Travel (Thoughts) by Edwin M. van Olst

Wander in Wonder

South-America January 23, 2014

Please note that, because of the inexplicable mess it had become (don’t know why the photos don’t line up nicely like on the Southern Africa blog), the photos are now under the tab “South-America photos”.

Intended itinerary on the bicycle from Ushuaia to Aruba (via Buenos Aires from NL by plane):

Ushuaia to Aruba</a

Argentina

Buenos Aires, Friday 7th February 2014

After the usual difficulties at KLMisery with checking in the bicycle, a glass of wine in the Business Lounge, a smooth flight followed by a two and a half hours’ wait for luggage at the Argentinian capital’s airport because of a strike by ground personel and a swift taxi ride into town, Buenos Aires awaited me. To give you a rough idea of what this city is like; mix Barcelona and Paris, add lots of greenery and you may understand why it is hard not to like this place. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes has a decent collection of Argentinian and European Art and is free of charge, the Cementerio de la Recoleta, albeit smaller, with all its pomp and extravagance can compete with Père Lachaise and a bike certainly is the optimal mode of transport here, with plenty of bicycle lanes. Only when it rains (cats and dogs, like this morning) is the “cambio, cambio, cambio” of the money changers drowned out by “paragua, paragua, paragua” of the umbrella sellers. Where on Wednesday the exchange rate for a US dollar on the ‘black market’ [displayed in the middle of the streets] was 12 pesos, today it had dropped to 11.7 at best -while the official rate is 8 (!). I had wished to include some pictures of BA, but just now saw that my Android device does not detect the external card reader -so photos may appear somewhat later, as I will depend on a good old PC to download the pictures on, then transfer them to a USB stick and only then put them on the ASUS FT 101 machine. Beautiful though BA is, it will be nice to go into the tranquility of Tierra del Fuego. Tomorrow morning at the ridiculous time of 04:45 I’ll take the Big Bird to the world’s southernmost city, Ushuaia. That means cycling the 7.5 kilometres to the national airport at around 2 a.m. (through the dodgy port area). If all goes well, Sunday will be the real start of the trip to the top of the continent. For now, solong, as 2 o’clock is less than five and a half hours away.

Ushuaia, Saturday 8th February 2014

Made it to the airport unscathed, no problems with the bike (on the contrary, because the selling desk had not opened yet, I did not have to pay for the extra luggage), so here we are at “The End of the World”. Cycling east towards town from the airport I had the sun in my face and the wind in my back, what a joy. Yet when the road turned 180 degrees, flipping egg, this trip through Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia will be hard work as the prevailing winds come from the north-west. Cycling through the monotonous Mexican desert of Baja California I once had to ride 80 kilometres against a headwind of about 6 Beaufort and it did not make me a happy chappy.
To the north of Ushuaia the snow-capped (it is mid summer here at the moment) mountains rise to 1500 metres, whilst to the south, on the other side of the Beagle Canal, lies the small Chilean settlement of Puerto Williams (yet no connecting roads lead there) and even further south is the infamous Cape Horn. Yet considering its location Ushuaia still harbours about 60,000 inhabitants (excluding the many tourists), but it still has that feel of remoteness. One could make a very interesting photo essay on the many different houses here; some just weird in shape, others built with little else than low quality wood. The main drag resembles a ski resort high street and in fact, I think this is the first campsite I have stayed on from where a ski lift starts (and the slope ends). There are four other cyclists, two couples from Switerland, here on the campsite and they have just finished their tours, so we’ll have more of a conversation later on -always good to have a social chat and a chance to get some inside information on the itinerary. After all, tomorrow the serious cycling will start. On the wall of the campsite’s common room (which offers an elevated [93 metres above sea level, according to my watch] view over town, the Beagle Canal and the southern tip of Chile) there’s a more detailed (than I currently have) map of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia which apparently is for sale in town and I am eager to get one as I would love to cycle the deserted parts of this already very sparcely populated area -Alaska down south, so to speak. And yes, it is cold here; as we landed this morning it was 8 degrees Celsius, now the mercury will have dropped even further, to 5 or 4 probably [it’s nearly six o’clock]. Later on tonight back in the tent, at minus…?

Tolhuin, Monday 10th February 2014

Since it was so frigging cold yesterday night I needed to stay in the sleeping bag a bit longer in the morning to compensate for the lack of sleep during the night. Hence no cycling, but instead getting my hands on a more detailed map, reading and hatching out some new plans. Yet today we clocked the first 114 kilometres cycling through ondulating landscape with one small pas of 420 metres on a gloriously sunny, windless day. And yes, a big bill-board just outside Ushuaia reading “Las Malvinas son Argentinas” [The Falklands are Argentinian]: or, how to make a claim with a name.
It is ten to nine and the sun is setting over Lago Fagnano. A BarbaRoja stout on the nearly deserted pebble beach next to the campsite strewn with wooden teepees, where one minute ago I was the only guest (a couple just pulled in). Hopefully the bag in which to put the sleeping bag I bought this morning will add some warmth tonight.

Río Grande, Wednesday 12th February 2014

The lack of wind was the proverbial silence before the storm: at night the wind tried to pull my tent out of the ground while the rain battered the sheets. The procurement of earlier that day paid off. Yet then came the cycling, against the wind. Ololu, this wind is worse than in Baja. The wind as well as passing trucks sent my cap (put on to protect the well-burned head) flying a few times -to my chagrin. The amount of times I ended up on the gravel hard shoulder I stopped counting. At the end of the day I was making a mere 10 km/h and the next city/town was still miles away. Fortunately there was Estancia Viamonte, 42 kilometres before Río Grande. Cycling onto the premisses I was greeted by a gaucho who had seen me fighting against the wind when he passed me in his car. Without even having asked, he showed me where I could sleep: a pavillion with a bed and a wood stove (and plenty of wood outside). How much I owned him? “Hospitalidad de la estancia.” So I found myself cooking pasta on the wood stove, after having applied a trick a learned from a Canadian policeman/rescue worker on the Queen Charlotte Islands: mix cotton balls with vasoline in one of those plastic zip-bags and you have the perfect fire starter -the bag is part of the equipment. Anyway, lovely to be warm and sheltered from the wind for the night.
Had the wind not convinced me yesterday, today it was clear: constantly having to battle against a 6-8 Beaufort wind is, how shall we put it politely?, rather discouraging. Just before reaching town I experienced the pleasure of tailwind (because of a strange direction of the road): flying at 35 km/h on the flat is quite a difference from grinding at 7 km/h. Had the landscape been varied, maybe it would have been somewhat bearable, but between Tolhuin and Río Grande it is outright boring: flat, pampas, sea. So, tomorrow we’ll take the bus (and boat) all the way to Punta Arenas, Chile, as cycling is about enjoying oneself rather than pedalling oneself into a bad mood.

Chile

Argentina

El Calafate, Sunday 16th February 2014

Yesterday was the highlight of the journey so far, when I went for a nine kms. (one way) hike up to the mirador Torres del Paine in Torres del Paine National Park. What a joy to be active again and be able to jump from stone to stone. Hence I was pleased to see to have beaten the indicated time of four and a half hours by two hours (the way back took two hours). Cold, clear mountain streams with the sun high in the sky and then arriving at the spectacular viewpoint of the poetically called Towers of the Bue Sky, absolutely majestic and stunning. This is arguably the Chilean natural icon and with good reason.
Yes, so suddenly we were all the way up to Puerto Natales. After having arrived as planned on Thursday by bus in Punta Arenas it turned out that I could still get on the 18:00 bus to Puerto Natales (apparently there was no space for the bike the next day, so I could send the bike that night and arrive myself the next day -no can do. So after a bit of talking I found myself and the bike on the way to Puerto Natales). The campsite there turned out to be a backyard with tents pitched right next to each other with a lot of loud youngsters; no thanks. In the end I found a room in a hospedaje run by a rinkeld, purple haired, 70+ landlady, who no doubt still thinks (in vain) she stands a chance in the Miss Puerto Natales annual beauty contest. Anyway, it turned out to be indeed a hostal rather than a brothel.
Friday I spent fighting off a terrible cold, uploading some pictures onto the blog (apologies for the mess, I have no idea why the pictures are all over the place and not nicely underneath each other like on the southern Africa blog -I therefore may have to put text and pictures under two separate taps) and some administrative stuff. The latter because I got some rather unexpected and unpleasant mail from South-Africa. “We sent you a letter 30th December, yet you have so far failed to react.” Indeed, because I had never received such an epistel. “Hence you will now need to pay within seven days.” This is the rental car company writing, that cited article 5.7.3, which states that the driver is liable if an accident happens on a gravel road. Thunder and lighting, a bill for a whopping brand new Nissan Livina… As if I hadn’t lost enough money yet in 2013. So after some back and forth communication I asked them if they could lower the price if I could get the funds together to pay in one go. Glad I negotiated, because they reduced the total amount by a third. Yet, still. May the rotten chapter 2013 now be closed!
Today another day on the bus, back into Argentina. The puritans amongst you may sound the cheating trompet, but really, cycling into that wind in an utterly dull landscape is like signing yourself up for voluntary crucifixion (in the middle of a desert). Tomorrow awaits the grand glacier Perito Moreno. On Tuedsay probably bus to El Chaltén in order to truly start the first part of spectacular and adventurous cycling: the 130 kms. stretch (excluding three ferry rides) through the wilderness (only accessible to walkers, horses and cyclists -having mentioned the latter, apparently you still have to push your bike over 24 kms.) to the start of the likewise spectacular Carretera Austral.

El Chaltén, Tuesday 18th February 2014

Grand the glacier was! Apparently it is one of the few glaciers not shrinking, but in fact growing. The noise of the ice pushing and then big blocks crashing into the lake is like the sound of thunder. Fenomenal. The tourist boat is dwarfed by this wall of ice.
Last night met four Belgian guys on study exchange here in South-America, had a few drinks and dinner together and then suddenly woke up at 06:39 while having to catch the 07:00 bus. Never packed everything up so quickly and managed to get on the bus. Every disadvantage has an advantage: did not have to pay the extra 100 pesos for the bike. Today lazy day in coffeeshop on the internet and talking to English guy cycling down south. El Chaltén has a lovely laid back feel over it. Tomorrow some hiking in the area as the village is right next to the Parque Nacional los Glaciares.

Chile

Candelario Mancillo (Lago O’Higgins/San Martín), Saturday 22nd February 2014

Wind here affects all aspects of life; boats don’t sail when there is too much wind. So we are stuck here on the south side of Lake O’Higgins. No five o’clock boat, maybe one tomorrow. Schedules here are non-existent anyway, it seems. In El Chaltén I was told there was a boat at 12:00 on Thursday, so I set out on the bike for the 37 kms. to Punta Sur on Lago del Desierto over a terrible gravel road. I had underestimated the time it would take to get there, yet arrived at twelve sharp and there was still a boat waiting. Yet when I was to take my bike onto the dock the skipper shook his head: this was a site-seeing boat, not the ferry to Punta Norte. The latter would sail at 17:00. I used the time to climb upto a glacier viewpoint. When returning to the little port it turned out the boat would leave at 17:30. Spent the evening talking to two cyclists from Spain and one from France. Yesterday was the toughest day so far: I had to push the bike up a mountainous trail for six kilometres, an insane activity. The first two kilometres straight up took me two hours as tree roots, rocks and narrow gulleys obstructed progress. One of the front panniers therefore I had to strap to the back of the back and at some points I had to take lugguge off, push the bike further and then come back to collect the rest. In the end it took me five and a half hours to complete the journey to Lago O’Higgins. There was to be no boat that day, but that today there is no boat either is rather disappointing (to say the least) as there is nothing to do here. Fortunately (and very nicely) I was given some food by one of the Spanish guys, so hopefully we can stick it out here. The lady running the ‘campsite’ here, does cook, but is running low on food as well as she is waiting for her brother to come back who went out on a horse, I guess to do some hunting. Boring adventure, to use an oxymoron.

Villa O’Higgins, Sunday 23rd February 2014

Rain, wind and rain yesterday afternoon, with no scheduled boat for today. At night I was woken up by a sudden gust of wind that seemed to want to smash through the tent. Yet, sunshine awoke us and at 09:30 news from the border guards reached us that two boats were on their way (one also visiting the O’Higging Glacier), the other one making the crossing to Villa O’Higgins directly. And what a beautiful day it was (once again -I have been lucky with the weather so far), plain sunshine. So having to wait for four hours before the boat would actually leave was not too bad. It was great to be liberated; everyone was seriously running low and out of food and as mentioned, nothing to do. A ride to freedom over the turquoise, sun-sprinkled lake, surrounded by snow-capped mountains (hard to avoid in these regions). So here we are now, at the beginning of real cycling, in the small village of Villa O’Higgins. The mediocre meal just now tasted like a royal dinner. Tomorrow some serious stacking up needs to be done as I do not desire to be in such a wanting position as in the past two days. Also need an O-ring for my fuel bottle (was not there when I first used it three days ago and so it was leaking -provisionally repared it with teflon) as well as a supply of gasolina blanca.

Chile Chico, Monday 3rd March 2014

With death-challenging speed he steers his truck towards the abyss of Lago Cabrera, yet manages to find the perfect moment to turn the steering wheel, so that the ideal corner is found. Hardly losing the forward kinetic energy uphill, he turns a blind chicane with the blind faith that there will be no onward-coming traffic. One cannot be blamed thinking that he is practising for/dreaming of competing in the Paris-Dakar Rally. 18 Kms. with Carlos the sand transporter this morning; a lift arranged by Bilbao, whom I met last night on the farm I was allowed to pitch my tent on. 18 Easy kilometres, as cycling would have been very hard on this very (!) steep inclined section of the Ruta 265. Like the Carretera Austral, this route is stunning with its views of natural beauty, yet equally fabulous in the dire state the road is in: gravel, sand, big rocks/stones in and on the road and especially the corrugations made it the toughest touring stretch I have ever experienced. With most of the climbs/downhills of 10+ % in such conditions meant being stopped in your tracks and having to push the bike uphill and on the descent constantly having to brake or risk being bumped off your bike (or get a puncture, as happened as well -or having the front wheel get squared in the gravel whilst me mainting forward energy and trying to make friends with the rest of the road -only happened once, without noticable damage). Hence, moving back into Argentina tomorrow and catch a bus to the Lake District to continue the pleasant (hopefully) cycling there. Yet, yet, the weather has been fantastic, the nature (as mentioned) Absolutely Beautiful and, when camping wild, saw star nights only surpassed by the view of the Milky Way whilst in Mongolia. When not camping wild, spent a night in Don Victor’s garden (a solitary man with three dogs and a tenfold of chickens) and last night on a farm where I was offered the hospitaly to pitch the tent for free. Where the day started with a lift, ten kilometres before Chile Chico, Miguel the water transporter stopped without me having sollicited it and offered me a lift on his truck. The less inhabited an area is, the more hospitable the people are. For now, “good night and good luck!”

Argentina

Humahuaca, Monday 17th March 2014

Fourteen days later we find ourselves about 200 kms. south of the Bolivian border at an altitude of just under 3000 metres above sea level, ready to cross the Tropic of Capicorn tomorrow.
Rode from Chile Chico, Chile, to Perito Moreno, Argentina, 73 kms. in 3.5 hours; indeed, tail wind united. Not without danger though, when the wind suddenly changes and you risk being swept towards the middle of the road with traffic flying by at 120 km/h. When having arrived in Perito Moreno there turned out to be a bus at 19:00 to San Carlos de Bariloche. Cycled from there through the Lake District to San Martín de los Andes, had a beautiful ‘bife de chorizo’ and left for Mendoza by bus. The wine tasting was rather disappointing; saw more olive trees than vines, yet did have a very nice Malbec at lunch and a beautiful home-made red, hoppy beer in the afternoon. Then an epic 21.5 hours bus journey to San Salvador de Jujuy. From there I am now gradually cycling uphill through the valley to cross the Argentinian-Bolivian border at La Quiaca-Villazón at an altitude of 3450 metres. Let the ;Andes begin!
The good news with the latest stretch is that the prevailing wind comes from the south, while I am cycling due north! I had thus planned to get in a good few kilometres today and then camp wild, but when having a little food break in Humahuaca I saw the dark clouds move in further up north and from the west and decided not to tempt the unpredictable mountain weather. Hence settled for the 72 kms. done and pitched the tent on a campground (for the nice price of 2.5 USD).
When cycling here in Argentina it is worrysome how many empty beer bottles and cans, and even wine cartons and bottles, one sees on the side of the road. I guess though that that goes a long way in explaining the often atrocious and thoughtless driving here.

La Quiaca, Wednesday 19th March 2014

What a lovely day: hardly a cloud in the sky, next to no wind and pretty much flat (though some ondulations) -100 kms. in 4:21 hours. The rugged landscape of the Puna was flying past. The wind here is funny though: as mentioned the day before yesterday, the predominant wind seems to be from the south, yet yesterday when reaching a plateau it was suddenly straight in the face. Two Germans heading south I spoke to on the way mentioned that on Monday they had had tail wind too… (interesting sideline here, these two crossed the Darian Gap by taking boats from one village to the other along the Pacific Coast -it took them two weeks and quite some money, but it is good to know that in fact it is doable!) Later in the afternoon yesterday tail wind was with me again as well as some dark clouds with lightning. Six o’clock, 28 kms. to the next town, do we push on? The rather peculiar guy at the tourist information in Humahuaca had told me there was a campsite in Tres Cruces, but only two little grocery stores were to be found. He had also said there was a campsite in Abra Pampa, the next town, but could we trust him on that? As the average was 14.5 km/h at that moment and with no idea what the road would be like or where the thunder storm was heading, I decided to pitch my tent in a ruin in that town of Tres Cruces. It would have been possible to reach Abra Pampa yesterday, as this morning I covered the 28 kms. in 1:15 hours. But well, all good. Now in a nice hostel with patio and a spacious room with three beds (the bike still fits in easily) at the bargain rate of 6 USD and just got a much-needed hair cut at Don Sanchez’s for 3 USD. So, tomorrow we’ll cross the border, into Bolivia. Upwards and onwards!

Bolivia

Atocha, Sunday 23rd March 2014

What a pleasure it is to camp wild: mostly surrounded by beautiful nature, absolute silence and amazing star nights. And of course, not be kept from sleeping because of other people (à la Sartre’s “Huis Clos”, ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’). Last night camped at about 4100 metres above sea level and had to hit the sleeping bag at sunset (19:00) because of the cold. Okay, after six years the sleeping bag may not be as warm as it used to be, but wearing socks, Long Johns, underwear, a T-shirt, a long-sleeved thermal shirt, a long-sleeved cycling shirt, a fleece and a bonnet, being tucked into an inliner and the aforementioned sleeping bag and sheltered by the tent, it still was not overly comfy. Yet, getting up at 7:30 this morning I caught the first sun beams coming over the mountains and all was good. And the day was enhanced by the incredibly rough, vast and beautiful landscape. Even tough the cycling is tough at times, certainly with the many climbs and descents on gravel and sand (yet not as bad as the Carretera Austral), it is an absolute pleasure. It seems the real trip has just started.
The crossing into Bolivia was somewhat chaotic as I was directed from one line to the other with my bicycle and I added to the chaos by missing the Bolivian immigration desk. Yet, in the end I got the two needed stamps, managed to get both US dollars and Bolivianos out of the ATM, got a crap map of Bolivia, had a cup of coffee and the road into Bolivia was open. Camped wild about 25 kms. before the town of Tupiza, had breakfast in the latter and started a long search for mineral oil as the rubber of the pump in my cooking fuel tank is not functioning anymore. No luck with that, yet serendipity compensated it a bit as I found a restaurant/comedor where there were only Bolivians: salad buffet, soup and mashed potatoes with meat balls for the whopping price of 12 Bolivianos (about 1.8 USD). Then cycled about 20 kms. to camp wild again. Good I stopped there, as next was a village followed by an epic 10 kms. climb up to 4200, as turned out yesterday. Even though I only did 34 kms. yesterday, it was a good day, with lots of hard climbing, yet also amazing vistas (which I took the time to enjoy). This is the Wild West of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (and of course of the miners, who dominate this area).
Beautiful landscape, beautiful people: this afternoon I became unpleasantly aware of an unfamiliar sound and it turned out my back luggage rack had broken -on both sides. And on further inspection I also noticed a crack in the front rack. So when having arrived here, in Atocha, I took the bike to one of the many ‘tallers’, mechanics. The young guy fixed all three problems by welding and when asked how much I owed him, he simply shook his head. When asking for water, not a problem (I have experienced people wanting money for some tap water…). When in a shop this afternoon, immediately the friendly inquisitiveness of asking where I was travelling from and to. (and yes, there are stunning women too)
The stretch Villazón-Uyuni I am on at the moment was also frequented by the Dakar rally in January; everywhere there are still signs of it. Glad I missed that ‘spectacle’. Wonder whether there were any massive accidents, as some of these corners are very tight and the roads narrow and the ravines behind/next to it unforgiving. So far, my brakes are still working, but one certainly has to be vigilant.
Tomorrow it is on to(wards) Uyuni, to visit the world’s largest salt pan, Salar de Uyuni.

El Alto, Monday 7th April 2014

I have to hand over my passport through the iron bars before the gate is opened. 60 Kilometres before, in the last town before El Alto/La Paz, Calamarca, I had wanted to stay for the night, but alas, no accommodation there. So, cycling on while the clock is ticking. No place to pitch the tent. Coming over the hill top at five, below me is the vast expanse of El Alto. Down, while trucks, busses and mini-vans [combis] try to push me off the road. A combi over-taking coming straight at me, a finger, he does not like that, he turns the steering-wheel aiming for me; he misses by a few centimetres. On and on, over the Avenida 6 de Marzo, for miles on end, only shops related to construction and cars, no place to sleep. Six o’clock, in a side street, a sign reading Alojamiento. Yet all doors firmly shut. Turn the corner, further on, another sign reading Alojamiento. An elderly guy in the doorway: “¿Hay una habitacion, por favor?” “¿Por tu bicicletta?” “No, solo yo.” He shakes his hand, indicating ¡no!. Thanks for helping a desperate traveller out, while it is getting dark and one does not want to roam the streets at night here. Pedal on and another sign with Alojamiento. Four flights up: I have to hand over my passport throught the iron bars before the gate is opened. Six-fifteen, safe. The odometre reads 118. The bike is welcomed into the room (40 Bolivianos) and the shower costs an extra five.
Twenty-five kilometres out of Atocha the road turned more or less flat, but with it came the washboard patterns, sand and gravel; no happy cycling. A salt crest with underneath mud which looked like melted chocolate, made me leave the Salar de Uyuni. For parts I could enjoy the newly built road, yet at times had to endure the corrugations, sand and aforementioned stones. The landscape and wild camping made up for it though, but it was tough. Once the asfalt returned, so did the head-wind, in force. From Oruro [nice palindrome] to La Paz they are builiding a new road (too) and for kilometres on stretch I had the two-laned highway to myself. Lie down, let the legs do the pedalling, past the thunder-storm and listen to Beethoven’s Ninth; an Ode to Joy indeed. Enjoy the car-free new road whilst listening to Händel’s Messiah and you’re in business -Hallelujah [not sure about having to spend Semana Santa in Peru though].
The dogs here seem to have more of the Roman-Catholic inquisitadores sanguine attitude than the Zen-behaved SE-Asian dogs; having been chased a several times by troups of them, one of my pockets is now filled with stones [crucifixtion? no, stoning please! -fortunately the Bolivians are far kinder than other retarted peoples].
Tomorrow to Lake Titicaca (the biggest high-altitude lake, 3812 m.a.s-l.), leaving La Paz for what it is.
With amicable regards from Evo Morales Ayma country, yo.

Copacabana, Thursday 10th April 2014

Trapped on the first floor [Am: 2nd] of the hostal, with nobody home and too high to jump. Just moments ago I had to unscrew and force off the lock of the bedroom door because for some strange reason the key would not turn anymore and now I am locked in behind a solid iron door where a pocket knive will be of no help. Why did the landlady lock the door; did she think I had already left because I moved my bike upstairs last night? What can we find? An electric cable, blankets and the stove´s heavy metal top. Through the bedroom window I lower the bike into the yard with the electric cable, throw the panniers, wrapped in blankets, down and then have to smash the thick kitchen window with the top of the furnace in order to hoist myself onto the adjoining staircase and make my way to freedom. A rather Kafkaesque morning yesterday in Huarina.
What is also quite surreal is that the Bolivians use the roads´ shoulders as rubbish dump –what a mess.
Now in Copacabana on the shore of Lago Titicaca in order to enjoy some good food (last night had the interesting dish of trout stuffed with spinache and bacon) and cross Isla del Sol on foot tomorrow. Then it is on to Peru.

Peru

In between Limatambo and Curahuasi, Saturday 19th April 2014

Coming over the top after the ascent from Cusco valley you could imagine being in the Swiss Alps for a moment, until you see the trash next to the road. After the second climb one could be forgiven thinking of being in the Alps once again, until one realises cyling at an altitude of 3800 metres and that these snowy mountains are anywhere between 4895 and 6271 metres high (Europe’s second highest mountain and tallest Alp, Mont Blanc, measures ‘only’ 4809). Truly in the mountains at last and on my way to Machu Picchu. The descent into the Valle Sagrado, about 1000 metres lower, followed by a 20 kms. ride along the river Urubambo (with a firm head wind that blasts through the valley) to the village of Ollantaytambo. From here I’ll take the train to Aguas Calientes, also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. About 20 kms. further on there is no more road and only the train covers the last 16 kms. At first I thought of cycling to the end of the road and then pushing my bike along or in between the railway tracks, but in the end I am glad I did not do that: the pushing itself and the fact that the actual track is so narrow that train and bike might easily collide (not to mention a few tunnels you would have to go through [“A train, just at this moment??”]). Instead I had to fork out 119 USD (!!) for the total circa 80 kms. return. Add to that 45 USD for the entrance to Machu Picchu and we talk about the costliest day during this journey so far. Yet, yet, what a splendour! Got up at 03:45 to catch the 05:07 PeruRail train, arrived at 06:35, bought the entrance ticket, hiked up the steep mountain and at 07:45 there it was, majestic Machu Picchu. No wonder the Spanish conquistadores never discovered this place: hidden away between the steep mountains one would think building a city here would be impossible. What an architectural wonder! One can only imagine what happened one day in the Inca community. “Okay, on the agenda today, for some serious jollification: resettling, building a city on a 70 degrees inclined mountain. Any objections?” The plan was unanimously accepted, after a few realistic dissidents had had their heads chopped off. It was not until 1911 that Hiram Bingham ‘discovered’ the abandoned town. I am currently reading his book “Inca Land; Explorations in the Highlands of Peru” (1922) and can highly recommend it (free download from the Gutenberg Project, a true treasure, at http://www.gutenberg.org). Good sense of humour too, e.g. on the alpaca: “They looked for all the world like the “woolly-dogs” of our toy shops -woolly along the neck right up to the eyes and woolly along the legs down to the invisble wheels!” (p. 64) Or on the llama: “His expression is haughty and supercilious in the extreme. He usually looks as though his presence near one is due to circumstances over which he really had no control. Pride of race and excessive haughtiness lead him to carry his head so high and his neck so stiffly erect that he can be corralled, with others of his kind, by a single rope passed around the necks of the entire group.” (p. 65) Apart from the ingeniously contructed houses, the many terraces carved out of the moutains, on which the Incas planted their crops, are remarkable and even more so considering the thought that went into it. Let’s listen once more to Bingham: “Examination of the ancient ‘andenes’ discloses the fact that they were not made by simply hoeing in the earth from the hillside back of a carefully constructed wall. The space back of the walls was first filled in with coarse rocks, clay, and rubble; then followed smaller rocks, pebbles, and gravel, which would serve to drain the subsoil. Finally, on top of all this, and to a depth of eighteen inches or so, was laid the finest soil they could procure. The result was the best possible field for intensive cultivation.” (pp. 56-57) It was mint to have a view over Machu Picchu below me, the clouds opening up, bathed in morning sun, reading (part of) Bingham’s report (I have yet to reach the zenith when he finds this fine example of human ingenuity). By eleven it was time to go, when another train load of visitors poured into the site. What an oasis of tranquility it must have been when Bingham arrived (in high season, June-August, about 2500 people visit this place, per day!). When having returned to Ollantaytambo I could quietly go back to my hostal, as the village was invaded by mini-vans and touring cars. An hour and three quarters you have spent on the train, then you get into your bus and be stuck in a traffic jam for an hour (there is only one single-laned road leading into and out of town) -what a horror! The next day, wounded by the bed bugs that had feasted on me, I hobbled over the cobble-stoned road out of town, made the 900 metres vertical ascent to the turn off towards Izcuchaca and found shelter in the town of Ancahuasi (after having waited for over an hour for the caretaker to arrive and open the doors). No dinner, alas, but well, one can do without food for three weeks (three minutes without air, three hours without fire [warmth], three days without water and three weeks without earth [food]; or how to survive the four elements, with thanks to Mr. De Haas, who organises survival tours just out of Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada). Then this morning, 8 kms. false flat up, followed by the longest descent so far: 45 kms. with a drop of about 2200 metres. Quite nice not having to paddle for an hour! Yes, we’ll have to make up for that soon…
A week ago I crossed into Peru and cycled along the shores of Lake Titicaca to the town of Ilave. For most part this is pre-industrialised territory: bent over, sickle in hand, people harvest their crops. Mules carry it to the next station. Millet and Courbet would find themselves on familiar soil. As the clock is ticking and I want to enjoy the High Andes, as well as the jungle, for a considerable amount of time, coupled with the fact that the route to Cusco did not seem overly interesting and that there is a lot of traffic zooming past, I decided on my way to Puno the next day to take the bus from Puno to Cusco. Arrived in Puno at noon and got the 13:30 rickety Pullman to the colonial ciudad. Plenty of space for the bike at the start, but what’s more to come on the way? So, no, let’s not put the bike down, but tie it up straight; better for you, better for me. So I ended up strapping the bike to the side of the cargo haul and fortunately so, since as we progressed, more and more people with their loads of whatever poured into the bus. In the end the bike was safely supported by bales of goods (I had to assist at times, just to be sure) and I found The Tank back in immaculate condition in Cusco. Seated next to the open window, seeing the landscape go by in the light of the setting sun, I could not help thinking of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” and the Greyhound. The next day I thought that the president was visiting Cusco, as on the Plaza de Armas, in two rows, policemen and policewomen lined up half arm-lenght from each other. But no, a procession, held since the earthquake of 1650, for El Señor de los Temblores. Let’s carry a big statue in crucified position from one cathedral to the next chuch, shower it with purple confetti, swing incense in front of it and have all white-robed and red-caped, as well as all starred and striped people surround it. The only sign of paganism was a person blowing a bird-shaped whistle just behind the fetish. After this it came the reality train of blue-clothed street sweepers. I guess you have to pick the right day to come to Cusco. But a lovely city it is, architecturally. If you look up the facades, you could imagine yourself in Toledo, Spain. It is the most beautiful colonial city I have so far seen in Central and South America. That it is over-run by tourists has one advantage: good food.
A swerm of eight green parrots just flew by, twenty minutes before darkness: from the rooftop of the by mountains surrounded hostal, take care!

Abancay, Tuesday 22nd April 2014

As the rule of the mountains says “What comes down must go up” and so the descent was followed by an epic 62 kms. long climb, succeeded in turn by a 30 kms. plunge into the next valley. It is a gentle reminder that these are Serious Mountains.

Ayacucho, Tuesday 29th April 2014

After Abancay it was another 17 kms. down and then 54 up, 15 down, 22 up, 20 down. Not at all bad, but sometimes rather dull and hard to find a place to sleep; three nights ago I slept in a clinic in a small village (17:15, nowhere to pitch the tent, so let’s ask whether there is accommodation in the village; the people offered me a ‘bed’ and food), followed the next day by a night in a police station (no, not in a cell, but on the floor in one of the offices). So yesterday I took the bus from Andahuaylas to Ayacucho: two massive climbs and descents and a view from the precipice into the abyss. Tomorrow will be worse in the latter case, as I will take the bus over the dirt road (for half the distance) to Huancayo: on the one clip I watched (type in ‘Ayacucho Huancayo’ on YouTube, 28 seconds) it looks an awful lot like the Camino de la Muerte (Road of Death) in Bolivia. Hence I have opted for a seat on the bus on the mountain side rather than the cliff side (accompanied by a stiff drink perhaps…). I seriously thought of cycling it, but the thought of having to battle the gravel uphill (as I had to do that two days ago for a relatively short stretch and progress was a mere 4.5 km/h.) and downhill for approximately 120 kms., coupled with the aforementioned difficulties, is not all too apppealing (neither is this bus ride, but I decided it is the best of the worst).
Ayacucho is a splendid colonial city (founded by Pizarro in 1540) with a very pleasant feel, yet this was the birthplace of the maoist revolutionary group Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) which sew havoc in the 80s and 90s by killing government officials and associates. Militias of the political establishment then sought revenge on often innocent civilians and hence a terrifying and bloody civil conflict ensued. The Museo de La Memoria commemorates these terrible years; it is a rather unassuming museum (I estimate only 60 m3 on the third floor about a kilometre out of the centre), but there is an interesting rather Klimtesque piece of art (see photos) and of course it is good that it is there “Para que no se repita” (not sure thought how many people actually find their way to this place, judging from the relatively few comments in the reception book and the fact that I got ticket numero 002311). For part because of this recent past, this old, yet modern, city, tucked away in between the high mountains, is not (yet) on the main tourist map (walking around I only saw five other ‘gringos’), but, in perhaps a daring mood, one could state that it rivals Cusco in its beauty. It has a truly beautifully arcaded Plaza Mayor, nice facades and most of all, fantastic court yards. And there is good food! Plus you drink a freshly squeezed orange juice on the street for 35 Dollar cents and eat a simple hamburger in a pita-like bread for the same price. Today in other terms it all looked quite bright, unlike last night when at nine o’clock the bus stopped in an undefined place and someone started shouting “Lima, Lima, Lima” (the bus was continuing onto the capital). So I got off (and quickly back on when the bus made a move, only to stop again ten metres further on) and asked the steward whether I indeed had to get off here. The guy was not overly helpful by simply saying I had to wait and then tell me a few moments later to get my luggage off. With only a metre in between the bus and the ditch, people walking past, this was more easily said than done. When I was trying to untangle my bike from the haul and he commanded me to get the bike off I responded that, rather than shouting at me, he might give me a hand. “Well, there’s an idea.” With the directions of more helpful people I got to the city centre and found a fine hostal (the guide book was right, the people who run this hostal are very friendly). Cute little flowered patio and…a roof terrace, from which I watched the stars last night after having settled in and on which I now enjoy a little aperitive, before exploring the culinary delights Ayacucho has to offer.

Huaraz, Monday 19th May 2014

A truly epic day two days ago: the most beautiful natural scenery so far (ever), cycling over the highest point so far (ever) at 4884 metres and ending up in a hail and snow storm accompanied by lightning on the descent. So how did we get there?
Indeed I was glad to have chosen a seat at the mountain side, despite the dramatic landscape, as the bus driver challenged gravity, speed and death on the narrow road through the Mantaro river canyon. At some point we had to wait for a rock-slide to temporarily end and then choose the right moment to get through, at another moment there was a near head-on collison with a truck at a blind corner, yet when the bus moved towards the precipice to let an oncoming truck pass and people seated on the cliff-side started yelling, things really appeared to become precarious. But we arrived in Huancayo unscathed. The Parque de Identidad is nice, but otherwise, unlike you crave a regional Sunday market and/or a visit to Burger King in a misplaced and attrocious (pleonasm?) mall, one can leave this place off one’s itinerary. Decided to forego the Junín Height and the apparently ugly mining city of Cerro de Pasco (4338 m.a.s.l.!) and take the four wheels directly to Huánuco. Nothing to tell about that. Finally back on the bike and another 60+ kms. climb. Quarter past five, fourty-five minutes before darkness and nearly impossible to pitch the tent. I stop at a solitary house which seems to have a patch of green flat below the house, the dog barks and an old guy appears. He seems to ask where I will spend the night (he is hard to understand, having only one tooth left) and I respond, pointing at the area below his house “There?”. Not quite hidden from the road, but this seems the best option. The next morning I thank him for his hospitality and continue the ascent. Not wanting to be in the same position I take a crappy hotel room in the one-horse town of Chavinillo and spend the afternoon reading. The next day a lovely ride along a river, yet the road in places is attrocious, once forcing me into a free fall and bite the mud. Just before a sharp turn in the road there is a traffic jam (certainly not all these vehicules have passed me, so it must have been here for at least an hour and a half), because a truck can’t make the turn without one of its back wheels daring to make it over a massive land-slide caused hole on the side of the road (with of course a drop behind it). Spectators abound of course, yet also helpers. In the end, with a large stone in between the wheel and the hole the leap of faith is made and the truck accelerates over disaster. People run to their cars to continue the journey. La Unión and on the next day towards Huaraz.
So there we are, three days ago. Nice ride along the river to Huallanca, relaxing lunch outdoors (menú; soup, meat, rice and potato -the ordinary recipe [6 soles; 2.25 USD]) and then a climb out of the valley, a climb which will not end until having reached the altitude of 4884 metres above sea level. 15:40; very dark clouds over the mountains ahead, cold, rain. At the junction to Mina Antamina road workers have their temporary offices and this will be the last post of civilisation for the next 70 or so kilometres. Having to put up the tent, provided we can find an appropriate spot in the first place, is a very, very unappealing prospect. I enter the premises and one of the guys asks me how I am doing. I smile: “It is cold!” Would I like some hot water? Yes please and I ask him whether I can shelter inside. Sure and I am seated in the covered space between the offices. I get a kettle of hot water, coffee, sugar and a pack of biscuits. When I am warming myself on the second cup of coffee another guy comes in, shakes my hand, and asks how I am doing. This seems the moment: “Would you mind if I sleep here on the floor tonight, please?” An explanation is hardly necessary. “No problem, you can sleep in my office, I trust you.” In Peru ‘hospitality’ is spelled with a bold capital H! And so, by six o’clock I am left with Tito, the guard/night watch of this ‘complex’. We have a lenghty conversation, interrupted by his rounds. He tells me that the first workers will be here by 06:30 tomorrow morning. It is cold that night, even though I am indoors. By the time I have managed to fall asleep I am awoken by the near full morning shining right in my face though the little window. When I think the moon is getting brighter it is actually light. 06:10; up, packing my stuff and saddling up The Tank. The hoar frost lies over the fields. The workers arrive and gringo of course is quite an attraction, as nearly everywhere in this region. The men gather in half a circle to get a motivational talk from their superior (“We are brothers, we are in this together! We are a family, the company is your family, and we have to take of each other, like you, as a good father, take care of your children!” Amen). I wait outside (looking at the sun enlarging its grip over the mountains -a far more promising sight than yesterday afternoon at this same place), so I can thank the chef for his hospitality and the ‘hot water guy’ for his welcome. After having done so, it is a quarter past seven and 11 kilometers uphill of asphalt await, followed by about 55 kms. of dirt road, on which the zenith of an altitude of 75 metres higher than Mount Mont Blanc. After 11 kilometres, there it is, the turn-off to Huaraz. The sun is out in force. Snow and ice still lie on the side of the dirt road, but the wide vistas capture the eye. What an Amazing Beauty. Here you are truly humbled as a human being. Never before have I seen Nature in this Splendour. And apart from some natural sounds (squeaking birds, melting water running and wind rattling branches), Absolute Silence! Rather than trying to describe it, to no avail no doubt, have a look at the photos (if they indeed can do any justice)…
It is around mid-afternoon, about two kilometres before Abra Huarápasca, the pass, from where the descent will start, when it starts to hail lightly. When I reach the pass the hail has called in more friends, but I think ‘this is not all too bad’. Yet, I have only just started the downhill and the hail is whipping my face, while the first lighting bolds flash through the clouds, followed shortly afterwards by a blasting, echoing thunder. After I have been forced to put on my gloves for the first time this trip, the hail is replaced by wet snow. As the toes are beginning to feel numb too, the long pants, socks and shoes have to come out as well (for the first time). The dirt road has stones placed in random places, which does not contribute to the joy. A small black speck going down the big white world. Then about three quaters of an hour later there is a small window of blue and indeed, once I have got onto flatter ground the sun is gaining the upper-hand, while Puyas raimondii seem to salute the safe arrival. So, the last hour and a half I cycle in the late afternoon sun through the green meadows and moutains and just as the sun is disappearing behind the mountains I arrive in Catac and check into a hostal. What an epic day indeed; if this is not Life… Or as I put as theme of this blog: Wander in Wonder.
Yesterday from Catac to Huaraz along the Grandiose Cordillera Blanca through the Callejón de Huaylas. Met a Belgium girl, Johanne, going the opposite direction and she directed me to a Casa de Ciclistas, which was reiterated by a Swiss who addressed me in the café in which I had lunch before checking into anywhere. The hostal indeed harbours quite some cyclists and it is nice to be able to talk to people who can give you tips and whom you perhaps can give some advice. Better even, exchanging intesting stories (with thanks to Jürg, Sabina, Will and Ruth). Went out with the Swiss couple for dinner and in about an hour and a half we’ll meet up for a home-brewed beer. This morning I went to see Arturo, a bicycle repair man, to have him look at my bike. Friendliness himself, he was busy for about an hour and a quarter and when I asked him how much I owed him, he said seven soles (2.5 USD). I looked at him in amazement. In the end I gave him ten, but ‘help’ here too, is spelled with that same bold capital H.! Absolutely fantastic!
As I have got a taste of the Andean Grandness, I am strongly thinking of making a loop and crossing the Cordillera Blanca twice: from Carhuaz (2650 m.) to Punta Olímpica (4890 m.) to Cachas (3354 m.), San Luis (3131 m.) Yanamá (3375 m.), over Portachuello de Llanganuca (4767 m.) and back into the Callejón de Huaylas to Yungay (2500 m.). Only the weather can stop me…

Equador

Quito, Monday 2nd June 2014

The weather did try to stop me, by throwing in another afternoon of thunder and snow storms. The day before, Tuesday, I had checked the weather forecast and it looked dire for Wednesday, so I decided to postpone for one day. The Wednesday morning looked quite fine actually, yet the afternoon did bring the bad weather. But with the forecast for Thursday already much better than it was on Tuesday I was determined to go and so after an extra coffee with the Swiss couple I cycled to Carhuaz to spend the night in order to be off at the crack of dawn. Saw the second half of the provincial football cup’s final (at the ticket booth I was told that it was still five soles and was told so at the gate too, yet when I said that I did not want to pay that he just opened the gate for me…).
And so on Thursday morning 06:38 I was off and spent three days cycling through the Stunning and Grandiose Cordillera Blanca (see photos -of course I had to make a selection), traversing the mountain chain twice at respectively 4736 (the recently opened tunnel is 170 metres lower than the old road) and 4767 metres above sea level; distance 229 kms., of which sealed/tarmac 80 kms., the other 149 dirt road; loose stones, potholes, rocks (the 46 kms. descent (!) from Portachuello Llanganuca to Yungay took me nearly three and a half hours [okay, I took some pictures and had one crash, but still]); effective cycling time 22 and a half hours, time on the road 31 hours and a quarter; estimated vertical metres altitude gain approximately 4500. And…the most beautiful weather in the world! Something alike to do again? Definitively!
And then the next day it was downhill through the Cañón del Pato -what a beauty once again. Dry, barren, rough: the Río Santa cuts through this gorge and so you have steep mountains on both sides with a big drop into the fast flowing river on one side (until the valley widens)…and no safety barriers. Spectacular. Got two flats and at the end of the day the tube came out, because the tire’s rim had given way. Fortunately I had kept the worn down other tire (and fortunately the tube had held), so put that one on. Yet by that time it was a quarter past five and with a river and steep cliff on one side and solid rock on the other it looked like a grim task to find a camp spot for the night before the six o’clock darkness. But, I had some luck too that day, as within a kilometre a little clearing next to the river and lower than the road appeared. Built two little walls for some protection (especially from the wind which was blowing through the canyon with gale force) and had a lovely night by the river. Next day more vastness, desertedness and dryness until I reached the Pan-American Highway by latish afternoon. Cycling to Chao on that legendary road in the setting sun, the sea close, though invisible, traffic zooming past, it was time for some Beach Boys on the head phones. The next day coming over the big hill just before Trujillo, there it was, the Big Blue Sea. From 4700+ in the Peruvian Andes in pretty much one big descent down to the Pacific Ocean.
This morning I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, after a 29 hours’ bus journey from Trujillo (with an hour’s and a half waiting time in Guayaquil) and after having spent some time in quite nice Trujillo. Quito’s Old Town is interesting and the city has a good number of parks (and seems rather bike-friendly), yet the New Town is hardly anything more than a close collection of bars, restuarants and discotheques (and dodgy at night). So I am rather reluctant to spend much more time here. Tomorrow saddle up the bike and make my way towards Colombia or a day trip to National Park Cotopaxi with Ecuador’s second highest volcano, Cotopaxi (5897), or…?
One month left…

Quito, Wednsday 4th June 2014

The ‘or’ turned out to be a big ‘or’ indeed. Apparently after two nearly sleepless nights on the bus I needed some extra sleep as I did not wake up until half past nine. Then I still needed to put the back tire on the front wheel and vice versa (even though I had managed to get hold of a new tire in Trujillo I trust the completely worn down Schwalbe tire more than the flimsy feeling new tire) and put a new disc brake on (this was unsuccessful as one screw would not unlock and I damaged the screw’s mold -a problem yet to be solved). As I also wanted to upload some more photos onto the blog and, o yes, withdraw some money I decided to stay another day. When I tried to withdraw money at bank number one, no luck. At bank number two, no luck. At bank number three, no luck either. I was soothed a bit by one bank employee saying that there might not be a connection between the bank systems, but that before eleven o’clock in the morning I might be better off (this sounds strange indeed, but during this journey I have heard it before [forgot where exactly it was]). So this morning before eleven went to two banks again, but alas, no money materialised. Even the credit card did not work at the hotel. I was told that there was an international ATM (aren’t most of them though?!) in the Marriott Hotel, so there I went. Yet, no could do. I could get a cash advance in the Marriott, but only if I stayed there. I was then advised to go to the Master Card centre still further north in the city, yet that turned out to be only the bank’s Master Card centre. Fortunately I told the girl that I also had a credit card and she told me that I could get a cash advance at their bank. The future looked a lot brighter when I exited the bank with 400 USD in my pocket. These kind of trips harbour some unpleasant surprises, yet, although I could do without them, they are a good excercise in thinking in terms of solutions rather than problems. So, I have got to know Quito a lot better than I had planned to. Tomorrow though I hope to be out of here and cross the equator.

Tabacundo, Thursday 5th June 2014

Well, the disc brake problem has been solved in quite a nice manner: after having cycled nearly 20 kms. through Quito on the way north, there was a massive descent with traffic flying past and hence the brakes had to be used extensively. 150 Metres before reaching the bottom there was a disturbing sound coming from the back. On inspection at the bottom it turned out that the disc brake had been sliced into two, in an outer and inner ring. After I had taken out the back wheel a police car, which was stationed there, came past and asked how I was doing. I smiled and said “No muy bien” and explained the problem. The chief policeman, obviously in the passenger seat, then said that there was a good ‘taller’ (mechanic) in the next town, Guayllabamba, after which I questioningly pointed at the back of the pick-up. “Sí, sí, vamos” and so I found myself in the police car with the bike and panniers in the cargo body. Not only did they drop me off in front of the bicycle repairman, but it also meant I did not have to cycle up the long hill… Good that I had already bought a new disc brake in Trujillo and even lovelier that the mechanic managed to fix the problem (for free!). After the police chef had his picture taken with me I was off -how a problem can lead to its own solution.
At the moment in a lovely ‘hostería’ in Tabacundo (nice name, sounds a bit Central African, DRC or so [“Tabacundo, secret meeting place of Kasavubu and Lumumba”]): a comfy couch, two comfy chairs, a single bed and a double bed (and they are good beds!), wifi, a very friendly hostess, restaurant on the premisses, hottish shower -all good. We are located here exactly three minutes north of the equator, so within a day you can move from winter into summer… Tomorrow on towards Colombia.

Colombia

Ipiales, Monday 9th June 2014

Not only did the female customs officer give me a charming smile (doesn’t seem to be in the job description in most countries), when I had a puncture fixed the guy refused to take my money (!Que te vaya bien!): a warm welcome into Colombia this afternoon. The Andes have certainly not finished yet (though the 4000+s are behind us), there are still climbs of over 20 kms. long and over 3000 m.a.s.l.. The landscape could be pretty much everywhere in hilly/mountainous Europe: green pastures with black and white cows. Met separately two other single bikers: Julièn in Ibarra (as I was waiting for a traffic light he called from the pavement) and Laurent on the road (he is cycling down south), both from France. With three more weeks to go before the flight out of Bogotá to Aruba, the Colombian capital is quickly approaching…

Pasto, Tuesday 10th June 2014

It is raining cats and dogs when I walk from the hostal to a coffee bar to have breakfast. Whilst enjoying my croissant and rather watery coffee a cunning plan dawns on me. It is already nine o’clock and 80 kms. await me till the next town, Pasto, with quite an ascent. As I haven’t slept very well over the past two nights because of bed quality (or lack thereof) and dogs this seems quite a stretch. So why not kill two birds with one stone and simply take the bus?! Actually it will be one bird more, because it will give me the opportunity to have my laundry done as well without having to sacrifice a whole day. So, up to the bus terminal. “Bus to Pasto with your bike, sure!” “When does the bus leave?” “Now.” Through the door and there is an eight seater station-car. Bike in the trunk and I in a comfy seat together with seven others. An hour and a half later I am in Pasto, I cycle to the hotel I had read about on another cyclist’s blog and we’ll be enjoying some luxury (and hopefully a good night’s sleep in the good bed) in an old colonial house right in the centre. The geographical institute is right across from the hotel and through the help (with smiles) of the employees there I get hold of detailed road maps of Colombia. So that means that we can take some back roads rather than cycling on the main road; from Quito to here the road has been of good quality, but with the disadvantage of having a lot of traffic pass by.

Mocoa, Thursday 12th June 2014

Mist and drizzle around, stones skid away from under the wheels and hence momentum is constantly lost, uphill in the cloud forest. The prospect is not good: 40 kms. covered between eight and half past two and another 40 to go. No idea how far the pass still is away and then there will be the downhill over this terrible surface in aforementioned conditions. No suitable site to pitch a tent with a ravine on the right and steep, densely vegetated mountain sides on the left. Landslides are an additional danger: the day before yesterday the road was closed because of a multitude of landslides, yesterday when I passed they were still clearing the road with only traffic going in one direction possible and today more clearing because of additional landslides overnight.
A car approaches from behind and I raise my thumb. The breaklights come on, then the car carries on, though at lesser speed and turns the nearby corner. Two trucks pass and I am back in the saddle. Behind the corner is the white pick-up truck. “Buenas tardes, !gracias! ?Vaís a Mocoa?” “Sí” and she hints at the cargo body. Depite the rain she gets out, in her nice clothes. For some reason she does not want the cargo body’s cover opened, so I have to take out the front wheel and turn the handle bars 90 degrees. In the end all fits in and I find myself in the car with the driver, another girl (whom apparently they are helping move to Mocoa to come to work in their assurance company, judging from the conversation and all her lugage) and an elderlyish lady. The driver girl steers us adequately, yet daringly, past the various precipices, around blind corners and over single-laned stretches. Here is beauty and a no-nonsense approach combined; a tough, pretty girl -nice!! It takes us an hour and a quarter to cover those 40 kms…by car. No way would I have been able to reach Mocoa before night fall. I thank them, and her in particular, very, very much, check into a hotel and watch the last twenty minutes of the first World Cup game 2014.
One of those magical, lucky days one encounters on a trip. Had she/they not picked me up and if no other hitch would have happened, it would all haved looked far less rosier than it does now.
At breakfast two days ago in the lovely hotel in Pasto I get to talk to the guy who had to stay overnight because of the landslides and him therefore being unble to reach his destination that afternoon/night. We get to chat a bit, I ask him about the road conditions, he asks me about my travels and one of his questions is what kind of currency I carry with me. Dollars, but mostly the national currency. He says that he is a missionary and -here comes the crux of the weird question- whether I can give a twenty Dollars’ donation. Wrong guy to ask, pal! “Okay, what about ten?” Another affirmative ‘no!’. How right was Goethe when he had his Faust (ex)claim: “Die Kirche hat einen guten Magen!” (The chuch has a good stomach!)?! We parted in amicable ways and according to him his god is accompanying me (thank you, but do we see the underlying arrogance?) [Well, maybe today’s saviouress was an angle (in disguise), but sent by whom or what? -probably, if one can believe it, by his god, as she crossed herself on two occasions. No, no, it was rational thinking mixed with humanist emotions!]
Tomorrow the 10:30 bus to cover the 125 kms. of desertedness to Pitalito to be able to watch Spain vs. the Netherlands.

Aruba

Oranjestad, 7th July 2014

A lot can happen in nearly four weeks: from watching the feared first match of the Dutch team we can now watch the better-than-expectedly oiled Maquina Naranja the day after tomorrow in the semi-final, when being back in the Netherlands.
So, on Aruba at the moment. I had hoped to get some cycling around the island in, but, flipping egg, the easterly trade wind is a fierce competitor to his Patagonian rival -the battle will no doubt be decided in the last round or end up in a penalty shoot-out. Add to that that the inland is covered by sand and cacti, prices are (very) high and the tourists are ‘real’ tourists rather than independent travellers and you may well stay far away (okay, granted, a stroll over the white sand beach, through the surf of the turquoise Caribbean Sea is quite nice indeed [and will have to go for a swim before flying out tomorrow]). Arrived here last Thursday morning at 01:30 from Bogotá, put the bike together and cycled to the B&B place I had booked, the owner of which had kindly allowed me to await day break in his garden. No camp sites or hostals here, which is telling in itself. All this after the usual hassle with checking in the bike (the details of which I will spare you), this time with LANightmare (International, because, as mentioned before, no problems at all when flying domestically in Argentina), aggravated by security staff at Bogotá airport.
Bogotá at first seems like a horrible city until you get to the neighbourhood of Candelaria, which harbours lovely colonial buildings, libraries and museums (e.g. Museo Botero, with lots of his own work as well as some late 19th, beginning 20th century work by f.i. Picasso, Pisarro, Klimt, Monet, Degas, Chagall…). It was lovely to sit down in the Bibliotheca Luis Ángel Arango and do some studying. And of course there was the World Cup to be watched, one of the matches, Colombia-Uruguay, I watched in the main square, Plaza de Bolivar, together with a few thousand enthusiastic patriots. Yet six days in the capital was seriously pushing it.
Cycled through the coffee hills around San Augustín and visited the archeological sites there, where stone tomb statues (made by pre-Inca inhabitants of the area) were found, through the Tatacoa Desert and over the Pan-American Highway to Espinal, from where I took a bus to Bogotá (these last 150 kilometres are a four-laned, true highway and not very pleasure inducing to cycle -with the hidden agenda of not having to cycle 2000 metres uphill).
So, at the end of this journey the odometre comes to a stop at a seemingly abysmal 4800 or so kms., a far cry from the average daily distance covered when cycling through SW-Europe, New-Zealand and from Panama to Alaska six years ago. Yes, I did loiter around in some places for too long, but three more important points need to be taken into consideration:
– the (average) road conditions were far worse;
– there were a lot (!) more [serious] mountains to be climbed and
– day time was much shorter.
Tibet, Nepal, Karakoram Highway, Xinjiang, Central-Asian states, Iran and the Caucasus cycle journey awaits (yet when?), but first Phnom Penh, which I am much looking forward to.

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