It ain’t over til it’s over

In my mind Loja signaled the end of Ecuador, it was only 212km from the border, I should learn never to presume something is over, until it actually is.  This 200 or so km route ended up taking us 5 days, of mud, rain, bad nights sleep and insect bites.  Although this route is probably near the top of the list of things I do not want to do again in my life I am really glad we took it to enter Peru, and it made a really memorable adventure.

2nd April Loja to Vilcabamba
We had spent 3 days in Loja in the end. Bike clean and working well, blogs up to date, restocked and refreshed ready for the next leg.  

There was some 15km of climbing to leave Loja, but then followed some great down hills before some ups and downs into the town of Vilcabamba.  We didn’t know anything about this town before we arrived there, but it is a place well and truly on the gringo trail.  There is some legend that residents of this valley live to a grand old age, wellpast 100 years, thought to be in part due to the plesant climate and mineral rich water that the valley provides.  More recently though it is understood that in the old days age was a mark of respect, so residents would often exagerate, there were never any birth certificates to dispute this.  Either way, these claims put Vilcabamba on the map, and it has become a popular destination for North American retirees.  This kind of place instantly makes me remember other popular North American retirement colonies such as San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Antigua Guatemala and Costa Rica.  

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We’d arrived for lunch time but decided to stay the night in Vilcabamba, because there was some tough hills after the town, and it’s never fun to start a long climb in he late afternoon. I understand there is a campsite in Vilcabamba, and there was a pretty decent bike shop and cafes with fast wifi so this might make a good stop off before entering Ecuador, for anyone not wanting to stay in Loja. Prices in the town were really inflated to accommodate the backpackers and holiday makers, so we found some Californian family who lived in the town and said we could camp in their yard. This ended up being a mistake.  These were the most dysfunctional and chaotic people I have stayed  with during all of my time in Latin America.  They had said we could sleep in the living room but we had to get up in the night and set the tent in the yard due to insentient drunken shouting, all part of the adventure I guess.  It made me think about what Leah used to stay, that she would have been more afraid to bike tour in the USA than in Latin America.


3rd April- Vilcabamba to somewhere on the road

Leaving Vilcabamba fueled with the coffee made in that very valley, we were bleary eyed and heavy.  The day was tough tough tough, I wasn’t in the mood from the beginning and there was some big climbing to get out of the valley, the only conciliation was the views.

 

the best views of the day

the best views of the day

 

plantain and campesino (peasant) cheese soup.  It looks like Oliver Twist gruel but it was delish

plantain and campesino (peasant) cheese soup. It looks like Oliver Twist gruel but it was delish

We stopped for lunch in the town 22km from Vilcabamba which was to be the last real sign of civilisation for around 50km, although we didn’t exactly know this at the time. We continued all afternoon, there were long climbs and we kept thinking we had arrived at the top, then we’d go down and round a corner and see another hill.  We were in the Podocarpus national park so there wasn’t any homes or buildings to stop at, only traffic work camps on top of a cold, windy, rainy muddy hill top; we didn’t want to spent the night at one of them and we didn’t really just want to pitch the tent on the side of the foggy mountain, so we just kept going until we reached the top.  It was raining at this point, it was a funny day that just seemed to get more harder the more I thought we had over come the hardest parts, we even had to wade through some freezing river.  We continued as it was getting dark, the first time I have ridden in the dark in South America.  There was a virgin Mary shrine lit up on the side of the road (as all good mountains in Latin America have) and I suggested camping under the shelter there, Jo wanted to continue down to find something better, then just round the corner we saw a sign of building with lights, and headed off the road.  Turns out we had stumbled upon a hotel that had been built by some English Ornithologist (someone who studies birds) who had discovered a rare bird here, this bird exists no where else in the world, so I am told it is a pretty big deal! This hotel was like a mirage, there was a log fire, the rooms had radiators (first time I had seen these on this trip) and it was just damn cosy.  There was only one other person staying in the hotel, who seemed a bit taken back when we arrived wet, shivering and a bit bewildered.  Diego who worked in the hotel said we could stay for $10 for the night, it was only the following morning speaking to the other guest that we found out what an amazing deal with was, he had paid $140 for his one night stay, his pilgrimage to see this bird.  We had a hot shower and real towels and Diego put out stuff in the tumble dryer, amazing!

4th April – bird hotel to Palanda

hummingbirds

hummingbirds

We were sort of lazy that morning, in no rush to leave the comfort, despite the comfy bed we hadnt slept well.  We probably committed some sort of Ornithology sacralige but we didnt bother taking the 45 min walk up the hill to go view this bird, we were more interested in the abundance of humming birds buzzing around.  We continued down hill (some parts unpaved with road works) to the village of Valladolid.  This name to me conjured memories of Laurie Lee describing the town’s Spanish namesake in his book ‘As I walked out one mid summer morning’ he wrote ” Valladolid is ‘a dark square city hard as its syllables’. It is full of beggars, cripples and beaten-down young Spanish conscripts who have nothing to do in their leisure time”

 The Ecuadorian Valladolid was just a small dirt road, with a football pitch and the town square off to one side.  We sat in the damp town square whilst we were stared at by men, women and children a like.  Every now and again Jo and I are really tired when arriving in a town, and do not feel as though we want to face the usual questions, so what we do is talk English loudly to each other and if someone tries to speak to us in Spanish we just look at them vaguely, today was one of those days; we were only interested in stuffing our face with baked goods.

Back on our bikes we continued mainly down hill to the village of Palanda, this was not easy by any means and there was a tough 2km of stretch of thick quagmire, mud covering our feet and clogging itself in our bikes, pushing was tough and mentally tiring.  We arrived in Palanda, another damp muddy town with crumbling breeze block houses, I wanted to continue but really the motivation to keep going is pretty weak in the late afternoon when you know there is only up hills, mud and no villages ahesd of you, so we decided to stay up there.  Here we got the idea to take our bikes to the car wash place and use their jet hose to clean our bikes, our bags and ourselves. Something we have since repeated a few times, so much more efficient AND fun that cleaning the bike yourself.

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Here in Palanda we stayed in Diego who worked in the bird hotel, he was very sweet and took us out for both dinner and breakfast, although sleeping on the concrete floor of his bed sit meant another miserable nights sleep.

5th April Palanda to Progreso

That morning on our way to eat breakfast we bumped into James, an English world cycle traveler, he’d stayed in the town the previous night too.  He was heading north so he had just complete the part we were about to do.  The road had hit James’s bike hard and his deraillier had broken, so he was going to have to catch a ride to Vilcabamba.  James has since emailed and said ‘ Shame to get the bus. Although when the bus was being towed up through the mud by a tractor I didn’t feel too sorry. Hats off to you both for getting through that!’ haha! 

I love these short but totally invaluable interactions with other cyclists.  James had come out of some tough riding, his bike broke, his face swollen from mosquito bites but he didn’t ever complain; that’s the sort of people bike travelers are, just getting on with it. We get the maps out and swap tips about the places we have been.  James since told me he took the amazon route through Ecuador at our advice, and he loved it.  It is so good to hear that people have benefited from advice that we have been able to give, because I continue to benefit from so much advice from the cycle travelling community, I am honored to be part of it.

 

James

James

with Diego

with Diego

The part of the ride leaving Palanda was the hardest, the mud thick, we had to wade through another river; it was at this point Jo realised that she had lost a shoe (not one that she had been wearing, but one that she had tied to her bike to dry), she got a car to go back with her along the route to try and find it, but alas, I think it was lost in the mud.

We were able to cycle a bit that morning before the up hill became really tough and we pushed for a few hours.  It was hot and humid, sweaty and tiring.  A truck stopped to give us a packet of wafer biscuits and some fizzy drink (sometimes the only things the shops sell).  I stopped right there on the track and ate the whole packet.  This act of kindness filled me with so much energy and motivation to keep on trucking, and so we did.

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The dirt track was pretty dry and rideable but there was still a huge amount of climbing, although broken up with some great views and fun down hills to keep the motivation rolling. That night we arrived at the small village or Progreso and set up camp outside the church, eating a camp stove feast before a great nights sleep, Happy Campers.

perfect camp spot

perfect camp spot

using powdered soup mix makes a good pasta sauce, we got pretty excited over this camp stove dinner

using powdered soup mix makes a good pasta sauce, we got pretty excited over this camp stove dinner

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6th April Progreso to Military check point

We had to rush to get packed up before the start of Sunday morning mass.  We had a delightful down hill to start the day before some more tough climbing up the other side of the valley, arriving in the town of Zumba for lunch. It was Sunday and it felt like it, I spent the day listening to The Smiths on my ipod and day dreaming.  Still no let up in the tough climbs and leaving Zumba that afternoon we sweated up and down in all our glory.  Some of the hills were so so steep that it took all of my energy just to hold my bike still, then it took Jo to push from behind.  Exhausted we arrived at a military check point and decided to call it a day.  There are a number of military check points as we get closer to Peru, the countries being at war as late as the 90’s.  Each time we cross a checkpoint we have to give our passport numbers and tell them our travel plans (seems only the white people have to do this though).  This act of officialdom seemed pretty silly after I went to use the toilet at one of the checkpoints and realised the soldiers had been using the papers with all the details on as toilet paper….. data protection Ecuadorian style.  Apart from a bored teenager solider who wanted to chat with us we not not bother and had a great night sleep, save for the mosquitoes sucking our blood.

late afternoon hills to keep us on our toes

late afternoon hills to keep us on our toes

7th April Military check point to Namballe (Peru)

We left the checkpoint after waiting out some rain, a little bit more up before the final decent down to the river which divides Ecuador and Peru. Looking down at river and Peru for the first time, I was more releafed to see some asphalt than I was to be in another country.  The border crossing was pretty toned down, to stamp out of Ecuador there was no one in the office, so we had to wait a bit. To enter Peru was a tiny bit more work, a bus of Ecuadorians had arrived just before us so we had to wait in line at police immigration for a while.  Once we stamped in we were given a 180 day visa which I think is pretty lucky, a lot of people only get 90 days.  We cycled the 4km to Namballe before deciding we were mentally exhausted, so checked into a cheap hotel and spent the afternoon watching films and snacking. Woah, what a route, what a truly amazing adventure.  And so it continues…. WELCOME TO PERU!

 

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