Mira, mira gringo!

Posted by on Sep 14 2007 | 10 Ecuador 2007, 11 Peru 2007, English

Rocky road

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The sun was shining hot from a blue sky again. Our bellies were round from a delicious buffet we had for breakfast and we felt a bit sick pushing the bikes uphill. 20km of pavement were left before the beginning of a 300km long gravel road. It had been raining a lot for the past two days, but today seemed to be perfect to start the climb up to over 3000m from only 1500m in Vilcabamba.  We spent the night camping behind bushes next to the road wondering if the rain would stop in the morning for another beautiful blue sky day but we continued riding in our rain gear.

It took us all morning for the remaining 11km uphill to the pass. The road was in parts quite steep so that I had to push my bike and somethimes help Flo push the trailer for a while. On the summit it was very windy and cold. We rolled down for a few kilometers and had lunch on a mossy spot next to the road. There I got some water from a creek which we filtered to fill our bottles again.

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Some super steep and rocky parts awaited us on the downhill ride and a few small creeks crossing the road where I got a wet shoe because my front wheel slipped off a stone in the middle of deep water. So the downhill wasn’t much faster than the uphill. This side of the pass was really hot and the vegetation reminded us very much of Central America. There were the banana and orange trees again, sugar cane and bright coloured bushes.

Another creek crossed the road. I took off one shoe and crossed fine. Florian thought he could make it again and this time slipped and got his shoe wet as well.

Shortly after we took off the next morning I heard a nasty dog barking and stopped to pick up some rocks, then wanted to continue but Florian called up to me to wait until he had some stones as well. Both my shoes got somehow stuck in the pedal baskets and I couldn’t get my feet out and slowly tipped to one side. Because it was gravel and because I was riding in shorts I got some scratches on my leg. I was really mad about this silly fall, the scratches burned, but well, it could have been worse! The ride then was actually quite nice. It was an easy ride of slight down hill with beautiful views until we reached the first side canyon after some 30km. We could see the road on the other side going up steeply and we were rolling down on this side until we reached the stream and a scarry bridge. On the other side we both had to push our bikes and Chan had to get out of the trailer and help us push.

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The gravel here was really loose and we kept slipping backwards. It looked like we had the worsed part of it, Florian even started pedaling again only to discover that after a few 100m it got even steeper and the ground softer. 2km were taking us one hour! Luckily the next few side canyons weren’t as steep anymore, but the ride was arduous anyway. Suddenly I felt this weird quietness arround us and looked up. ¨Flo look over there!¨I called back and pointed to a valley ahead of us which was clouded over and disappeared behind a dense white wall of heavy rain. ¨Hopefully we can make that village over there before the rain is hitting us!¨, he said pointing at some houses on a ridge, ¨this might be Zumba with a hotel!¨ The first raindrops fell, when we reached the village. But what disapointment, when we realized it wasn’t Zumba and that pretty much the whole village was drunk. We covered the trailer and our panniers and rode on. It was downhill now, but thew road was again really bad, soft material and rocks so that we couldn’t ride faster than 4-5km/hour. Finally we reached Isimanchi, the village at the bottom by the river. The rain had stopped again and it was hot down here. We were told that it was 2 hours to walk to Zumba from here. It was 5pm and we would probably need 2 hours as well for the steep climb of 5-7km to Zumba.

We didn’t have much water left and there wasn’t any to buy here. Should we attempt the climb risking to ride in the dark and stay in a hotel in Zumba or stay down here in this hole where people were starring at us? We bought 1 1/2 liter cola and started to climb up. I was really tired but it didn’t feel right to stay down by the river. With lots of breaks, cola and chocolate we made it to the last switch back we had seen from the river about one hour later. The sun had already disappeared behind the mountains. We rode around a rock where the rode had disappeared out of sight and could see the road winding its way further up and up. That almost blew me from my bike . I had believed that we had the best part of the climb by now and now I just didn’t have any strength left. We pushed on and then there were those houses on the side of the road and I told Flo I couldn’t continue and that he should ask if we could camp there. He was a bit disappointed to give up so close to Zumba and so was Chan. He had been looking foreward to a hotel. But we could put our tent up in front of an unused school house, filtered water, cooked and by the time we were eating it was completely dark and had begun to rain again.

The next day it took us another hour to cover the 3km to Zumba. In Zumba we stocked up on food again and Flo could check our e-mail at the town hall. Chan shared his cars with some boys and when we wanted to leave, one car was missing and one of the boys took off quite quickly when we started looking for the car. We were lucky with the weather now, for the rain had stopped and when we continued out of Zumba the sun burned hot on us. The road got worse though with lots of rocks and mud and again we went steeply down hill and on the other side of the valley steeply uphill again. Chan had to walk a few times, but he didn’t mind. Actually he loved it and collected sticks and stones and ran back and forth between me and Florian like a little dog.

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The road wasn’t really a road but more like a path by now and it took us again the whole day for 37km. Especially the last part, only about 10km, were really nasty; loose ground with tons of rocks. It took forever. But we made it to La Balsa and the border to Peru! Ecuadorian Immigration was relatively quick but on the peruvian side we first had to look for the officer who was at home and it took us about 1 hour to get into Peru. But wow! How nice were those first 5km of road! No, it wasn’t paved, but compared to the past few days we were riding on an interstate highway and quickly arrived at a nice hotel in Namballe.

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We stayed one day in that hotel to recover from the exertions of the past days and discovered a tear in the rim of my back wheel. How long would that rim hold? Could we risk another day on gravel with it to San Ignacio where there was supposed to be many bike shops? We took the risk and headed off the next day. the road got worse again with lots of mud in places and water holes, rocks and soft parts. We stopped in a village to buy more liquids and were surrounded by kids and adulds immediatley. Flo counted 31 kids and a handfull of adults staring at us during our whole lunch brake only an arm length away.

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When we got on our bikes again, the majority of them followed us for 1-2 km on foot or bikes and laughed and screamed loudly. From now on this happened every time we rode through a village. We didn’t even have to stop, we were surrounded and followed anyway. If we did stop to buy more water, they were immediately right at our bikes, touching everything, staring through the mosquito net and windows into the trailer. This was especially difficult for Chan who was first afraid and then annoyed. In San Ignacio a group of kids followed us even into the hospedaje and we could only breath up after locking our room door behind us.

It was a very cheap hospedaje, but it was late already and we were too tired to search for another one. In the middle fo the night I woke up suddenly because something big had fallen next to my head and then run off. Flo said it was a rat which entered through the window, then jumped onto the bedframe and lost balance over my head! Igitigitt!

In the morning we brought my wheel to the only bike shop we could find and he said he could change the rim within one hour. When we returned 1 1/2 hours later he was just about to put the old wheel back together. He had taken the whole wheel apart only to discover, that he didn’t have a rim that would fit my 32 spokes. Putting the spokes back into the rim he did a really bad job. My wheel was now as untrue as it could possibly be. Flo couldn’t fix it either without a trueing tool because not even the hub was in the centre of the wheel now and I couldn’t ride on like this.  

We decided to take a bus to Jaen. An american we had met in Ecuador had told us about a really good bike mechanic we would find there. The bus wasn’t leaving until 6.30pm and was taking 3 hours. But we had gotten seats on the upper level in the very front and really enjoyed our panoramic view. The bus stopped in front of a hospedaje and we took a room there. It was too late to pack the bikes and look for another hotel. The room was dirty and cockroaches climbed up and down the walls. In the morning we went looking for the bike shop and found it after the 3rd try. Miguel Obando even had a good rim with the necessary 32 holes for my spokes and not the normal 36 for Peru. His sister invited us to stay in an empty room at their house and we stayed there for three days fixing my bike, giving an interview at the local radio station and letting Chan play with two girls from the Netherlands who live there.

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About rocks, holes and good companions

This part of our voyage was very special for the three of us. It was strenuous to ride, but brought us through extremely diverse landscapes and climates. Only a few weeks before we pedeled these roads, my father had passed through by bus and I felt his presence along the way knowing that he had enjoyed the same amazing views and experienced a journey as fantastic as we did. We didn’t ride alone. Rahel and Joerg, the swiss couple we had already met twice before (www.affenbrunner.ch), had cought up to us again and now we were sharing a part of our voyages. Then there was Steven as well from Australia who was on a ride from Quito to the South without a strong plan about his travels. He had heared about us in Ecuador and became part of our cycling familiy for about 10 days as well.

When we left Jaen we entered Amazonas province. That didn’t mean we were actually in the Amazonas basin but the climate, altitude and humidity certainly reminded us of the close rain forest. the countryside was relatively flat and the wide valleys were used for the cultivation of rice. We were dripping with sweat but the roads were dusty.

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Where ever we appeared with or without bikes people often behaved quite strange as if we were aliens. Kids always followed us screaming:¨Gringo, gringo, mira, mira!¨ A mother once ordered her kids out of the house to watch the gringos ride by. They point with there fingers and get very excited as if they didn’t know of the existence of different coloured people. In the time of T.V, Internet and globalisation this is often not just annoying but those reactions also feel offensive and insulting by the tone of the people’s voices.

Other people are sticking their oversized cameras right into our faces as soon as we get off our bikes without asking if it is fine with us to be filmed. So now we know how it feels to be an attraction but not respected as people. How many people in countries like Peru must feel exactly this by the behaviour of certain tourists!

3 days after we had left Jaen, we heard the familiar sound of a bike bell, Rahel and Joerg had caught up to us.

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There was so much to talk about for the rest of the day and late into the night! Rahel and I didn’t stop talking the whole next day riding in the front. Joerg was in the middle, taking lots of pictures and staying with Flo and Chan behind us. We had already gained in altitude a little bit again and our surroundings changed. A narrow canyon which opened up the higher we got, brought us out of a vegetation of mostly shrubs and thorn bushes into greener regions.

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When we woke up on our second morning with Rahel and Joerg the sky was dark grey and it rained. We all decided to hang around in Leymebamba, hoping that the rain would eventually stop for a sunny ride the next day. So we looked out for a nice chocolate torte and found pancakes and pizza instead. Like every long distance cyclist on a day off, we were eating the whole day. In mid afternoon, just before we had some coffee and cake, Rahel cut my hair short again. When Chan woke up from his nap, he almost cried when he saw me and said he didn’t like it. By now though he is happy with my new look.

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It was still raining the next morning, but we could see some blue in the sky and decided to ride. We were afraid, that the gravel road would turn into a mud path if we waited too long. But the road wasn’t bad and the grades comfortable on the way up to the first of a few passes over 3000m. The road was built into the terrain nicely so that we enjoyed beautiful panoramic views over the valley we came from. The summit on 3680m was very cold and windy. So we were riding down on the other side quickly on a gravel road that was quite good and after about 20km found it was time to stop and look for a place to camp. Rahel discovered the perfect spot on a path leading to a house far away. the path was wide enough for our two tents close to the road, but hidden a bit behind a slope and bushes.

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We put up our tents and started cooking, when Rahel came to me and said, that another cyclist had arrived. It was Steven, wo had done a 100km day on gravel to try and catch up with us! When our food was almost ready a few girls came up the path wit a donkey. We had to make some space first before they could pass between tents and bikes. But they didn’t mind and waited patiently. Then a bit later passed two men on footk and instead of asking what we were doing there, they showed us where to find drinkable water! It was all down hill for about 40km from our campsite to Balsas down at the Marañon River at 900m. We thought it would be a quick ride, but the road got worse the further down we got and we needed more than 3 hours.

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The views were incredible as the change of climate and vegetation. We were slowly diving into what looked like a bare rocky world but actually was quite diverse and colourful in detail. There were prickly pear blooming in bright orange. Bushes with purple and yellow flowers. Knobbed trees and many varieties of cactuses. All the way on the bottom of the valley was the river surrounded by juicy green mangoe trees. The Marañon is one of the two mother rivers which become eventually the Amazonas. Already up here it gathered a big body of water and devides the Andes into two parts with its steep and deep canyon.

Balsas was a terrible little town. Garbage was lying around everywhere and the smell of piss and rotten mangoes filled the thick, hot air. We got lunch in a restaurant and then tried to find food for our dinner and water. There wasn’t much water to buy and for vegetables we were sent to the mangoe stands.

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On the other side of the bridge the road was more like a river bed than road. It was really difficult to steer the bikes on this loose coarse surface. The road slowly climbed te valley side in curves and switch backs, so the grades were comfortable. But Rahel and I had to push our bikes the bigger part of it and Florian did incredible work again, pulling the trailer up that road! After only 8 km we looked out for a place to sleep. We were still in the very dry and hot desert part and needed to find water. People pointed to a tiny creek further up and we were surprised to find water there. Rahel had found a beautiful spot between cactuses and thornbushes for our camp. Joerg and Steven were still a bit further down the road trying to fix Steven’s broken chain and Flo and I fetched water which accidently spilled. So Steven got more water later, we cooked spaghetti together, filtered water and enjoyed our special campsite.

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To escape most of the heat in this dry land, we got up early and faught our way up and up and up. The men were always riding. I pushed my bike more than I could ride it and so did Rahel. 28km took us a whole day of pusing and slowly moving our heavy bikes up on those rocks. Joerg and Steven kept running back to help Flo push the trailer and take my bike to push it a while for me. We needed many breaks and bought the whole stock of 4 bottles of coca cola in a small bodega on the way.

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We camped about 10km below the summit on a grassy spot hidden from the road by thick bushes. Again we cooked pasta with a delicious sauce Joerg put toether. There was no water, but luckily we had filled up on it in the last restaurant where we had eaten lunch. Another morning of pushing in a “riverbed” lay ahead of us. One more switch back and we would be on the summit! I bought another cola. We needed that extra sugar and liquid to keep up our strength. I asked the woman at the bodega if she had a garbage for the empty pet bottles. She pointed to the edge of the slope: “The dogs will eat it!” “No”, I said. “It is plastic, the bottles!” “Ah, you can throw it down anyway.”, she replied. I couldn’t of course, but that’s what people do. There is no place to bring the garbage to!

What a feeling when we had finally reached the summit at 3050m and looked back down to the Marañon. A white line meandered its way up in wide loops and narrow switchbacks ending at our feet. We had made it!

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In Celendin we had half a day to rest, stock up on food and chocolate and celebrate our sixt year of being away from Switzerland.

The road was amazingly good to ride from here. It was still gravel and we had yet another pass on gravel to climb, the highest so far on our journey with an altitude of 3760m. We didn’t make the pass in one day and camped again just about 8km before te summit. Rahel had asked an old man by his house, if we could put up our tents there and he was really friendly and sweet saying over and over:” Si, si, gringita, si, si!” Next morning the police came visiting us to tell us that this road was very dangerous, that there were a lot of robbers and that our security was the responsibility of the police and that they would therefore stay close to us for the whole day. We didn’t see them again.

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We had lunch in the next little town, rice with papas fritas as usual. When we continued we hardly believed our eyes: the road was paved! Wow, that was about 20km earlier than we expected it. No more jolting, just nice and smooth riding! Chan fell asleep immediatly.

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We made it to Baños del Inca mid afternoon and first went for an ice cream. Unfortunatley the hostel with thermal baths we had wanted to stay at didn’ t exist. All other places were terribly over priced and mostly quite shabby. We found one with private bath tubs and Chan, Flo and I relaxed in a warm family bath. But especially I didn’t like the place so we rode the short 9 km to Cajamarca next morning after a bike cleaning session. There the hostal we had chosen was booked out and Rahel, Steven and I looked for another place for about two hours, then Florian and Steven went again and finally found an acceptable place for us to stay. The whole Cajamarca-Baños del Inca experience was a bit disappointing. But we found good honey, butter and cheese for which this area is known for.

The next day we headed out again up to the last pass for a while. This one was a bit over 3000m. The climb on pavement and with gentle grades was easy and the downhill ride neverending. Pavement here was quite old tough and the road full of holes we had to elude which slowed down our schuss. But we rode over 90m that day anyway.

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Now it wasn’t far to the coast anymore. The highway was still more hole than pavement and now te coastal wind picked up. The six of us had been riding a difficult arduous stretch together. Flo, Chan and I were slowing the pace of the other three, but they stayed with us until Trujillo. There was yet another difficult point along the way we wanted to pass as a group. From other cyclists we had been warned about the town of Paijan, where cyclists had been robbed by armed men riding a red motor taxi in the past few months. We had our bear and dog sprays ready as well as sticks handy. Steven broke the wind for the rest of us and with an average speed of 20 km/h we covered the first 40km through the desolate sand desert to Paijan. At the entrance of the town was a dead bloody dog in the middle of the road. We ate some chocolate, all the men including Chan peed and on we went like a train with five waggons and the locomotive Steven. With every red motor taxi we passed or were passed by I thought: Are they the ones? And I’m sure the others did the same. We only stopped again 10km passed Paijan to eat something. Now the ride was a bit relaxter, though the landscape was the same barren land. We rode 104 km, the longest distance for Flo, Chan and me so far and still arrived in Trujillo early afternoon. The dynamic in our group, especially on that last day had been awsome.

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But Trujillo was the place to part. We stayed together in the casa de ciclistas in Lucho’s house, where before us 860 other long distance cyclists  and within those a few legends had stayed. Flo, Chan and I are still here, waiting for my new credit card to arrive, while Rahel, Joerg and Steven left after two days and are off to Huaraz and Central Peru.

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