December 31, 2010 GMT
Memory Lane

Same great roads, less corners. That was our introduction to Ecuador. Several hrs. south of the border we ran into Quebec Sammy, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast from Montreal area. He briefed us on outsmarting the Lima, Peru police by staying in the center lane of two-lane traffic .Not making eye contact with the police if they attempt to pull you over. It seems they are very corrupt and will use any excuse to force you to pay a bribe. He however was pinched by the police and after some 2 hrs. finally got his passport back without having to pay a bribe. He said he got into a physical altercation with the police, they pushing him around.We entered Ibarra, the base for Carol's last year of anthropology some ten years previous. She had worked with indigenous women setting up a co-operative in a town 20 minutes from Ibarra. We visited the foundation the next day and Carol took a trip down memory lane with one of the ladies that remembered her. Some of the elders had past on while others had moved away. Kids she recalled now had children of their own. Carol reminisced for about an hr. and we then headed back to Ibarra.
We stayed at the Hostal El Portal, a recently refurbished hotel, excellent beds, plenty of hot water, multiple English channels on TV and secure parking around the corner. All for $16 a night.
I always enjoy eating at the market, the smells, sounds and sights. a sensory overload. I had a feed of pulled pork while Carol had chicken soup washed down with blackberry juice. Once again laundry was on the menu and that took up several hrs.
From Ibarra we made our way down to Quito and found a great hostal, Loro Verde in New Town. They let us park our bikes in their yard and were very accomodating later when we needed to store our belongings for the trip to the Galapagos Islands. We met up with several bikers from the Panama boat ride and caught up on things. With Aaron and Robert we went to Mitad del Mundo, the Equator marker, and took some photograghs. According to Robert's GPS the actual marker is off by 71 ft. Close I guess by late 1700 standards. Carol and I both got altitude headaches, the marker being close to 10,000 ft.
The day before we befriended Sylvain and Curt, co-owners of Freedom Bike Rentals. They rent scooters, pedal bikes, KLR's, Suzuki and BMW1200's. They even have GPS guided tours of the city, very friendly guys. As it turned out we booked a trip for the Galapagos but had nowhere to store our bikes. That's when Sylvain came to our rescue and we stored our bikes in his showroom for 6 days, all free of charge.
While in Quito we also went to the national museum and viewed the history of Ecuador thru the awesome display of ceramics and precious metals. Prior tto the Incas the indigenous people were well versed in the arts of gold, copper and silversmithing, along with inlaying of semi-precious stones.
Carol and I had one of the best meals ever in our lives at Rincon del Gaucho, an Argentinian grill house. We both had baked potato with a huge portion of beef, grilled and then served on it's own brazier to keep it hot while removing forkful after forkful of the most tender and juicy piece of flesh I've eaten to date. The room had memorabilia from bull-fights as well as various grilling apparatus adorning the walls. When one eats 2-3 meals a day prepared by others, many not worth the effort, it is very special to have a meal such as this. Even with the strong Oriental influence in Ecuador many restaurants can not prepare Chinese food very well. The food is not very good, but the portions are large.

Posted by Ralph Kirchmaier at 02:19 AM GMT
Look, look, look

The night before our trip to the Galapagos was slept with one eye open becuase we didn't take an alarm clock with us. We had a cab scheduled for early morning and were at the airport by 7:00a.m. for the flight to Guayaquil and then on to the islands. We had decided to splurge on a luxury ship, with a biologist guide and an itinerary that took in more islands than some of the other tours offered. We were met by our guide Dario along with the other 12 passengers and then whisked off to the catamaran Archipell 1, manned by 9. Every day involved a walking tour along with snorkeling at a different island.
Dario was our guide as well as being a biologist and was very passionate about his job and his heritage as an islander. Most of the island have sparse vegetation due to the volcanic make-up and several are active. The latest eruption being in 2009.
We got to see dolphins, blue-footed boobies, sea turtles, rays, a whale, flightless cormorants, frigate birds, sea lions, marine iguanas, land iguanas, great blue herons, flamingos, finches, snakes, lizards, pelicans all up close and personal.
We explored massive lava flows and lava tubes large enough to crawl into. We learned of the U.S involvement in the islands having built a landing strip on one for the protection from the Japanese in WWII. One island was bombed extensively just for practise.
In the future the gov't is going to increase the cost for foreigners to visit from $100 to $200 and decrease the number of tours allowed to lessen the impact on the animals. Ecuadorians only pay $6 for the same privilage. Those that live on these far flung isalnds pay a high cost. Most of the food has to be flown in and fresh drinking water is at a premium.
The meals we had on board for the most part were pretty good but every once in a while the cook/chef bombed bad. We didn't pay top dollar for fried rice with hot dog slices. He could really carve up a lovely centerpiece of fruit or vegetable and make it look like an animal or cocoanut tree. Being a double hull catamarand made the boat very stable and sea sickness was kept to a minimum. Some people had little patches that they put behind their ears to prevent sea sickness.
Those that wanted to snorkel had to rent a wet suit as well due to the cold waters. The islands being so young had little coral but lots of fish could be found along with sea lions and turtles to swim with.
On our last day in the islands we went to see the giant land tortoises and the large reserve set aside just for them. It is really quite impressive to see them up this close.

Posted by Ralph Kirchmaier at 03:27 AM GMT
January 01, 2011 GMT
The road less travelled

After our Galapagos tour we stayed one more night in Quito, got our bikes from Sylvain at Freedom Bike Rentals, and the made our way down to Cuenca to visit Jose and Mary. They are a couple of fellow Calgarians we met on the Galapagos tour and are in Ecuador looking for a potential retirement spot.
Somewhere along the way we ventured off the Pan-American highway and ended up in Banos. This is a very popular spot for white-water rafting, zip-lining, treks and dune buggie rentals. There are plenty of hostals in town and it has a very young vibe. In the recent past the entire town and valley was evacuated due to the local volcano, Tungurahua, exploding, spewing ash everywhere.
The next morning rather than getting my bearings straight we headed out of town towards the Amazon jungle instead of back to the main highway. We passed several waterfalls as well as a major dam on our way to Puyo. Along the road were many ads for jungle tours into the rain forest. Good fortune now smiled upon us as this stretch of road before us was brand new, with no more than a dozen vehicles for the next 65 kms. There is no nicer feeling than fresh sticky smooth asphalt under your tires, not having to dodge potholes or uneven surfaces.
Well that good fortune ran out much faster than either of us was prepared for. Stopping in a small town for a bite to eat, we asked the locals of two choices to be made to proceed to Cuenca. We were told one was bad and the other was good. I can't imagine what the bad one was like. 30kms. out of town the asphalt was breaking up on a regular basis, sections of the road completely gone and we were fording small streams across the road. Next came gravel roads interspersed with large rocks to be missed. Dirt was furrowed up to make way for the new asphalt to be laid, we were heading into major construction, for how long was anybody's quess.
Then came a 2hr. wait at the crest of a hill while a crew cleared a bunch of rock that had fallen across the road. The first dynamite blast was a surprise as it echoed thru the hills. After intially cleaning, they planted more dynamite, but this time I got to see the explosion. The sound came thru over a second after the blast and then came the debris, hitting the nearby house and trees and parked vehicles.
Carol wanted to go slow, so we let all the back-up traffic pass us before riding on. Being in the valley it got dark quickly as so new fears of poor visibilty came into play. There was a light mist falling making the dirt slick in spots, but the traffic in front helped to dry it out somewhat. We were moving along at a smooth albeit slow pace when traffic stopped completely. Some genius was trying to get traffic to pass each other on roads too narrow. And now it really started to pour down, with cars, buses and heavy trucks inching by one another, with 2000 ft drop-offs on the outside. Funny!! you don't notice it as much in the dark, thank goodness. All the towns ahead of us were to small to have a hotel, so we plowed ahead, tired, wet, and cold. Sections of completed concrete road were on both sides, with re-bar sticking out waiting for the next pour. The night shift was busy pouring concrete as we passed them, blinded by their construction lighting. Finally after a 12 hr. day we found a hotel and a restaurant that was willing to stay open so we could get fed. Quite a ride to remember.

Posted by Ralph Kirchmaier at 09:36 PM GMT
January 31, 2011 GMT
Who ordered all the sand

We missed our contact in Cuenco, Jose and Mary from Calgary, and decided to move towards the Peruvian border. Leaving Cuenco the terrain changed from green farmland filled with cows to dry canyonlands with little vegetation. Once again we were met with an obstacle in the form of a blocked road, reason unknown. The next 1 1/2 hrs. were spent navigating our bikes down a steep grade of dust, gravel and rocks while large trucks passed us on the way up. Apparently they were making a new road and were diverting traffic around their construction but had failed to mark the by-pass properly, so we naturally took the wrong turn. We had to wait about 30 mins. at one point to allow a CAT to clear a bunch of debris created by a hoe perched 40ft. above the road. We made our way all the down to the river only to have to go back up another 1/4 mile down the track.
Our goal was to make it to Machala that day, another 4 hrs. away. Machala calls itself the "banana capitol of the world" and with good reason as miles before and after are covered with the potassium filled yellow fruit. We read somewhere that the fruit is so plentiful that it is offered free at any meal, we never saw one.
In preparation for Peru, I decided to get my mirror broken in Mexico, fixed. No need to give the police a reason to give me a ticket. After checking a couple of shops we were referred to a mechanic a few blocks away. He had to weld a threaded section to my mirror arm in order for it to be re-attached to the handlebars. He took a page out of the Orange County Chopper handbook and welded the two parts together with no welding helmet, just stabbing the welding rod at it's intended victim. Don't try this at home kids, he is a professional. His welding machine was another accident waiting to happen. Rather than having a regular plug on the end of the machine, he had 2 bare wires that he wrapped around large nails on a wooden pole. He would then pull his 220 power coming into his work area and attach these wire to the nails, one at a time. It worked, and he had all his fingers so I was confident in his ability. A little grinding, a splash of black paint and I was good to go.
We spent the next day getting laundry done and Carol getting her hair cut. She got into a discussion with another patron about the fact that Canada is not apart of the United States, something the patron wasn't willing to believe. At night we had some BBQ from a stall vendor and fed a couple of stray dogs.
As seems to be our modus operandi we blew past the customs office leaving Ecuador, crossed a bridge and found ourselves in Peru. We had to go back 10 kms. and process the paperwork, no big deal, just another example of strangers in a strange land. Just when you think you have it figured out, they change the location. At the Peruvian border we met a German couple driving an RV built for the Armeggedon. A German military truck with a fiberglas trailer body on top of the frame, formerly used by fire-fighters with some retro-fitting. They have been travelling for several years starting with the truck being sent to Newfoundland and then driving down to South America. The process at the entrance to Peru was as good as any border crossing can get. This being Christmas Eve, there were no line ups, and the customs official was happy to practise her English. We asked about the need for motorcycle insurance and was assured as tourists it was not required. We had heard horror stories about having to buy insurance for a minimum of a year at $500/yr. No insurance provider is at the border, so many riders when pulled over tell the police that they will purchase it in Lima. This is our biggest fear, running the gauntlet to Lima and beyond.
It seems that the used car of choice in Northern Peru is the Dodge or Chrysler of the late 1970's or early 80's. Large 4 door cars with the rear end jacked up high by use shackles, just like back in the day.The rear tires look over-sized, maybe truck tires. Most have whisky wrinkles on all four corners, while others have been restored nicely. None the less, a little trip down memory lane.
Travelling to Piura we passed miles and miles of desert, with small settlements along the way consisting of homes made from reed matts, mud bricks and some pieces of wood. Often there was no rhyme or reason for houses to be in the middle of the desert, miles from water, electricity or stores for food. These people live under some severe conditions. Often we would be roaring down the highway to find an individual waiting fo r a bus along the side of the road, sometimes 50 kms. from the nearest town. He is literally in the desert in the middle of nowhere, or at least you can see nowhere from there. On occasion we would see a converted motorcycle cum taxi, picking people up or dropping them off in the middle of nowhere/desert.
Then rounding a corner or riding over a pass would be this oasis/town with rich vegetation everywhere. Huge fields of sugar cane or corn or potatoes. Here in Peru if you have a source of water, you can grow anything, a sharp contrast to the endless kms. of some of the driest lands in the world.
Gone were the $1.48/gal gas bars in Ecuador, to be replaced $5/gal bio-fuel with a low(83) octane rating. It was important to monitor fuel consumption as distances between towns are great enough to run out of fuel. It's wise to fill up where you can because some towns have only one service station.
Christmas Eve in Canada is a quiet time in the city, while here in Peru, the streets were filled with families shopping. Buying fireworks and firecrackers seem to be a prime directive for revellers with Christmas Eve being bigger than New Years Eve here. We managed to find a hotel close to downtown much to our surprise considering summer and Christmas holidays at the same time. Secure parking around the corner shared with all the moto-taxis was available.
The next day we made it to Trujillo, staying at the Colonial Hotel, near the Plaza de Armas. They let us park our bikes in the lobby. A very nice hotel, with courtyard in the middle, vintage trimmings, tour info and attached cafe'.
We took an all day tour the next day, seeing remnants from the Moche and Chimu cultures. Built around 1300 A.D., Chan Chan was the largest pre-columbian city in the Americas and largest mud adobe city in the world. The Peruvian gov't has nothing to do with these sites, concentrating their efforts on Macchu Pichu and Lake Titikaka locations. These sites get their funding from the U.S. gov't, Swiss gov't and a beer company. The Chan Chan location contained up to 10,000 structures, including burial mounds and royal palaces lined with precious metals. The Moche temples include the largest pyramid in the southern hemiphere, made from 140 million adobe bricks, built around 600 A.D. Erosion has taken it's toll and now appears as only a massive sand pile. While next door at the Huaca de la Luna, many ceramic friezes have been uncovered and archeologists are still busy peeling away the layers. We saw a pair of famous Peruvian hairless dogs, known for their ability to help heal people with arthritis, as body warmers, because the dogs body temperature is higher than normal dogs. We ended the tour by going to Huanchaco, a fishing village turned week-end resort for surfers complete with board shops, high end designer shops and a slew of restaurants. It also hosts reed made boats, with the ends turned up like the shoes from Alladin, used by fisherman to bring in their catch.

Posted by Ralph Kirchmaier at 08:34 PM GMT
Running the gauntlet

Leaving Trujillo we found mile after mile again of wasteland, where nothing grows and no one lives. My kingdom for an I-pod. The starkness of the landscape creates its own beauty by simply being like no other place on earth, but after 2,000 kms., it loses some of it's allure. It now becomes a test of not going cuckoo for Coco-puffs. We are merely plowing ahead, trying to make it to the next town before dark, hoping there are accomodations with decent beds.
We finally saw the smog and faint lights of Lima as we rolled into town much later than we had hoped. The stories of corrupt cops swirling in my mind was now becoming an obsession.Both Aaron and Robert had been hit up by the cops and ended up forking over some money. Several days before, we had received news that Robert, from the Panama ship, was no longer able to make it to the bottom of South America. Some lady had run a red light in Lima, and Robert had T-boned her, writing off his new GS 800 motorbike. He was O.K. but the bike was totalled. Now we had to find a room, while keeping our head on a swivel, hoping to avoid a police checkpoint. Other riders we have talked to have disconnected their headlight, so they can travel under the cover of darkness. Traffic is becomely increasingly oppressive as rebuilding is going on a major artery into town, squeezing 5 lanes of traffic into 2, winding it's way thru neighborhoods. Even with our high-visibilty jackets we become invisible to trucks and buses and are forced to make critical decisions as to move forward or not, with the distinct chance of getting rubbed out. We try several off-ramps for hotels but only found over-priced love motels charging high rates for seedy conditions and no parking. We finally find a hotel with parking very relieved that this day has ended.
Big cities in general don't interest Carol or myself, especially when a major concern is theft of your personal belongings or mode of transportation. Paranoia is a powerful motivator, unfortunately it also negates the opportunity to see some amazing sights. Many of the things to see in South American cities involve churches and after seeing so many in the past, I can't remember a single one other than Mexico City, with the church built on an old swamp and it's road-side amusement floor that defies the human eye. So we left Lima as soon as humanly possible to alay fears, unfounded by us, of a city riddled with crime, mostly done by the police. Another time, we hope to give Lima the chance it deserves.
South of Lima for perhaps 100 kms. the Pan-American highway is lined with resorts of all types and sizes. Then once again, miles and miles of windblown sand dunes. The road itself is very good but you have to watch out for drifting sand across the road which is both hard on the eyes as well as slippery for the bikes.
Outside of the city of Ica, lays Huacachina. This little lagoon oasis is featured on the peruvian 50 Soles note. It is surrounded by several hundred foot sand dunes which you can sandboard down or take a ride on heavily converted 4-wheel drive vehicles with massive roll cages. This town of 200 used to be a get-away for the elite of Ica and many beautiful buildings ring the lagoon.
Riding south we entered the Nazca line area, where a variety of large depictions of animals or plant are only truly visible from the air. Discovered in the late 1930's when an American flew over the lines, the history of the lines is steeped in mystery as to why. There is a scaffold like structure right on the Pan-American highway and for a nominal fee we climbed and were able to see several outlines of a hand, lizard and tree.
Leaving Nazca was more mind-numbing stretches of unmemorable road, sand and rocks until we entered the canyon areas around Arequipa, our eventual home for a couple of days till we sorted out our tour to Cuzco, Macchu Pichu and Lake Titikaka. These canyons were a nice change of scenery from the coastline we had been riding along for 6 days.

Posted by Ralph Kirchmaier at 10:17 PM GMT
 
 

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