23 September 2008

La Costa, Peru

In a moment of consentual oxygen-lust, we modified our exclusively Andean route to include the salty sea-air of the South Pacific. The neglected mountain roads had tested our stamina and taxed our machines to the point of needing serious repairs, both bodily and mechanically. Fortunately, the nearest city with any chance of having the necessary tools happened to be along sandy shores, or so we thought. By now, the jostles induced by nearly 1000 km of dry washboards and fist-sized stones had broken three steel braze-ons and irritated countless muscles. A break of a different sort was in order.

With visions of Endless Summer, we descended from the Andean heights with blind ambition; or perhaps it was the headwind stirring the arid earth and the poorly maintained engines spewing black exhaust that blinded us. Either way, we plugged on - heads down, teeth clenched, eyes squinted. After two days of desperately clinging to our rolling jackhammers, we came rattling onto the beach, high on oxygen after losing 4000 meters. For the first time since leaving Miami and Amsterdam, we felt the density of the cool, coastal air, clearly reflected in our uninterrupted sleep that night. Sadly, our overnight comas ended before dawn due to a nasty rumor we had heard about the upcoming stretch.

Apparently, the route approaching Trujillo is laden with ladrones known to target touring cyclists. Bias aside, I think they´ve chosen their victims wisely. No one could be more vulnerable and valuable than disproportioned cyclists carrying their worldly possessions on a easily-approachable vehicle. Their action tactics sound efficient as well, merely veering their moto-taxis into the shoulder and ramming the cyclists with their three-wheeled weapons. While the spandex-clad victims are down for the count, the ladrones gather whatever goods appear valuable and casually motor down the Panamericana, loot in hand. Thankfully, we heard about these events before we had to experience them, and in preparation for this potential thievery, we equipped ourselves with defenses.

The infamously sketchy section from Pacasmayo to Trujillo stretches for 110 km through an empty expanse of overcast sandscape. Waking at 5 am, we planned to knock-off this chunk before noon, hoping to avoid the sun, wind, and robbers. In addition to our calculated schedule, we also mounted 22-inch machetes in bayonet fashion, hoping to appear militant in our half-ninja, half-cycling costumes. For the first few hours, we were fortunate enough to have the company of a Peruvian kung-fu coach on a motorcycle, someone who had schooled us in the philosophy of defense the night before, but when duty called him back to Pacasmayo, we were alone with our combined 56 inces of weaponry. The intimidation measures must have worked because we cruised through the danger zone in a 20 kmph paceline, adrenaline pulsing and senses alert.

After eight days of averaging over 80 km in exhaustive conditions, we trudged into Trujillo, battered from the compounding ailments. Coincidentally, we arrived at 2000 km, yet another occasion for celebration. Rest, relaxation, and rehabilitation are on the agenda until we´re drawn back into the mountains, which - given our history - won´t be long.

20 September 2008

Abras, Peru

In the Andes, immense changes happen throughout the day. Somehow, the elements that went into creating other mountain ranges have collided in overabundant proportions here to create an environment that humiliates our experience with spiteful surprises.

Weatherwise, we´re used to seeing three or four seasons in a single day, as was the case leaving Leymebamba. The sun baked the west-facing slope as we climbed out of town, but before lunch, we had ridden under a blanket of clouds that cooled our water-bottles to a refreshing temperature again. Later, after tuna-and-crackers, the blanket of clouds enveloped us with whiteness and wetness. For 30 km, we climbed with no indication of the supposed Abra Barro Negro at 3760 meters, but after evading the whipping winds in an abandonded building, we found ourselves shifting into the second and third ring, hardly recognizing the feeling. Around the fourth corner, the clouds were whisked away by a broom bigger than we could imagine and the landscape revealed itself. It was as if we spent the morning looking through a foggy pair of binoculars, suddenly taken away. The relatively treeless expanse appeared muscular in its striations, the contours of which we traced like bobsleds on the thrilling descent. For 60 km, we hooted and hollered our way down the winding gravel track, feeling like kids opening presents on Christmas morning. Darkness descended upon us as we rolled into town, but the whites of our bulging eyes and the bug-pasted gleam of our cackling smiles provided ample light to find accommodations.

Terrainwise, we hesitate to make predictions, because around each hairpin lies something unexpected. As we crawled out of our bug-oven on the banks of the Rio Marañon, the sun crept over the canyon walls, cooking the urine-soaked streets of the disgusting transit-town that clung to the bridge like a leech. In full daylight, we realized the filth we had overlooked in our euphoric state from the night before. With furrowed noses, we pedaled over the bridge and into a deserted landscape, incapable of cultivation. The heat persisted until we reached a partial plateau that began to show signs of life, but the steadily climbing track kept its course, toward a veritable wall at the end of the valley. As we got closer, we saw that the wall had a scar that stitched its way to the top with six switchbacks, stretching from one end of the valley to the other. With gritted teeth, we continued onward and upward. After 6 hours of consistent climbing with 45 km of zig-zags behind us, we flung ourselves onto the cool grass at the Abra Sin Nombre at 3600 meters, goofily recounting the day and its hellish scheme against us. The track leisurely led us into Celendín where we treated ourselves to real beds and fake pizza.

Moderation has no place in the Andes. Everything is taken to its extreme, the result of which leaves lasting impressions. In addition to accumulating some memorable experiences, we´re also left with sore smiling muscles, aching saddle sores, and swollen bug bites, each to a degree we´ve never felt before.

16 September 2008

Kuelap, Peru

On the third day, we rose. Our bedridden bodies were finally mobile beyond the bed-to-bathroom route that we had worn into the concrete floor at the hospedaje. Luckily, the first 16 km of the day was on a smooth, switchbacking asphalt that wound its way back to the bottom of the valley where the route continued upstream. When time came to pedal, the legs that propelled my bicycle felt like a pair of disfunctional pistons. I would have returned them if I still had the receipt. A few dreary hours later, we found ourselves at the base of the acclaimed rival of Machu Picchu, soon to be asserted by our resident architect and geologist.

The ruins of Kuelap sit atop a rock outcrop that hovers 1200 meters above Tingo, the town where we began the day. In our relentless pursuit of the road less traveled, we opted to walk the 15 km trail rather than hitch the 37 km road, a decision that retained our independence but drained our energy. Four hours and three packages of animal crackers later, we armed ourselves for the raid on the long-deserted fort. After reviewing our battle strategy, we donned our ninja gear and stormed the ruins with carnivorous hunger, breeching the tight perimeter of the mighty Kuelap with grace and fluidity. In other words, we crawled our way into the ticket office, paid 7 soles, and hobbled up the retrofitted steel stairs. But we still felt like warriors in our ninja gear.

We wandered the fortress for the entire afternoon, forgetting our hunger and thirst as we gawked at our relative solitude; the ghosts of the Chachapoyans were the only other occupants. As the light faded, so did the aparitions, and our supposed rest-day came to an exhausting but impressing end.

12 September 2008

Sierra Norte, Peru

Since entering the northern highlands, we´ve been able to quantitatively measure Peruvian generosity in kilograms. Our methods are far from scientific, but the amount of bananas we´re given acts as a relatively accurate scale. No matter how impoverished a village may seem, the people give with an openness rarely seen in affluent neighborhoods, exhibiting another paradoxical relationship that refreshes our perception of people as people, no less. If only our stomachs could handle the generosity as well as our hearts.

We found one such experience on a shortcut through a few small villages along a beaten dirt track that bypassed a sizeable city. Cruising through the seemingly deserted streets, we caught a glimpse of an immaculately manicured soccer field that drew us in for lunch. Before long, we were brought watermelons and oranges from the groundscrew, and then, with sufficiently full tanks, we were challenged to a barefoot match, gringos versus Peruanos. Gringos humbly triumphed. After this anti-siesta, we were escorted out of town through a maze of stone roads that led to a giant river with no bridge in sight. Thankfully, the boatmen were working full-time and came to the rescue.

A week earlier, while riding the dirt track that connected Ecuador with Peru, we saw faint traces of what looked to be German tire tread. Hours of uphill at 4 kmph allowed plenty of time to study the nuances of the tread pattern. Our suspicions were confirmed at the border when we talked some folks that had indeed seen two German cyclists the day before. Shortly after the bicycle-boat ride, with a cyclo-magnetic impulse, we stumbled into the very hotel of the rumored German cyclists. Since then, we´ve joined forces and riden through the growing landscape of the northern highlands, but not without our fair share of roadblocks.

Symbolism aside, a literal roadblock closed our route for all but two-hours-a-day, which led us to take a side-trip to Gocta, home of the third largest waterfall in the world. The amphitheater created by the landscape made the falls sound like a pulsating jet-engine from 6 km away. The near-freezing temperature wasn´t enough to deter us from diving into the strangely orange-colored water, an act that rejuvinated us by a few years, as the locals said that after a swim in the falls you´re back to being twenty years old again. Not much savings for us. Later that night, our second roadblock came, this time on a plate of rice, potatoes, and eggs, served with love by a family that lived near the soccer field in the center of town where we made our campsite. Too bad that their kindness didn´t offset the nastiness hidden within the food.

In order to make the two-hour window of passage through the construction zone, we had to ready our rigs before sunrise, but the reprecussions from the night before made preparations miserably difficult. Conditions worsened throughout the day, unaided by the mid-afternoon hold-up on the side of a dusty road while the construction crew detonated explosives. The point came at which we were in need of medical amenities, so after hours of negotiating, we piled into a miniature white truck that took us to Chachapoyas where we found the necessary accommodations. All the gory symptoms of wretched stomach viruses accompanied us for the following few days, leaving us as feeble as unrefridgerated Jello. The bright side of things is that we had the means to dig ourselves out of that trench, a fortune that can´t be ignored, even when assuming the fetal position for 36 hours. The road to recovery is underway with a diet of oral rehydration solutions, and depending on the solidity of our stool, we´ll continue making a trail of ten German tire treads.

06 September 2008

The Rural Route, Ecuador

The expectations we shared about this stage of the route revealed our shortcomings in cartography. What appeared to be a smooth descent along a meandering river into Peru turned out to be a rugged track that circuitously wove its way through fly-infested forest at an insurmountable grade. Apparently, none of us scrutinized the various map keys that indicated a footpath, if any, across the border. But, in characteristic fashion, we pursued it with confidence, ignorance, and obstinance, and ultimately, we managed to tread the non-existent track with gritted teeth, the result of which has left us in Peru with sore jaws.

As Vilcabamba receded behind us, the terrain opened up into a rural landscape that grew in every direction. The expanse flourished, as did our spirits, because for the first time, I felt what I had anticipated Ecuador would be like, finding it in the most unlikely quadrant of the map. The road that led us southward deteriorated incrementally until we found ourselves alone, on a one-lane dirt road that appeared to be the only visible intrusion on Parque Nacional Podocarpus. Finally, the isolation that we craved was all around us.

The remoteness remained for the following few days, as did the decrepit track. Clouds accompanied us for most of the mornings, leaving our gear soggy, smelly, and heavy for the day´s ride, but come afternoon, the blaring sun reminded us that we were near the equator. Other reminders confirmed that we were the ones that were beaten, not the track. Fourteen-percent grades on loose rock with mud that seized our tires ingrained the last few kilometers as being arduous, but authentic. On our last night in Ecuador, we found ourselves camped near a ramshackle sugar cane distillery, tended by a handfull of young military personel who provided the finest liqour to accompany our extravagent rice concoction, the result of which was easily shaken off by the second-breakfast they served us the next morning.

After nearly a week of wondering where and when Peru would be, we came upon a sleepy border crossing at the bottom of another harrowing descent. After a ceremonial stamping process, we were through: 1000 kilometers, 20 days, 1 country. Since then, our bags and bellies have been full of bananas, given with gusto by Peruvian villagers with little to spare. The hospitality we´ve seen has almost mended the cramps, bites, and bruises we suffered by taking the rural route, and yet, there won´t be a shred of regret heard through our whining and scratching.