My life is divided between two main activities. Either Katie and I are on the road watching the landscape slide by or I'm in some interesting town checking out the sights. In this chapter, I will say little and let the pictures do the talking. Here are some of the visual stories that make life interesting here in South America.
The centrepiece of every city is the main plaza. Katie and I head there everytime we hit a new town. The centre of life in the evening, in the day the plaza is home to old men and shoe shine boys. My shoes have never looked better. For 30 cents, the young lads, often under 10 years old, make my riding boots and Rockports shine within an inch of their lives.
In Peru and Chile, surrounding the main plaza, invariably called the Plaza de Armas (armas as in arms or guns), the most venerable churches and classest buildings were erected. Many of these lovely buildings are hundreds of years old.
On just about any given day or occasion, a parade is likely to break out around the plaza. The reason could be military, religious, funerary or mildly political, as in a simple call to ban smoking.
As commonplace as the plazas are the open air markets, many of which run every day. It's always interesting to see what the local region produces. Business is brisk and often has nothing to do with tourism. It is everyday life in America. The term America here by the way means North and South America. They take exception to the good folks from Estados Unidos (USA) considering themselves as The Americans.
Down a typically narrow aisle, I come across a man selling jewelry whispered to me as being "original". Having just come from the tombs of Sipán, I recognize the items as the dangley bits from a priest's breastplate. So here is where some of the huanqueros ill-gotten goods end up. I refuse and explain my respect for Peruvian law. The vendador doesn't react with the least bit of guilt.
Now here is a place Joyce would love: witch doctor row. Bottles and boxes large and small, llama foetuses, dried insects, herbs, spices and lots of non-identified items are all for sale here. Didn't see any bones or skulls but I didn't look really hard in case I found something that would haunt me.
On the lighter side, I did see stuff I could recognize - and even put in my mouth without puking or turning into a toad.
No town, North or South America, is safe without the likes of a superhero on guard. Chances of roboman or Witchdoctor Juan getting me are just about zero with Superman around.
The next image tells the story of May 29th. After five weeks in Peru Katie and I enter Ecuador. Sadly we have to leave our compañeros Pat and Sho behind as they arrange transportation by sea or air to the USA:
In Cuenca, a visit to KTM del Ecuador results in fast, attentive service guided by Willy Malo Jr. If Katie is happy, msc is happy.
Going to Ecuador doesn't mean a mandatory trip to the Baños. Now I know what you're thinking: a trip to the baños is necessary everyday, no matter where you are. But I am talking about a different kind of Baños. This trip takes you to the town officially known as Baños de Santa Aguas, after the healing hot springs nearby. This is selfsame Tropical-Banff-with-No-Rules town that bills itself 'the Gateway to the Amazon'. Tour companies rule.
Perched within a deep river canyon on a shelf of land between the Rio Pastaza and the sometimes active volcano Tungurahua, Baños means living life a bit on the edge. In 1999, Baños had to be evacuated because Tungurahua, only 8 km distant, started venting big steam and ash. Since then things have returned to normal, normal meaning river rafting. volcano climbing, rappeling down waterfalls (huh?), hiking, biking, quading, dirtbiking or just plain drinking your face off in one of the zillion pubs/restaurants in town. No rules means cruising around town on your rented quad with your hair wafting in the wind. The Ozzies love it.
Bloody hell! Another parade? OK drop what I'm doing, which is usually not too demanding, and find a place on the sidewalk to see what's happening this time. What are these clowns up to now? Oh, they are clowns. Now if they were just handing out cervezas...
A bunch of us decide to ride bicycles down to the Rio Verde. It takes a half day of mostly coasting and sightseeing to get to the little town of Rio Verde.
After a round of thirst quencing cervezas, a toy Toyota truck takes us back uphill to Baños. Cost per passenger, and we all chose to ride in the back, is $1.50 per hombre.
One of the things popular in Ecuador, don't ask me why, is barbequed guinea pig. Cuy as it's known around these parts, is bred for the spit. A closer look shows the cuys all have the same frozen scream on their faces. Maybe having a spit stuck up your butt about the same time you realize YOU are lunch....
It takes four cervezas grande to help wash down the lunchtime grease. We all take a quarter although with five of us it is funny no one chose the amputated head. The cannibals, left to right are: Brian (UK), Simon Blackburn (UK & now USA), Shauna and Dave Taylor (Australia). Later that evening we wash the aftertaste down with another round or two. It is comforting to note there are lots of stray dog packs around town. Not that having dozens of dogs barking all night is great, but the silver lining is they haven't caught on as a "delicacy".
On a dark note, days after leaving Baños, I talk to a man (Dave) about my age from Manchester UK. He is in Quito Ecuador trying to encourage officials to bring to justice the person/persons who murdered his wife in Baños. She was on a 3 month tour around South America and Baños was her last stop before flying to Quito and home. That was in January. Dave and his 22 year old son are getting help from the British Embassy but Dave reports the corruption and incompetence of local authorities initially slowed the investigation. After getting a change of jurisdiction, Dave thinks the good guy authorities now have the guy who did it and he is hoping they will get a confession. I saw a photo of his wife, Jen, on a Missing Persons bulletin the day before. Nice looking woman about 50. Professional nurse just doing something she always wanted to do. What a shame. So 99% of the time things go fine here in S.A., but that other 1% is true tragedy. This is one story that isn't urban myth.
Since I'm at the Gateway to the Amazon, me and Katie take a day tour down the canyon of the Rio Pastaza to Puyo, the town at the beginnings of the Amazon Basin. The surroundings are certainly jungle like. Everything looks impossibly green and tropical but not the hanging vines-and-snakes image I had in mind (watched too many Tarzan movies maybe). Still it is high 20's C and high humidity. While I ride it rains some but they are big warm drops. From my moving viewpoint I see the locals are growing bananas, sweet potatoes, maize, tomatoes, oranges, orchids, whatever they want. Long narrow greenhouses, high on the mountain slopes, align downhill at the same angle as the fall line. Strange. In Puyo, I see lots of one-man saw mills making orange crates out of beautiful hardwood (must be the easiest trees to find, I guess).
Katie and I explore to about 15 km out of town on a lovely little dirt road and came across this brand new restaurant in the middle of nowhere. Has only a roof, no walls except for the kitchen. Time for lunch and there are big black cumulus building close by, so we swing in. From my table (winecolored table cloth with sheet of glass on top - very fancy, and white plastic lawn chair) I can see jungle in three directions. Rain cloud too, of course. Lunch is a bowl of freshly-dead-chicken soup and a 10 year old bottle of Coca Cola, US$2.00. When the rain storm moves on, so do we.
From the tourist town of Baños it is time to head north to the Avenue of the Volcanoes. That and the Quilotoa Circuit are next on the list of stuff to see. The route takes me to Ambato, then north on the busy Pan Americana Highway, then west at the starting point, Latacunga. Rain showers chase me along. Disappointingly, the more than a half dozen giant 5000 and 6000 meter volcanoes along the 'avenue' are hiddened from view by the solid ceiling of low cloud.
The first leg of the circuit is a lovely 2 lane narrow but paved highway leading west for about an hour and a half. It is only 75 km but the constant curves and climbing/descending along the mountainous contour lines keep Katie and I busy. At Zumbahua we turn north. With the asphalt now laying on sandier soil, the very real danger of wash-outs add another thing to watch for. Where the rains have undercut the base, huge bites of road are missing, sometimes creating a crevasse of many meters. Inattention to the road would lead to serious injury or worse. None of the sudden disappearances of the road are marked.
The reward comes at over 13,000 feet when we arrive at the volcanic lake of Quilotoa. Clouds swirl, the temperature at the crater's edge is less than 10 above and a cold wind blows. But the view is sublime. One can hike down to the azure water's edge in half an hour, and climb back in an hour in a half (the altitude takes its toll on climbers). Being in the piston-head frame of mind, I stand at the edge and just take pictures.
Continuing the circuit, I head north off pavement and onto a soft dirt road. Katie snakes around in the deep powder-like dirt. It doesn't help a grader (a grader in South America!?!) has just worked the road over. Adding to the fun are steep dropoffs and more rain. Tell me again why I keep taking the road less travelled?
The road gradually improves as the day wears on. Now, and thank heavens not sooner, my favorite mountain road compañeros show up. Camions and autobuses. True to form the drivers all have death wishes combined with the urgency to go as fast as possible, regardless of road conditions. Or the fact that smaller sized traffic might be occupying the road too.
There are not many places to pull over and get the picture of the lifetime, but the snapshot below shows how the andinos live, whether they are in Peru or Ecuador. The crops are hand tilled and harvested. Blankets are spread out to thrash the sheeves. The seeds are spread to dry. The waist high sacks of harvest placed at the roadsign for camion pick-up. It is a simple life but a hard one. Clothes are still washed in mountain streams and hung on bushes or simple clothes lines to dry. For every one picture I do take, a 1000 National Geographic quality ones are taken in my mind. They are truly unique scenes and cultures to observe as Katie and I pass through in these few moments.
Sunset is at 6:15. It is now 5:50 and I am not off the mountains and finished the loop. It has taken me all day to ride less than 200 kilometres. But now I must find a place to camp or stay within the next 15 minutes or face riding in the dark, surely a foolhardy thing to do. Light rain adds to the challenge. With no plan other than to stop and set up my tent in the next few minutes if nothing shows up, a town does show up like a miracle. Not marked on my GPS, the pueblo of Toacazo arrives in the windshield. A quick inquiry at the town's only service station has a customer leading me to an unmarked hacienda that occasionally takes guests. As darkness falls, I arrive at the beautiful log house of Ramiro Vela. I can stay even though the place is temporarily closed. Katie gets to park in the spacious dining room. Ramiro rustles up some crackers, cheese, tea and a beer. We are all happy. Through the night, from my cosy and dry bed, I can head rain falling on the roof of the hacienda. I fall back to sleep easily.
The next morning, it is still raining. And now the final leg of the Quilotoa Circuit is cobblestone road. Katie finds it slippery when wet. We idle along in first gear, the shocks getting a workout too as we judder over a road surface of round riverstone.
Rejoining the Pan Americana an hour later, Katie and I ride for Cotopaxi. the popular destination volcano (5897m or 19,347 feet) everyone raves about. Except today it is less than 10 C at 10,000 feet where I'm at and a cold rain is still falling. I realize to ride up to one of the world's most perfectly coned volcanos is to take a ride in the snow. Further, I will see nothing but the inside of the clouds. So, reluctantly, Katie and I head for Quito and a dry hotel room.
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