creatures. The sea lions being particularly fun, screaming toward you and diving down in front of you within just inches of collision of your face. When the were´t frolicking with the tourists they would play with each other, often baring their sharp teeth. On one such outing, our guide advised us to keep our arms in to prevent any bites. It was a very nice break.
After bidding farewell to my friends from Quito and spending another couple days preparing, I said goodbye to the Rodriguez family and scratched my itch to get back on the bike. Starting off at 9000ft from Quito, I was met by rain, cloud obscured majestic mountain views, and some good personal record breaking climbs. A few days later, I screamed down a hill into Baños, a small laid back town in a deep river valley nestled at the foot of a large, often smoking, volcano. Here I took a few days off to rest, take a short Spanish lesson, and take a mountain biking excursion. I was lucky to run into Nick and Rinske, whom I had met in the Galapagos Islands. It just so happened that they were staying in the same hotel. They were kind enough to supply me with a birthday drink and loads of good travel stories and advice for the ride south.
I headed south with a couple of Americans I met who were touring on a tandem. The second day out, we met Julien and Marta. We rolled onward together, our convoy of 5, over gentle mountains, on nicely paved roads, and gaped at the views of the sprawling landscape. Finally we came to a cliff edge, the view ahead only a sea of clouds. The road turned right sharply and dropped, switch backing down the wall into Alausi where we stayed for the night. Here I lost them. I ended up spending an extra day here to wait for a migraine to pass and found myself, once again, solo.
After an hour of gasping for breath. chest paining from the altitude, I climbed out of Alausi astounded by the views. Clouds crept up the valleys thousands of feet below. Massive worn mountains towered around me as I rode the walls of these magnificent landscapes. That day I met Japhy, my brother of the road, on a climb; my arrival heralded by the braying of burros in the distance. Japhy and I rode together on and off for the next few weeks. After spending three days sick in Cañar, I climbed up into the mountain paramo into the rain. A slippery downhill on the other side and a roll into Cuenca. I stayed with yet more family of Maria, now the third time I was hosted in Ecuador. I was again awed by the Ecuadorian hospitality. My laundry was immediately taken from me and washed, I was shown to a lunch table, then to a hot shower. The following day I was taken to a national park, on a tour of the city, and was able to get to know this family as well. There had been other times in the trip I was hosted, and I am forever grateful for these times. In total in Ecuador, I had this fortune four times, and this overtone of friendship lives strongly in my memories.
I got in touch with Japhy and found we were both leaving the next day and left together. More andian climbing over the next couple days, more rain, and a spectacular shortcut on a muddy dirt road providing some epic views, an insight into the mountain villages of Ecuador.
In Loja, I stayed with family of Maria´s aunt Blanca. I took a short trip to Vilcabamba to relax, then headed out. The map showed a good downhill from my current elevation, near 7000ft to almost sea level. This turned out to not be true. After a short climb I descended sharply, gusts of wind funneling through gullies to my right and sending me wobbling as I careened downward. I told myself, as always, take it easy. There´s a cliff and no one here to know I went off it. As always, the thrill of the hill got the best of me. My speedometer blinked to life and registered a new personal loaded and unloaded record of 85kph (53mph). Sorry Uncle Jim. Two more days of undulation, typical of Ecuadorian ridge running, and I reached the border town of Macarà. I had expected Japhy to be a day ahead of me at this point, but to my surprise I found him there, at this border town. I spent one more day in Ecuador, with yet another migraine, before heading to Peru.
In Central America, I had hoped desperately of the high mountains, cooler weather, awe inspiring views. My spirit down but willing to keep cranking to see if things could change. Ecuador delivered beyond my imaginations. What I didn´t expect was the overflowing kindness showered upon me by so many people and the friendship I found with those I met on the road. People always ask me, “What country was the best”, or “What was your favorite place”. This question can´t be answered in a single word or place on an adventure such as this, but I will remember Ecuador forever for the variety it brought and the beauty of it´s landscapes and people. Never before had I shed a tear at the sight of a landscape, overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty stretched before me. My fever for the road was rekindled and again and I looked forward and dreamed of the future adventures to come. The road winds onward to the south, and I never know who or what I will encounter. The romance of my memories past, good and bad, are equaled only by the dreams of what lies ahead.
Guatemala started with no country at all. The four kilometer section between Mexico and Guatemala, known as no-mans-land, climbed sharply upward to the border. The crossing was lined with street vendors hocking all sorts of wares useless to a cyclist concerned about overloading his rig. A gauntlet of shanty stores was setup reminding me of any street market in India. I stayed the night at the border, feeling a little uneasy of the unknown. Not having been to this infamous country, among travelers, before I didn’t know what to expect. My worry soon wore off as the landscape of the valley floor rolled under me. The road climbed as steadily as a locomotive up to 6000′ to Huehuetenango, passing through a canyon with walls towering thousands of feet above. Patchwork, indiscriminate, corn farms appeared in the wider areas of the valley floor and the road eventually widened to include a shoulder. I felt like an old friend had come to meet me. I had not seen a shoulder in so long, and I missed it. The children here enjoyed trying to scare me by waiting for me to pass, then just as I cranked by, they would yell “GRINGO!” in a way that was more at me than to me. This was always followed by the child then running off giggling hysterically.
From Huehue, I climbed up and down, up and down, until reaching nearly 9000′. I met a couple of Japanese cyclists, Michi and Hiroshi, on the road after just reaching the highlands. Michi had ridden from China to Europe, flown to New York and ridden down from there, in three years. Hiroshi came down from Alaska, seeing quite a bit of the US, and taking two years so far. They were both headed to Argentina as well. I asked them if they though it would rain, noticing dark thunderheads looming in the distance. Michi sniffed the air theatrically, and proclaimed that there would be no rain today. We exchanged info, took pictures, and I headed off. Just before reaching my destination for the day it started to rain. I threw on my raincoat and headed down into the valley as the downpour intensified. Cars slowed, and I pedaled on, careening at 65km/hr down the hill and eventually noticed the rain pained my torso through my jacket like needles piercing my skin. I looked down and saw a few kernels of hail collecting in a dent in my top bag. I at the bottom of the hill I stopped just in time to take cover. Large nickel-sized chunks of ice began falling, a few finding their way through my helmet vents before I ducked under an overhang. Never underestimate the rainy season. The next day, I passed Michi and Hiroshi again, just before the summit of the highest point on the Interamerican Highway, 9,900′. I cranked through this day easily, all in all doing 5000′ of elevation, all above 7000′. Unfortunately, this was one of the last days I really felt healthy. I made a quick stop at Lago Atitlan for a night, a very developed tourist town at the north end of the lake sporting views of two large volcanoes who’s banks extend into the lake.
A couple days of riding in the clean high mountain air, over ridges, down harrowing descents, and through daily torrential downpours and I arrived in Antigua. I immediately made a reservation for a guided tour to the volcano of Pacaya, Jamie having recommended this trip to me a few weeks earlier. I purchased some cheap shoes from the marketplace for the hike and hoped they would hold out. It’s a short distance up the mountainside, only 4km or so if I recall correctly. The guide led us to a large lava field, still a good distance from the top of the smoking volcano. Our only words of guidance: “be like a family, not like crazy people”. I think this was his way of saying, be careful and stay together. Later we heard that no one had died on this tour before but one woman lost her leg when she fell into the lava, or so the story goes. The lava field was a series of crusty, frozen flows; many of them leaving collapsed tunnels and hollow areas which could be heard when walking. We found an area where fresh lava was pouring out of the hillside, glowing orange-red and moving like late harvest honey. No safety ropes here, I took several pictures from a mere 5-6 feet away, getting a nice toasty lava burn on my face in the process. Some tourists brought marshmallows to roast over the vents, all the while lungs stinging with the inhalation of the sulfurous gasses. My cheap shoes didn’t endure, chunks of rock were embedded into the soles and they were generally melted. This was one of the highlights of Central America, it’s not everyday I see something like this.
From Antigua, I descended rapidly down towards the pacific coast, passing yet even more volcanoes belching puffs of hot gas and smoke. The downhill from the highlands was steep enough for me to break my fully-loaded speed record, setting a new bar at 84km/hr (52mph). This is the real reason I have a cycling computer. I’m hoping the Andes will bring even more fun.
Later that day, and only 20km from my destination, I stopped for a drink of water. The lowlands were hot, around 95F, and more humidity than I have ever felt. Immediately upon putting my foot down I felt like vomiting. I became woozy and my view began to twist and turn. Darkness crept in from the periphery of my vision. Realizing what was going on, I dropped the bike and sat down on the edge of the road as quickly as possible, my feet hanging off on the shoulder in some shallow bushes. I put my head down between my knees and my eyesight grew from a softball sized hole of light back to it’s normal dimensions. At the same moment I felt several intense stings on my ankles. I pulled up my feet and found them covered in small red ants, their bites creating welts seemingly too large for such a small insect. After a great deal of swatting, cursing, itching, cursing, and guzzling of water, I got back on the road. I had drunk more water that day than usual but the humidity was killing me. In Mexico it was over 100F but it never felt anywhere near this hot. I took it easy for a while, and ended up repeating this same scenario two more times, sans ants. I eventually walked the last 8km, finding that to be the only way I could keep from passing out. All in all, that last 20km took me four hours. The heat persisted, sapped me of my energy, and again limited my riding days from sun-up to around 11am.
The El Salvador crossing was easy, one of the most laid back borders I have seen, and the road widened even more to include a six foot shoulder. El Salvador’s roads, in my opinion, are the best in Central America, both in surface and in width. I saw several cyclists, both recreational and tranportational, all enjoying the fruits of the interamericana. I never really felt like I had gotten my strength back after being so completely wiped out in Guatemala by the heat. One of the first days in El Salvador I had some shrimp that didn’t sit well with me and left me feeling nauseous for days. I stayed in a cheap hotel to wait it out but on the third day I couldn’t stand it any longer and rode anyway. I felt sick all day and as the heat increased it only got worse. I stopped, and waited for traffic to pass before yawning into the ditch in late morning. This was not for vanity, just that if they saw me they would almost certainly stop and ask if I needed help; the Latin hospitality being what it is.
I passed through a few tunnels, completely dark other than the light at the end and at times busy with traffic. I stopped to take a look around with my light and saw half a dozen medium sized bats flutter just 10′ or so overhead. I took some shorter days to finish the crossing to Honduras, staying in the lowlands, and skipping attractions in an attempt to get south of the heat into the mountains as quickly as possible. A few days later I crossed into Honduras. The roads again became bad again, but the traffic light. Taking the Pacific route, I passed through a small leg of this country, spending only one night between borders.
I no longer fear border crossings, now knowing more of what to expect. Before leaving I really had no idea, which of course was the cause of both the fallacy and the fear. Human nature is often a disservice, recent cultural circumstances being lost on physical evolution.
The Nicaragua border brought 17km of alternating dirt and paved roads, loaded with potholes. I met Josu half way through the day. A Spaniard from the Basque region who turned 40 and decided since he was half way to 80, it was a good time to go tour Central America on his bike. Good man. We rode together to Chinandega, a 80mile slog from Choluteca in Honduras past yet more volcanoes (getting the picture yet?), through more ridiculous downpours, and watched as lightning struck all around us, once within only about 200′. Soaked to the bone, but still warm from the rain, we dried out and swapped stories from the road and plans for future travels as cyclists like to do. The next day he left to climb a volcano and I made my way toward Managua and eventually Granada.
I took a passenger boat to the center of Lago Nicaragua to Isla Ometepe. This small volcanic island, formed by two quintessential conical volcanoes has become a quiet retreat for travelers on their way to Costa Rica. The boat docked at dusk and I rode the four kilometers to the town up a bumpy road dirt road in the dark. Fireflies zipped passed my bike as I picked a line passed through the potholes and between rocks. I found a hotel the next day by the lake and learned that the boat would not be back for another three days so I might as well relax. The roads around the island were mostly dirt, but one very nice road led between the two circular sections.
This jungle paradise had a lot of things to do, but I spent most of my time swinging in a hammock beside the shark-infested waters of the lake. I did take a horseback ride up to a viewpoint, my first time on a horse for more than a few minutes. My steed seemed to know that I was inexperienced and took every opportunity to stop and eat fallen mangoes, go off course, stop and stand around, and generally be ornery. I asked the guide if my horse was tired and he told me: “no, he’s just stupid”. Eventually I got him to obey, by use of less subtle queues. I also got him to run at a full gallop. It was everything I could do to hang on to him, and well really there was nothing to hang on to. The saddle was some sort of wooden thing with a bit of leather and very little padding stretched over the top, the reigns a simple rope around his snout. We bumped into some other riders at one point and my caballo began to lose his marbles, jumping around and staggering about. I pulled him off to the side and later I was told that he was “not friends” with one of the other horses. I was just glad he didn’t buck me off by the time we got back to the hotel.
I left the island in the evening on the same boat, this time heading south toward Costa Rica. After a 10hr overnight ride, we arrived at the south end of the lake. From the border, which was really just a small dock, a 45 minute boat ride took me upriver to Los Chiles, Costa Rica. I paid my fee, had disinfectant sprayed on my tires, and I was on my way.
The northern plains of Costa Rica are rolling farmlands where the road crews decided it wasn’t worth it to cut into the hills. Although you don’t gain any elevation, you manage to climb quite a few very steep hills in this area. The rains of course did not cease and I found myself yet again wet. In humid climates like this, your clothes don’t dry out overnight unless you have A/C in your hotel room. So many mornings are started by sliding on very soggy padded shorts, a sweat soaked helmet, a cold wet shirt, and slipping your muddy socks into heavy shoes. Welcome to the rainy season. Having seen some of Costa Rica a few years ago, I took a course that led me to the Carribean coast. This also cut out some miles and put me on track to see some sights in Panama I was looking forward to.
The Caribbean coast is different feel from the rest of the areas I have been in. Everything moves a little slower, if that’s possible, most people speak English, the food is better, and more people offer you magic brownies on the street. I quickly made my way south to Puerto Viejo, not lingering long in the shady town of Puerto Limon. I spent a day there, trying to line up a jungle walk or a snorkel trip, but failed due to group sizes and not wanting to wait a few days.
I spun south over the border to Panama, the first day making it to a water taxi which took me to Bocas del Toro. The driver stopped alongside an island on the way to whistle, honk, and catcall at every bikini on the beach. The next stop was a small canoe, lobster fisherman. He haggled over a few lobsters with them for a few minutes, then decided they were too expensive and headed for the dock at Bocas.
Bocas is a group of islands which used to be one of the most remote untouched areas in the world. In the last 20 years or so, roads have been built to allow more access, and more companies offer ferry services to the islands, now many, hotels. Still, it’s a great place to relax and catch up on some much sought after snorkeling. I took a snorkel tour that lasted most of the day, about 4 hours of time in the water, enough to crisp my back even on an overcast day. I saw barracuda, stingray, lobster, several schools of colorful tropical fish, many many different corals of vibrant blue, red, purple, yellow, green, and was very wary of some large jellyfish hanging out in a couple of the areas. I also saw a 5′ shark under the dock of a restaurant. He seemed to be waiting for the leftovers they scrape off the plates into the water. Bocas del Toro is the the closest thing to the classic tropical paradise I have found. Crystal green-blue waters, lush jungle islands, and honey to white sand beaches.
I started feeling ill the day I left, and ended up riding for six hours anyway. Cruising the coast, I listened to monkeys howl in the distance, admired the jungle flowers, and saw a couple of toucans tip their wings overhead as I rode the hilly shoreline. I ended up just short of the mountains, and found a hotel. I caught some sort of respiratory infection that’s been with me since. I waited a few days in this little shanty town, full of cantinas and a rough and tumble bunch. It seems that a ferry to and from Colombia comes to this town every few days, it’s main attraction. I was able to see a street fight one night, a good view from the hotel balcony. Around 40 people gathered in to watch the spectacle. Two drunk men, duking it out, seemingly over a woman, who all the time was screaming something at the both of them. It went on for about twenty minutes, each time someone was knocked to the pavement, one of their “friends” would pick them up and push them back together again. Mothers came out of their houses and screamed for children to come back home, some of them watching from the front row. A local mentioned to me that this happens every weekend at some point. When it was finally over, the men seemed to reconcile their differences, gave each other a hug, and went in opposite directions.
Eventually, I got sick of being sick, and left anyway. Over the mountains and down the other side, toward Panama City. I went slowly, feeling tired and the heat still sapping my energy. I ran into some other travelers, a couple from Quebec traveling from Mexico City to Panama City who survive on little else other than chips and beer, a fellow riding to Panama from Austin, Texas, and a Costa Rican man who had been riding for two years back and forth between Costa Rica, Panama, and Mexico. The Tico, fellow from Costa Rica, supported himself along the way by juggling fire in the streets, washing windows at gas stations, and finding work wherever he could. We pulled into Santiago together and found all the hotels booked since there was a large fiesta in town that weekend. Luckily the Tico had a friend at the local fire station and we were able to stay in a conference room in the back free of charge. He told me that he had spread “good vibrations” throughout all the fire stations on this route and if I ever needed a place to stay they would oblige. We walked around the fiesta that night in Santiago, as far as I could tell it was some sort of homage to the patron saint of loudspeakers. Cars were lined up for blocks and blocks, each sporting five foot by five foot arrays of speakers, blaring music turned up to 11. The streets were packed with thousands and thousands of people dancing and drinking. I have never seen anything like that in my life. The music bumped until the morning and it would have been difficult to sleep had I not been dead tired.
The next few days brought fewer and fewer miles. I felt more and more sick as the days went by and half of my back now stung with a nasty case of prickly heat where the skin had peeled from my snorkeling burn. I finally reached Panama City, riding only 15km the last day. I rode over the Bridge of the Americas and stopped to watch large container ships pass by on their way toward the locks. I have been in Panama City for almost a week now, running errands, giving The Trucker a good cleaning and adjustment, and looking for supplies. I did go visit the first set of locks on the Pacific side of the Panama Canal. It’s a strange thing to see a fully loaded container ship sitting in the middle of land, only a couple feet of clearance on each side before the green grass. From here, I will fly to Ecuador rather than riding through Colombia. It is true that Colombia has become safer in recent years and I have talked with loads of people who came through there, including a couple of cyclists. All the same, I would rather just hop over to Quito and get out of the heat and into the mountains straightaway, after a short Galapagos excursion I hope.
More than anything Central America impressed me with the sheer contrast between the reputation it has and the reality of travel here. My perspective may be different from many other travelers, certainly of a minuscule sample size, and I am fairly sure at this point you are better off in many respects on a bike than in a car or a bus regarding safety, but I just don’t think these areas deserve the avoidance they currently have. Guatemala was definitely a place I would visit again. The mountain beauty I cycled through was unmatched. Nicaragua, one of if not the poorest countries, has the best safety record statistically, but the fewest travelers. It’s colonial towns and undeveloped environmental sights attract a few. Most of these countries provided easy traveling for me, good roads, diversity in food, and cheap accommodations. The heat and humidity I did not enjoy but the other sights made up for it. Once again I look back and find that the times I rode through the mountains were vastly more enjoyable to those of the boring, grinding, flats. South America should supply me with plenty of high peaks and vistas to fill my days.