Sunday, 24 August 2014

A Muddy Welcome to Ecuador

By Sanne

So, our time in Peru had come to an end and we found ourselves at the border to our next country: Ecuador. We were crossing over at the jungle border crossing of La Balsa which basically consist of no more than a couple of sheds that houses immigration and customs and an 'international bridge' across a river that divides the two countries. We pulled up to do the formalities on the Peru side, geared up in our wet weather gear as it hadn't stopped raining since we woke up that morning, and from what we were told the rain is pretty much a constant here - even though it's the dry season. In this part of the world where we are now getting closer to the tropics, dry season simply means LESS rain.

You know you are at an outpost border crossing when there is a frickin' chicken wandering about in the immigration office. The immigration officer didn't seem to care that a chicken was scurrying around his feet so it's probably part of the furniture by now. We got our obligatory exit stamps and within minutes we were done with the customs procedures as well. Love it when border officials are so quick and efficient. I should mention that we were the only ones there so it's not like there was a big queue.

We rode across the 'international bridge' which is not as grand as it sounds - about 20 metres long and right on the other side were the offices of the Ecuadorian border. Immigration here was swift as well and we got a 3 month stamp in our passports. Then it was off to customs... Well, I can't blame the guy really, it can't be that exciting to be stationed here as a customs official, which is probably why he welcomed the chance to keep us there for company... First, Mark didn't have the THREE required copies of our drivers licenses and passports, and the only photocopier was across the river on the Peruvian side, so Mark and the customs guy walked back into Peru to make some copies! When they returned the painfully slow process of punching our data into his computer began, while we patiently sat on the opposite side of his desk and waited... After he was done and printed out some documents for us to sign he realized he had made an error on my form so he had to do it all over again! In between the paperwork, he would tell us about places to see in Ecuador and tales about other woeful travelers who had overstayed their visa and had to pay thousands of dollars in fine. One of the documents we signed it mentions that for each day you overstay, the fine is $318! So Ecuador is not a place you want to overstay your welcome.

I'll give it to the guy that he was really nice and friendly but his faffing about meant that we didn't leave there until 1pm, after two whole hours. On the road we had ahead of us, we weren't sure we could make it all the way to Vilcabamba that day but we were going to push as far as we could. We had heard it was muddy and the reports were right! As it rains here every day of the year the road never really has a chance to dry out so it's permanent state is a sloppy mess. The road started climbing immediately after leaving the border and we had to navigate some really steep switchbacks up the hill which were very slippery. The scenery was absolutely stunning. The greenest, densest rainforest spread out all before our very eyes, and what is it about a dirt road that makes nature all the more beautiful? I've often wondered about that. With all the mud we kind of had to keep our eyes on the road though, especially when we came to a steep descent down a slippery hill. It was long, it was steep and it was slippery as hell. I followed a few metres behind Mark, just rolling down in first gear, not touching the brakes and just hoping that the bike would stay upright. They both did and about a hour later we arrived in Zumba, about 25 kms from La Balsa. After here the road improved a little...then deteriorated a little. As it is the plans of the Ecuadorian government to eventually seal this whole section there is quite a bit of roadworks going on, and on these sections of roadworks the road was quite a mess. The constant running over the mud with heavy machinery has resulted in a soup-like surface which is like nothing I have ever seen before. Think what diarrhea looks like and that's what we rode on. So it was pretty slow going and the rain that had been a constant drizzle all day had now become heavier. We arrived in the small town of Palanda by late afternoon and really had no choice but to stay here the night. We found a cheap hotel with a friendly owner who had safe parking for our bikes nearby. A nice touch was that his brother left his own house to go and sleep in a small room next to the bikes for extra safety.

The next morning we set off on the last stretch to Vilcabamba which was mainly all tarred, so we got there pretty quickly. On the way we stopped to chat with a couple in a sidecar that were heading the way we had come from. When Vilcabamba came into view it wasn't quite what I had expected in that it wasn't nearly as green as I had thought it would be. It is set in a valley surrounded by mountains but most of the mountains have no more trees on them as a result of logging. The town itself, like most other South American towns, was pretty ordinary and as it was a Sunday it was full of people, all Ecuadorian tourists, lunching in cafes on the main square. We had heard of a nature reserve out of town where you could camp so we headed there. Rumi Wilco reserve is a beautiful government protected privately owned nature reserve on 30 hectares. The camping was down by the river and nice but it was via a walking trail only so we took a room instead. It was a great little place just a short walk from town and we ended up staying there for three nights. Here we met Mateo from Quito who I later got an email from inviting us to stay at his house when we get to Quito, which we're looking forward to. While we were here we ordered parts for our bikes (pistons and rings) or rather Callum, Mark's brother did it all for us from Australia. Hopefully they'll arrive in Quito not too late so we can get them fitted and our bikes can stop using oil.

From Vilcabamba we rode to Cuenca, the third-largest city in Ecuador and with the reputation as the prettiest. On the way here we had our first real flash of what Ecuadorian drivers are like... And we thought Peruvian drivers were bad. There is a very real chance of me kicking in someone's car door while we're here. It was all in all a pretty shitty ride, it was wet, cold and then all these fucktards on the road to deal with. Not only are they horrible drivers but they are also quite aggressive, drive really fast and have no respect for motorcyclists - a pretty dangerous combination. It was move over or become part of the bonnet. We didn't see a whole lot on the way there either as we rode in a perpetual cloud from all the rain. But we eventually arrived in Cuenca and found a hotel with a garage for the bikes across the street. Cuenca is a beautiful city as we learned when we walked around it the next day in our search for third party insurance which we were unable to get in Vilcabamba. This turned into quite an ordeal and we ended up walking all over the city to find where we could buy this bloody insurance which is apparently a requirement in Ecuador and our Mercosur insurance we purchased back in Buenos Aires doesn't cover these next countries. After having been into numerous banks (where locals can buy it but foreigners can't) and after numerous insurance companies who all seemed to have some lame excuse for not being able to do it like: having run out of the paper forms and not being able to put our plate number into the computer, we finally found an insurance office that could do it for us, just before they closed for lunch. It was super cheap: $3 per bike for a month. It's probably not even worth the paper it's written on but now we've got it.

After two nights in Cuenca we wanted to go to the coast for some sunshine so we headed west across El Cajas National Park which is a cold moor-like mountainous area. Again here it was quite foggy and there was lots of riding around in clouds not being able to see a damn thing. That is what it is, but when on top of that you also have to deal with Ecuadorian drivers...well, that makes it all the more 'fun'. You cannot fathom the stupidity of these drivers and the chances they are willing to take in traffic. The overtaking is the worst. They will overtake usually on a blind corner and then when they are about to have a head-on with an oncoming car they rapidly swerve into your lane with no regard for a motorbike. This makes it really difficult to be able to enjoy the ride as you have to watch in front of you as well as behind you at all times. The stupidest thing I saw that day was a long truck going full speed down the hill right at our wheels while we're riding through clouds in basically complete blindness, only able to see a few metres in front of us. The truck must have thought we were holding him up because he floors it past us into the oncoming lane, around a blind corner and in total blindness. They must put their lives in the hands of god like they do in India, because that is the only explanation to this madness! Is it wrong of me that I sometimes wish they have an accident? Anyway, somehow the truck escaped unscathed, nothing less than a miracle I tell you, on this busy road.

Almost off the hill we pulled into a rest stop for a break off the bikes. While Mark is inside I notice a drop of oil underneath my bike. I kneel down and discover that everything from the engine and swing arm to the tyre, rim and bash plate is completely covered in oil. Hmm...that's not good. I signal to Mark inside the shop that something is not good out here and when he comes out he sees what I mean. He pulls out his tool bag and starts dissembling the bike after cleaning the oil off it. He immediately sees that the sprocket is really loose but it started raining so we had to look for cover which we found behind and below the building. So the sprocket was loose, and Mark manages to track down the oil leak to here. It doesn't make sense that a loose sprocket should cause all this oil to have leaked out (it had lost almost all the oil in the engine! good thing we stopped when we did) but after Mark had tightened it and taken it for a ride it stopped leaking. By this time we decided to set up tent here for the night, behind the petrol station. We considered asking for permission but we worried they would say no so we just did it anyway.

The next morning we headed towards the coast where we had to navigate around the biggest city in Ecuador, Guayaquil. Lucky for us we were helped by a local man and fellow biker who rode in front of us in his car with his hazards on so we could follow him. He made it super easy to get around this big city and waved us goodbye as he continued on his way. Soon after we were on the coast, and headed north on the coastal road towards Montanita. Well, what can I say about Montanita? Schoolies on the Gold Coast comes to mind. We left it behind and kept heading north through several little villages, none of them really appealing to us. Then, after riding through blue skies, the climate all of a sudden changed and we had gone from dry coast to rainforest within a few kilometres. The winding road lead inland through this cloudforest for a bit before we again were on the coast and in the surf village of Ayampe. It was beautiful here, albeit not sunny, in fact quite wet, but we agreed that this was the best we had seen so far so we found a lovely little Swiss-owned hostel where we could camp in the garden. We stayed here for two nights but unfortunately the weather was so miserable the entire time that we never got in the water. Apparently it rains here year-round, now that it's winter it drizzles all through the day whereas in the summer it rains heavy during the night but the sun shines during the day.

From Ayampe we rode just 20 kms to Puerto Lopez from where we boarded a boat to go see some whales. Humpback whales migrate to here every winter to mate and sightings are practically guaranteed. Mark and I have both seen whales from land before but never up close on a boat. As per usual I popped a seasickness tablet which was good I did because it was pretty choppy out there! Within long these magnificent animals showed themselves and started popping out of the water all over the place on each side of the small boat. First we followed a family with a little calf  for a bit before we left them to it and started looking for another group. While looking into the distance trying to spot signs of life, in the distance I see this giant thing rising out of the water followed by a huge splash. I have just seen a whale breaching and I am very excited by this fact. We head towards the splash with the boat and find a group of males chasing a female (or so we're told by the guide). These whales were huge, about 14-16 metres in length which is as big as they grow. It was an absolute pleasure to watch them frolicking about and see their big barnacle-covered heads when they popped up for air. I saw one more whale breach which was really cool. After all the whale watching was done the boat pulled up in a cove and whoever wanted to could jump in for a snorkel which we did but it wasn't that great really, not very clear and because the sun wasn't shining it was quite dark. But the water temperature was surprisingly nice.

We made it a whole 10 kms more up the road where we camped in the hotel grounds right on the beach. The following day we went to the beach of Los Frailes which is within a national park and really unspoilt. The sun was 'kind of' shining so I took the opportunity to get my tan on in my bikini which has seen very little use here in South America. We had a laugh watching all the locals get smashed by the waves which they would just stand and look at while they came rolling towards the poor buggers; they would cop it right in the face and go down like a deck of cards! I'm sorry but it was really funny.

From here Mark and I were at a bit of a disagreement of where to go next. I wanted to head inland again to go towards the mountains, but Mark said he desired a bit more time on the coast; I think he was hoping to get some good waves somewhere which hadn't happened yet. He wanted to head north a couple of hundred kms to Canoa, a surf town. I had a feeling that Canoa would be a let down and to be honest we had a bit of an argument about this. In the end I relented and Mark got his way and we rode to Canoa which was actually a nice ride, again through numerous changing micro climates, from arid to lush and back to dry again. There were boabs in bloom which I have never seen before which was quite a sight, never took any photos though as we were on a highway.

Canoa was, as I predicted, a total letdown. The town as well as the beach was ordinary and the surf was all blown out. We spent a night there and left the next day. The Ecuadorian coast had been frankly a bit disappointing. I hope Columbia can deliver on this when we get there.

La Balsa border

The start of our muddy ride

There were some fair size water crossings to traverse as well

Beautiful green countryside all around


The goop we had to ride in

Rocks ahead

Rumi Wilco Nature Reserve, Vilcabamba

Looking over Vilcabamba from Rumi Wilco


Lots of pretty old buildings in Cuenca

Riding in clouds...

Side of the road workshop, trying to fix my oil leak


Not a bad place to hang out and check Facebook!

Whale watching at Puerto Lopez

Our view from our campspot

Los Frailes beach

Thursday, 21 August 2014

From the mountains to the coast and to a back water border crossing

By Mark

After a long day’s ride crossing over the Cordillera Blanca the previous day we decided it was time for some warmer weather, so we were headed for the coast. We had one main intention outside just wanting to be warm for a change; Sanne’s tyres were now balding on the rear and the front and with now some 30,000km’s it was due for a change. We were headed for the big city of Trujillo on the coast where we had heard we had a good chance of finding tyres, however since every other place we had been to in Peru had nothing we were not holding our breath.

The ride there even without finding tyres was worth every minute of it. The road we took is known as the ‘Tunnel Road’ which has about 30-40 tunnels that have been carved out of the mountains. It is also one of the most dangerous roads we have ridden. In this case it is not the Peruvian drivers who make it dangerous but the road itself. The condition is quite good but when you have a nice layer of small marble type rocks that cover over the hard asphalt surface it makes for some sketchy riding, not something you want to have to concentrate on when you have many one-way only tunnels that you cannot see through to the other side and when outside the tunnels you have crazy drops off the side of the road into the gorges below with a torrent of water flowing hard you would not stand a chance of surviving, all things said, it was a great ride and when riding in these sorts of conditions - it makes you feel alive! 

It took us a long time to head down this road, firstly leaving too late, stopping to take numerous photos and of course stopping for a good long lunch break. This used up a good chunk of the day so we decided to have an easy day and not make it to the coast, the sun was shining, the weather was warmer now we had dropped down low into the valleys and we had a great day enjoying the changing scenery with some of it reminding me of northern Argentina and the passes we had taken over the Andes in the South. As the valley opened up, the landscape took on a lush green look from all the farming that was being done on the river banks. This was the opportunity we were looking for -  a great bush camp and I found a great spot. Right on the edge of the river with the perfect spot on sand to put the tent, a few bushes for hiding us out of sight and a tree for shade and a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains, what more could you want? Well a cold beer would have gone down a treat but that would have to wait.

The following day saw us ride into Trujillo and with little signage and no map of the city we had fun trying to navigate our way around the city, the best thing was there is no shortage of taxis and traffic lights so we found ourselves constantly asking the taxi drivers for directions. I finally managed to find a bike store up a side road and slipped inside to enquire about tyres expecting to hear the usual ‘no hay’ (don’t have) but to my surprise they had what I was looking for: a new set of Pirelli’s for Sanne and at a nice low cost of $120 for the two tyres. When I walked out Sanne was very happy to see what her baby would be getting fitted that afternoon!

Just north of Trujillo is a surfing village by the name of Huanchaco. This was our destination. We had barely spent any time on the coast all the way up through Peru so now I wanted a piece of the action and with some nice waves to throw into the mix, I was chuffed. First job though was to change the tyres, Sanne had the job of changing the front and I drew the short straw and had to do the rear. My love for changing tyres has not grown more fondly over the years and when I get right into the middle of changing the tyres I wonder why the hell I don’t just pay some other poor bloke to do the job! Well after only just a little swearing this time I got it fitted but who needs to put them back on the bike when you are not going anywhere the next day. So we headed to the beach but not before a quick stop at the shop for a few cold beers to take with us to watch the sunset. When I say sunset I mean watching the sky go dark. All along the Peruvian coastline, well actually when you get between 30 to 50 km’s away the entire sky becomes hazy, hiding the glare of the daytime sun. So we enjoyed the beer and hoped for a good day to follow.

We were in luck and after getting Sanne’s bike back together I hit the beach! I got myself a body board for the day and went about destroying myself in the waves. It was the first time in many many years I have been out for a good surf and this day was turning out to be a good one. I had a short break for some lunch to recharge my batteries before heading back out for an afternoon surf. By the time I was done for the day, I wished that I had just stayed in after lunch. I was a mess, I could barely walk after being pounded into submission time and again out in the surf but I loved every moment of it, just not the next day when I struggled to get out of bed. Yes, I finally now realise how out of shape I am.

After my frolic in the waves and Sanne happy to be warmer again where else to go but back into the mountain. This time headed for Cajamarca. This city is well known to be the end for the Incas and where the Spanish killed the last reigning Inca Atahualpa. After a long day riding up steep mountain sides with deathly drops, stopping in small villages and chatting with locals, some which were a little drunk but very friendly giving us some free pineapples to take with us we decided to call it a day about 30km’s outside Cajamarca where I found an outstanding place for a wild camp. Nothing better then camping in the nature and when there is no one around, well there was this one guy that wondered back to his motorbike with a shotgun parked not that far from where we were camped but it was all good.

We arrived in Cajamarca early hoping to check straight into a room but that was not going to happen, we had to wait 2 hours for our room but it was well worth it. We had a large room overlooking the main plaza in town and what a great spot to sit and people watch. We have noticed the further you travel north in Peru the change in hats people wear, they have gone from being smallish, similar to the hats in Bolivia and what the Cholitas wear to these enormous wide brimmed hats with very high tops in the hats, they look very cool but on a small old Peruvian man they are hilarious being so over sized but cool all the same.
We spent a little time looking around but with our minds on Ecuador and getting North we didn’t hang around that long. There was another thermal baths just outside town and we stopped by to check it out, but after seeing the size of the queue to get in we thought better of it and hit the road after chatting to some cyclists from America who gave us a little heads up as to what we should expect of the road conditions in Southern Ecuador.

We were headed for Kuelap, a pre-Colombian citadel situated on a ridge overlooking the Utcubamba Valley in northern Peru, it is roughly 600 meters in length and 110 meters in width.  Radiocarbon dating samples show that construction of the structures started in the 6th century AD and occupied until the Early Colonial period (1532-1570). However, through the pre-Columbian, conquest and colonial periods there are only four brief references to Kuelap. In lieu of newly discovered documents, there exists no other testimony concerning the site until 1843. The site is impressive sitting high up on the ridge consisting of over 400 buildings and used to home approx. 3,000 people. The best thing about going to visit these old remains is that we didn’t have to do any stupid climb early in the morning to try and beat the hoards of tourists like at Machu Picchu. It is hard to compare this place to Machu Picchu, they are both quite different in style and in appearance and nothing can match the landscape of Machu Picchu. There are also families living right beside the remains in houses and working the land to survive. This would never happen at Machu Picchu. I enjoyed the place immensely, wondering around the perimeters and enjoying that it was a little less manicured and left as it was found. It was also great because there were not so many tourists. Here we found many more domestic tourists than foreigners.

After our little detour up the sketchy mountain roads and back, which we managed to survive, we headed onto Chachapoyas, a small town sitting up over a valley which is home to more ruins and no shortage of treks and waterfalls. After finding a place to sleep which took a while to find safe parking for the bikes we headed out to a vegetarian restaurant where we made friends with the young daughter of the chef. She was quite happy to sit and chat away to us even after her mother told her to leave us alone. As we got our food that didn’t stop her and she kept going telling us what her favourite food was and after asking her what her favourite subject was at school she replied with saying ‘my friends’? Well I guess she is the one who is the most social in her group. We did finally kind of get her to leave, this was after I took her very small pink scarf and beanie and put them on. The look of horror that came over her young face at the sight in front of her, some dirty gringo with knotted hair wearing her beanie and her scarf. She was not so keen on me after that and took it and put it away somewhere I couldn’t get to it until we finished our very cheap and very big meals and said goodbye.

We still had a few more miles to make it to the border so we stayed only one night and kept heading North through an ever changing landscape. All day we would see huge changes in the landscape from riding by rivers, winding our way through deep valleys to open rolling hills with a very dry hot and arid feel to finishing off the day in beautiful green cloud forests of San Ignacio, our last port of call in Peru. We found a quiet place to bunker down for the night, not always easy to find in Peru before heading to La Balsa, and the border of Ecuador. That afternoon like the previous we were befriended by another young  curious girl. We were sitting in the plaza taking in the day we had just had, enjoying a cold beer when the young girl starts approaching us, firstly hiding behind a post until she slowly builds enough courage to come talk to us. She went from being very shy to being BFF with Sanne after only five minutes. She even had Sanne running around and playing hide and seek.

We awoke the next day to rain and decided what’s one more day in Peru, so we had a chilled out day, I found myself wandering around getting many strange looks from the locals, it is a small town after all that sees only a small amount of tourists as it is a little out of the way for most backpackers all the while Sanne wrote and updated the blog. We awoke again to much the same weather as the day before and decided we should leave as we had heard that the weather is pretty much like this every day. We headed off for the border and took in as much as I could of what remained of Peru. After spending nearly three months in Bolivia and just five weeks in Peru, it felt like I could have stayed longer but we were so happy with what we had seen and all that we had experienced. Apart from the drivers what is not to love about Peru? The ever curious locals, rich and interesting cultures, fascinating landscapes from the jungles to the mountains to the sea.

The start of the tunnels

Thought this was a cool image hooning through one of the many tunnels

Towards the end of the road the valley closed right in around us

There was a big mix of tunnels, natural hand carved to these cement ones

Sanne chillin out after some lunch

Another day another great wild camp with a backdrop to match

Huanchaco beach

No shortage of Pelicans around here

Blue footed Boobie

Feeling buggered after an awesome day of catching waves

Our incredible ride to Cajamarca was full of great views including this one, and that is a sheer 200m+ drop on the left

Peru has it all when it comes to the best scenery and backdrops for riding

Love stopping in small non touristic villages and talking with the locals

Another free camp up in the mountains, bliss

The cool view from our room in Cajarmarca

Another view back towards town. See, just over there is our place

The latest in cooking equipment, the wheel barrow?

The Cathedral in the main square

 Beautiful by night

More deadly drops

Kuelap ruins in the north east of Peru


It is now home to Llamas

Would have been an incredible looking village back in the day

The short walking trail along the ridge looking back across the surrounding mountains

You know you are getting further north when you come across rice paddies