Sunday, May 31, 2009

Riding the Ride

(Chachapoyas, Peru - Huaraz, Peru)

On route from Chachapoyas we took a few hours to ride out to Kuèlap, a mountain top fortress that outdates the Incas (who came in and booted the original owners and took it over themselves for a while, till they were conquered by the Spanish). My foot was a bit tender and bruised, so we took it easy up the rocky path and wandered through the circular stone spaces/houses where thousands of people once lived. The road up, or rather up, around, down, back and then up again (in other words truly the most in-direct route I´ve seen in a while) was beautiful, narrow and just plain fun. Clouds loomed as we headed back down and toward Leymebamba, which we now call Lame-Bamba and besides a quick night´s sleep wasn´t much to talk about. We had separate single beds, and I fell asleep at about 9pm.

We have truly been riding on some seriously out of the way roads, hardly shown on the map, rocky, dirty, muddy, bumpy, with views that take your breath away. The road has been so distracting that I have had a hard time recalling where we´ve stayed. Every evening we are wiped out from riding on what are basically narrow, one-lane tracks on the side of steep precipices. So far, we´ve stayed off the beaten track, well worth it for the photos. I´ve taken to keeping the camera up my jacket sleeve for easier access. You never know when you´re going to make a turn and have the perfect opportunity for a great shot of the mountains, a tunnel, waterfalls, or a small Peruvian woman in her full skirts and large straw hat. I´ve learned that your first chance is usually your best one, as you come around a corner. If you hesitate, you miss it. And that just sucks.

We visited Celendìn, and arrived in the pouring rain. We found a little pizzeria and watched the Champions League soccer finals while warming up with hot chocolate as mud and water pooled around our boots on their white floor. We stayed at Hostal Loyers, where we were able to park the motorcycle in their large, open courtyard under the eaves. Adam changed the front brakes and I cleaned the air filter. I also watched a little bit of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit show. Seriously.
Just down the street from the hotel we found a little comedor called Doña Danny, where a very kind family chatted with us a bit as we picked up some snacks, and where we returned for a tasty breakfast of cafè con leche and tamales the next morning.

From Celendìn we had a relatively short day riding to Cajamarca, a large colonial town with a nice lookout over the city. Adam was struggling with a little bit of a stomach bug, but we managed to hike to the top of the lookout, and then walk back to the hotel (slightly faster on the way back). We stayed at Las Lejas Hotel for a whopping $5 (15 Soles) in a room where someone had broken their presumably full glass bottle of perfume. Needless to say we didn´t walk around barefoot, and the room smelled awfully "nice." After a bit of a rest, Adam felt better and we headed out to dinner. I have to admit that Adam is definitely the more adventurous eater of the two of us, and he decided he was up for the famous Peru delicacy, Cuy. If you´re not familiar with this one, let me just describe it as cute and cuddly previous to its demise. It´s guinea pig. Although he tried to order the 1/4 serving they only had 1/2 servings available. No problem. Rice and saucy potatoes accompanied the little fried guy, who´s ribs, teeth, and claws were, well, still there. See our photos for an up close and personal look. I would like to add that it tasted delicious. Rather like duck confit...

Riding on, we headed toward the coastal town of Trujillo, the biggest city in Northern Peru. We had heard from other riders that the coastal Pan-American highway in Peru is not fun and generally something to avoid, but our pace had been a bit slow on the windy mountain roads and so we decided to make up a bit of time as well as see a bit of the coast. Although we did end up making good time South this way the roads were truly miserable and worth thinking twice about if you find yourself in a similar situation.
As we descended out of the green mountains along a busy and bone rattling road we entered endless sand dunes and straightaways that gave us the impression of riding at the bottom of a dry sea bed. Winds have created incredible undulating dunes that pile themselves at the foot of rocky mountains, their peaks lost in a haze from the whipped sand. It is an understatement to say that it was a bit different than the past three months of riding we´ve done. Not since Northern Mexico have we spent so much time riding through sand and cacti.

We found a simple, comfy room at Hostal Encanto in Trujillo, one block away from a classy, artistic place called Muséo Bar and Restaurant. There we enjoyed some rather pricey cocktails ($5 each, it´s what we spent on a hotel room!) and tasty treats surrounded with photos of music and artist greats, strange live piano music, and beautifully painted dark terra cotta walls.
On the way out of town we stopped at the Chan Chan ruins long enough to take a few photos of the massive walls of sand and mud that stretch out across the sand dunes. There were 35,000 people who lived in these huge complexes, some reserved for kings, others for peasants. The Incas eventually came and chased them out, not bothering to use the structures for themselves.
Yesterday, we headed out on what became a lonnnnnnnng day through spectacular canyons, tunnel after tunnel, tiny towns out in the middle of nothingness. We´ve lived on salty crackers for our lunches this past week, thank goodness for Salticas!
All I can say about the ride, is "wait till you see the photos!" I actually got sick of taking them, but the opportunities were endless and I couldn´t pass them up. We limped into Huallanca where the one hostal in town (Hostal Koki) let us park in the entry, served us a delicious dinner, and even let us watch my bootleg Ecuadorian version of Twilight! Adam was thrilled. Our bed was a bit more than uncomfortable, and there was only one pillow. Bloodsucker mosquitoes were stalking me in the night (I discovered a bloody smear on the sheet in the morning from where it got my hand), and our neighbors were up wrestling in the hallway at 3:36am. Ah, well. Life on the road.

We haven´t spent more than one night anywhere in a week, riding long days and trying to make tracks through this incredible area, Cordilleras Blanca and the base town of Huaraz. People come from all over the world to hike and camp, the peaks and canyons the steepest and highest in the world next to the Himalayas. We can see the white peaks from our hostel, where I managed to trip on a rogue shoe and drop my camera on the cement floor. The camera was on, the lense out, and I smashed one side into crookedness. Adam worked on fixing it, and at one point had all the little screws in separate piles, and pieces of this and that scattered across the bed. It now takes photos, the lense moves in and out; it is also held together with a zip-tie and the screen is fried. Really, the most important thing is that I can still take photos off the back of the motorcycle. I know I wouldn´t be able to handle the Nikon and the potholes at the same time!

Tonight we ate a great dinner downtown at Pachamama, (I had a vegetarian lasagna and a glass of red wine, Adam had chicken curry and a strawberry shake), then grabbed a bite of chocolate on the way back, and took some beautiful photos of the snow-capped mountains from our rooftop terrace.

Ah, Life.

Grace and Adam

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Monday, May 25, 2009

Andean Grooves

(Cuenca, Ecuador - Chachapoyas, Peru)

What an amazing stretch of riding we`ve had these last few days!!!

After a wonderfully recuperative stay with Lyria and Gabe (during which time we mostly just lounged around surfing the net and watching contraband DVDs on Gabe´s hi definition projector) we took to the pavement once again and headed East into the mountains. As Grace told you in the previous post, the road was an absolute nightmare of fog and cold and after a long and stressful ride we finally broke free of the clouds and entered Cajas National Park. Interestingly there is a steep fee of $10 per person to enter the park, but you can pass through for free as long as you spend no more than 30 minutes within the park´s borders. It was a fantastic 15 minute stretch of road that gave us a taste of the park´s unique and picturesque terrain. It really was a different world up there of rolling brown mountain tops and desolate stretches of earth, sporadically dotted with brightly colored algae pools. We would have loved to stay and explore further but it was cold enough that we quickly moved on our way down to the warmer temperatures within the colonial walls of Cuenca.

A beautiful and relaxing city, we spent two days at ¨El Cafecito¨ in the historic district and wandered about with our camera taking photos and sampling the local fare. On our day off I spent a few hours sewing patches over the holes in my backpack (from Volcano Bording in Nicaragua) and Grace kicked back with her book. It was at this time that a wild eyed British hombre named Ulysses came strolling into the Dorm room looking for his bed, soaking wet and clearly put out. He threw down his bag and guitar case, kicked off his sneakers (under which he was wearing plastic shopping bags over his socks) and flopped down onto the bed. He then indulged us with the humorous tale of his previous 48 hours.
He had been told by one of his tour group contacts in town that for $70 it would be well worth his time and money to take a scenic and sun filled 2-day horseback trek through the mountains outside of Cuenca with a private tour guide and porter. Unfortunately this turned out to be one of the poorer decisions of his year long world tour. It turned out that the ¨tour guide¨ was nothing more than an extra set of hands, the weather was miserably wet and cold the entire time, and the porter was a sickly donkey. Our new friend went on and on about how uncomfortable he had been the entire time riding on the back of a less than sure footed horse, attempting to help the unprepared girl who had accompanied him and didn´t bring a rain coat or sleeping bag. After camping out on a wet hillside and eating a pitiful dinner and breakfast, the gallant trio packed up and headed home. As they made their way along the path Ulysses continued to grow more and more uneasy at the steadyness of, not only his own horse, but also that of the donkey that was carrying all of his gear. The path was narrow and the hillside steep when all of a sudden, to his unpleasant surprise, the donkey lost it´s footing directly in front of him and went tumbling over the edge of a muddy cliff. As he tells this part of the story his mouth hangs open and his wide eyes stare down at the floor boards as if begging for help. It was hilarious.
It turns out the the donkey did not die but was only severely banged up at the bottom of the hill. His guitar however, was dead. He helped the guide get the animal back on it´s feet and they finished the trek home, walking at times, and returned to the hotel exhilerated, wet, and depressed.
I love the stories we get to hear.

From Cuenca the ride South to Loja was uneventful and quick. From there however the road leading into the hills towards Vilcabama and the land of longevity became more windy and fresh and the scenery greeted us with a big smile. The brilliance of the green hillsides became especially stunning as the sun moved into it´s final quarter of the sky, and we pulled into our destination feeling fantastic. A short stop to drop our things off at Hostal Mandanga and we walked over to the ¨Otro Restaurant¨ for a bite to eat. The French couple that ran the place was super nice and the food was delicious. At one point, just before we were served, the power throughout the entire town shut off for about 5 minutes leaving the crowds in the plaza and the patrons on the restaurant porch in total darkness. Apparantly nothing out of the ordinary in this small hillside getaway, as the owners quickly produced candles for each table and a pair of headlamps by which they went on with their food prep. At that moment it became clear to me that I fully intend to live in a place that is completely unfazed by a power outage. It was really nice to be around a group of people that wasn´t bothered by it but rather simply pulled out the candles and move right along without a seconds thought.

We knew we had a long day ahead of us when we woke up at 7:30 and packed the bike. We were told it was 6 hours to the Peruvian border at La Balsa and an additional 2 hours from there to the first town that would provide suitable lodging. A brief breakfast of bread and yogurt and we were on our way. We were looking at 200km of dirt road, and the cloud cover was less than encouraging. Up the winding road we went and soon found ourselves in the midst of a sizeable downpour. The muddy road and ongoing heavy machinery road construction kept me on my toes and we found the time pass nicely as we marvelled at the remote mountain sides and swerved to avoid the random suspension killing pothole or stray chicken. We arrived at the border after only 4 hours and proceeded with the necessary paperwork. Both leaving Ecuador and Entering Peru was a piece of cake, the only issue being that we had to wait half an hour for a grumpy Peruvian immigration official that smelled disturbingly like an outhouse to finish lunch and stamp us in.

The short ride down to San Ignacio, Peru would have been a pleasant end to the day if it wasn´t for a bone-headed mishap that left us splayed out in the roadway with Grace´s foot pinned beneath the bike. Listening to music and chatting about the beautiful hillsides, we rounded a 90 degree right hand corner and I lost the back end of the bike in a patch of loose rocks. We fish tailed to the left and went down in the middle of the road. Luckily we weren´t going more than 10 or 15 mph, but as we went down the bike pinched Grace´s left foot under the side case which left her gritting her teeth in pain. I felt terrible. I mean, I still feel terrible. Luckily she´s a tough girl and we were back on the bike after only a short break. The ankle was unharmed but the side of her foot is slightly swollen and is a bit painful for her to put weight on. She sounds confident that it´s likely only a deep bruise and that she should be as good as new in a few days. From now on I will add yet another layer of caution to the heaping mound of care I already take with my precious cargo to ensure we don´t have any further mishaps :-)

We had a nice evening at Hostal la Posada in San Ignacio watching ¨Sean of the Dead¨ in Spanish and eating fried chicken with fries (Grace liked the chicken so much she insisted she have some more today for lunch. I decided to experiment and got something that I didn´t recognize off the menu. It was dark brown, chewy and a bit fibrous :-( The ride today was really incredible. There´s something wonderful about winding along a mountain road with spectacular vistas on all sides and knowing that there wasn´t a guidebook or trail map that recommended it for you. We´re just making our way from one out of the way place to another and are treated time and again with amazing sights.
We arrived in the hilltop town of Chachapoyas and quickly found that Hostal Revash suited us perfectly. We rolled the bike into the fourier and unloaded the gear before taking a stroll around. There´s nothing particularly fascinating about the streets or the shops, but we both feel very comfortable and welcome here and are glad to have made it a stop on our route.
From here we continue South to the ruins of Kuelap where we will learn about the 2000 year old ruins and the history of the pre-Incan culture of the ¨Cloud People.¨ From there we make our way towards the mountain enthusiast´s wonderland Huarez, and then on towards Cusco and Macchu Pichu.
Hope this finds you all well. Much Peace and Much Love,

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Friday, May 22, 2009

Boys Underwear

(Guayaquil, Ecuador - Cuenca, Ecuador)

I know you may have jumped to conclusions at the title, but for those who are faint of heart, fear not! I only want to share that as we head farther South, we find ourselves more and more often staying in dormitory style rooms (it's fun to have bunkbeds and hang off the edge to whisper good night). Also, it's very reasonably priced. Unfortunately, I did not pack proper pyjamas. Since I've been wrapping myself in a sarong when I have to get out of bed at night, Adam suggested we look around for some little sleeping shorts. Little did he know this would turn into a healthy hour of wandering, lots of strange Latino-Man underwear (disturbingly small, tight, and did I mention small?), and very few women's shorts that didn't include matching, sparkly T-shirts. Finally we found a nice pile of semi-decent specimens and I made my decision. They are the perfect size, a combination of red and navy blue stripes (power colours) and they were only $3. They also include a handy front pouch which I intend to use for storing midnight snacks. Adam insists it is meant for something else, but I can't imagine what.

P.S. We are in Cuenca, Ecuador after an incredibly scenic ride at high altitude, which meant cooooold. Fog so thick it gathered on our visors, and was impossible to see more than 20 feet in any direction. Apparently the views were spectacular, but we wouldn't know. As we came out below the mists, we found ourselves in an alien landscape of wildly shaped rocks and rivers, then at last to Cuenca. It is a pretty little city, with large cathedrals and state buildings made from a beautiful reddish stone, marbled and pocked and standing rather formidably amongst the Spanish Colonial styles of their neighbors. Our bunkbeds are warm and comfortable, although the roof leaked a bit onto Adam's when it rained today. Luckily, he's the one on top this time! We take turns.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Iguana Park, Guayaquil, Ecuador

And she did end up petting one...

Monday, May 18, 2009

Lourdes Umajinga, And A Little Epiphany

(Quito, Ecuador - Guayaquil, Ecuador)

Lourdes Umajinga for Assembly Seat! I've seen this campaign ad painted all over the place in the mountainous regions of Ecuador and I was struck by how unusual and interesting it is.

My little epiphany occurred in a moment of frustration and bitterness, wishing for something else and truly not appreciating my circumstances. In the midst of it, my eyes literally burning from smoke filling our little room, my body aching and tired, Adam next to me sick and exhausted, the air outside cold, the windows wide open to vent the smoke. I suddenly thought to myself, "What if this was fun?" It was at that moment that it felt as if everything had changed, or rather nothing had changed but my perception of it. So I came to the conclusion as so many others have done before me, that if you so choose, you can re-frame your experiences to be enjoyable. I have so many stories that become funny later (when I am out of whatever situation and can laugh from a comfortable distance) but my new thinking is that you can actually change how the situation feels In that moment. Just a thought, but I'm going to try it out and see what happens.

From Quito, we headed out on recommendations to Banos, a pretty little mountain town that offers outdoor activities, thermal pools, dozens of hostels, and great restaurants. We met up with our new friend Jessica, a Med-School student from California who had stayed at our hostel in Quito. The three of us decided to rent bicycles ($4 for the whole day) and thought a 2 or 3 hour ride down the meandering road through the green canyons would be nice, stopping for a couple of hikes to waterfalls and hanging bridges. We were told we'd be able to take a bus back up the long slope to town. We had a great day, took some amazing photos, rode through a couple of pitch black tunnels, hiked in a little sprinkling of rain, and then decided to head back. We thought we'd ride along until a bus came by, hail them and just pop the bikes on top. It didn't turn out like we'd planned. The light sprinkle of rain turned to a drizzle, and then just plain rained. No buses came by. At one point we had to go through a long, dark tunnel which curved so you could not see the light at the end, it was pitch black, and there was a line of impatient traffic behind us. Luckily, a large semi truck had seen us getting ready to enter and waved us on ahead, they tried (and failed) to light our way as we pedaled frantically (I managed to fall into the watery ditch at the side) horns honking from behind, pitch black in front, and just trying to make it out alive. Which we did.
Then it was another 1 1/2 hours of uphill riding, soaked to the bone, me stopping every 100 yards or so to rest my poor legs. Apparently Jessica and Adam are tougher than I am. We finally made it, returned the bikes and helmets (yes, Mothers, we wore helmets) and sat down for an absolutely delicious vegetarian lasagna and hot chocolate at a restaurant on the Plaza Central. Later we soaked in the heat of the thermal pools (with about 50 other people) met up with our Irish pals from the boat to Colombia. We also ran into Woody, who we've now seen on the boat from Panama to Colombia, on the streets of Bogota, and now in Banos, Ecuador.
After catching up, soaking in the deliciously hot water and becoming thoroughly dehydrated, we returned to the pizzeria for more hot chocolate and pizza.

The next morning we said goodbye to our friends, deciding to backtrack North to ride the Quilotoa Loop. Woody had just come from there and proclaimed to us that Ecuador was officially his favourite country. Adam was pretty fired up at that, and we quickly decided to put this story to the test.
The road winds and winds along the edge of steep hillsides through the incredible mountains and along the base of a snow-capped volcano. Quechua families (the indigenous locals descended from the Incas) roam the windy plains watching their sheep and alpacas. Their crops stretch up the slopes in varied greens and browns, long strips of earth that bewilder the mind (how do they get up there, let alone till, plant, and harvest?).
We turned off the road and down a narrow sandy track through heavy fog toward the small village of Chugchilan. Sadly the cold Adam had been fighting hit him full on, and by the time we arrived he was done for. We had dinner and went straight to bed, and for the following two nights he slept 15-17 hours. Mama Hilda Hostel was a bit pricey, but included breakfast and dinner for $17/person, a warm, comfortable bed, and lots of hot tea. There are fireplaces in the rooms, but ours smoked so badly we decided not to bother with it the second night.

On the second morning Adam was well enough to ride on, and we headed back up the sandy road to check out the sights. Nearby, Laguna de Quilotoa is incredible. You can't see it from any roads leading up to it, and it requires heading out to the edge of an ancient volcano crater to see down to the water. A four hour hike will take you full circle around the rim but we were a bit hiked out, so just took some photos, admired a bit, and headed on our way.

We spent one night in Ambato, dining on real Chinese fried rice for dinner (surprisingly enough, this is a very difficult thing to come by South of the US border), and we were on our way South to Guayaquil.
We started the day in the mountains, but went higher and higher nearing 14,000 feet. Hardy olive-green grass shuddered in the icy winds, and the snow covered peaks of Volcan Chimborazo stood imposing out from the fleeting, rolling clouds. We had all our layers on, our breath fogging up the visors.

Coming down from the mountains through the cloud layer and fog created by the tropics below clashing with the cold mountain air was incredible. Scrub brush and scattered pines gave way to jungle and climbing vines, which turned to rice paddies and cane fields. The rice is a brilliant green stretching out to either side for miles and miles, the watery ground shimmering in the sunlight. Houses are built on stilts with long wooden ramps connecting them to the roads and other buildings.

Now we are in Guayaquil where Lyria (from Orcas!) is living with her boyfriend Gabe. We arrived two nights ago just as they were getting ready for a BBQ on their tropical garden rooftop terrace. They put Michael Jackson music videos on, were well-stocked on beer and tasty food, and had a group of fun friends over. They even had Tiki torches.

Since our arrival we've pretty much taken over their apartment, washing laundry, watching movies, eating some tasty olive and cheese sandwiches, and playing with the kitty. The air is warm and humid again, and a bit of an adjustment after our time in the misty mountains. Last night our hosts took us on a little tour of the downtown waterfront which concluded with a 500 step climb to the top of Cerro Santa Anna for a fantastic view over the city.

I have to admit, there's nothing quite like the rush of wind around your head while warm inside, watching the wild world unfold around you. I'm beginning to like this motorcycle riding thing.

Buen Suerte,
Grace and Adam

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Monday, May 11, 2009

The Southern Hemisphere!

(Bogota, Colombia - Quito, Ecuador)

We crossed the equator yesterday and are now officially in the Southern Hemisphere! Get this though, out of curiosity I checked our relative position to our destination and it turns out that Buenos Aires is still further South than San Diego is North. We've traveled so far. This is ridiculous.

When last we talked I believe I was raving about the splendor of Colombia, and now that we have cleared customs and departed the country, I can comfortably say that Colombia is one damn fine place to visit!
After Bogota we decided to take our new friends up on their invitation and spent three blissful days lounging about at their high country hideaway. Their cabin is set up on a hillside above the town of Guatavita about an hour North of the city. It was raining pretty consistently while we were there which we didn't particularly mind because it provided a great excuse for us to just sit still and relax. I even finished my 2nd book of the trip (I think Grace is on her 8th). The family that takes care of the property was in and out of the house, cleaning and looking after the garden. The mother, Leidi, also cooked us breakfast, lunch, and dinner each day and insisted we just take it easy. They were all super nice and we really feel lucky for having met them. Thanks again Javier and Gloria for a wonderful vacation... from our vacation.

From Guatavita we had an incredible ride up and down the mountains to Armenia where we spent the night before visiting the Parque del Cafe which is a bit of a Colombian disneyland that is centered around the coffee bean industry. We chose not to partake in the water slides and roller coasters but we did have fun wandering about and learning a bit more about the process.
From there we jetted down to Cali for a night where we stayed at the Casablanca hostel by recommendation from some other riders we had met in Cartegena. Mike at Casablanca was great and there was a Kawasaki dealership just around the corner which was able to get us a new chain in about an hour. Although we weren't overly impressed with the city, it was a nice stop and we were able to swap stories with some other bikers. We met a girl who had split from two other guys and was riding by herself on a 650GS from Lima to Oregon. That's a tough gal.

A night in Popayan staying at Hostel Trail we wandered the streets of the old colonial town where we had dinner and drinks with a 21 year old blonde British girl who was traveling all over South America alone and having a blast. We also kicked back in the TV room and watched Tropic Thunder which put us into serious hysterics on more than one occasion.

From Popayan we had another long day of riding to Pasto. At this point I have to say that the riding in Colombia is just fantastic. Starting 200km North of Medellin as you start up into the mountains you can count on spectacularly windy roads and incredible vistas all the way until you reach the Ecuadorian border. We'd spent so much time in the small countries of Central America that I had almost forgotten what it was like to ride for days and days in wide open country. (To whom it may concern - Thus far, I haven't found a road yet that has topped the riding we did on the GDR)

We departed from Pasto, Colombia around 8am and headed towards the border with the plan to reach Quito before dark. A spectacular ride south to Ipiales where we stopped for a quick bite and some coffee before getting into the paperwork. Now, for those of you who are jealously living through a cold US winter dreaming of a sunny equatorial getaway, you will be pleased to know that we were literally freezing our little nippers off at the border. No kidding, I don't think we've had weather that cold since northern Mexico where it was actually snowing! We broke out the coldest weather gear we had and bundled up while clutching our steaming coffee cups for warmth. Who would have thought?
The immigration and permitting was a piece of cake and we were on the road into Ecuador after only about an hour of paperwork. Due to the fact that my Passport was "lost" in Colombia I no longer had the Entry stamp to show the official, but luckily I was carrying a photo copy of the old passport and he was able to look up the info with little hassle. Note to other travelers, always carry backup copies of your important documents!
At the border we ran into a couple from the States that is doing a similar trip through the Americas, but instead of on a bike their traveling by car. They were driving a loaded down Honda Element and it sounded like they hadn't had much trouble. A bit more paperwork in Cartegena attempting to secure their car from the shipping container at customs, but other than that everything sounded pretty smooth. They were both super nice and I'm sure would be happy to follow up with any questions that anyone may have if you are thinking about taking a similar trip on 4 wheels. Their blog is at

The road into Ecuador was fast and fun winding over the hills and through scattered small towns surrounded by the bright green patchwork farms that dotted the hillsides. The guide book says it takes about 5 hours to reach Quito but we did it in about 3 1/2, including a stop for lunch. We crossed the equator and took a couple photos, but aside from the numbers on the GPS there was nothing else to indicate that we were somewhere special... The weather was fantastic when we pulled into Quito and we easily found our hostel which turned out to be perfect. It's located in old town and is named "The Secret Garden Hostel". Good food, good atmosphere and an incredible view over the city from the 5th floor Terrace. The only downside being the massive concentration of Ecuatorial Hoodlums roaming about. No joke, the stories are flying about in our hostel about the different muggings and pickpocketings that have taken place just in the last few days. This is the first town we've been to where, unquestionably, it's safer to leave your passport and credit cards in your dorm room rather than taking them with you out and about.

OK, I think that's enough. We head out tomorrow to start making our way to Salinas, Ecuador where we plan on showing up on Lyria's doorstep in a few days with a bag full of alcohol and whatever stray animals we can fit on the bike.


click the image to see our latest photos.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

GPS Tracks Online

A quick note for those that are interested. I´ve uploaded our GPS tracks for Central America to Our GPS route is displayed here with time, speed, distance, elevation and other interesting statistics alongside. Scroll down to see thumbnail maps in the left hand column, or you can search for track names starting with SD2BA2009. Rock and Roll!

Planning A Trip in Central and South America?

I recently received a letter asking me for advice and suggestions from someone who is planning their own big adventure, and was faced with a worried family and friends.  So, I put this little ditty together, and hope that it is useful or at least interesting.
As you have probably noticed, I am blonde, petite, white and female, and my mother just about lost it when Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia were mentioned in the beginning stages of this trip.  It is mind-boggling how many awful stories people will tell you and your family when hearing mention about traveling through Central and South American countries, when in reality those stories are few and far between.  However, they do make the news more often than the happy, lovely stories.
We researched for about 7 months beforehand, planning our packing lists, trying to find out about border crossings (not much information out there!) and areas to visit/avoid.  I also checked on the US Governement Travel Alert website, and forwarded that to my parents.  Certain areas of Mexico are on the alert network, but not even Colombia is on there!  If your family is worried, get them some more info, give them our website.  :)  Photos and positive stories work wonders and dispell the great mystery of travel to foreign places.
Now get ready for a list of things we´ve learned along the way:

Our trip has been amazing.  We´ve met so many other travelers from all over the world, and though we´ve heard a very few bad stories, on the whole they have been positive and opened my eyes (it´s hard coming from the US after being bombarded with negative impressions of nearly everywhere else in the Americas).  Country after country we are impressed with how kind and helpful people are, willling to literally drive miles out of their way to help us find the right road.  Borders take time, especially with a vehicle, but have patience, practice your Spanish, and they shouldn´t be a problem.  I´ll give more tips on borders in a bit.
Don´t take a gun.  If you do get into a situation that would require one, a gun would probably just make things worse.  We decided instead on a big bottle of Bear Spray (basically a giant bottle of mace but can spray up to 30 feet).  It looks innocuous enough, but could be helpful without killing anybody.  Available at Adventure stores like Adventure 16, REI, etc.  On the other hand, it takes up valuable space in our small luggage and we haven´t come close to using it in over three months.  We do keep it within reach of Adam´s arm in a tank bag, though.
Have a way to lock things/cover them/hide them so that wandering eyes won´t peek in and see temptation.  You can add Masterlocks/padlocks to nearly anything with a little welding and it´s totally worth it.  Try to think like a thief, and then change things around to make it difficult to steal.  With wire cutters/lock busters someone could take our stuff, but not quickly, and most theft is petty, someone walking by and grabbing something easy to take.
As for a knife, having a Leatherman and/or a Swiss Army knife are musts, for a million little things (like peeling apples, fixing zippers, etc).  I think Adam generally carries it in his pocket.
Even though many people will come up to you just to chat, they often do want something, so be aware.  It is a common thing for some people to look at tourists/travelers and just see a dollar sign, sadly.  One thing I´ve definitely learned is to go with my gut in reaction to people and places.  If you feel uncomfortable, acknowledge that there is probably a good reason for it, and do what you need to do to fix it.  We left one hotel without a refund because it was that creepy.  Totally worth the loss of money to sleep somewhere we felt safe.
Put something heavy against the hotel room door, or an empty bottle/can.  That way if the door gets opened while you are sleeping you'll wake up.   It has happened to only one person we've met, and they were staying in a super secluded, rather sketchy hotel.
There are some fairly simple and straightforward ways of avoiding bad things.  I read the "dangers and annoyances" sections of my Lonely Planet book.  We take advice from fellow travelers and locals on where to go and where to avoid.  Before leaving, we paid attention to the news, and we also check online news for updates on each country as we head across the border.  Of course, we also have friends and family who forward news stories like earthquakes and Piggie Flu.  Thanks, guys!
As for Mom, what really bothered mine was the big mystery of her daughter heading out into who knows where and for who knows how long.  It might help to sit down with a map and give a general idea of where you´ll be going and if possible a general timeline.  It doesn´t have to be crazy specific, but a general idea is so helpful.  Promise to check in every week (at least by email which is easy to find) and set up Skype for free phone calls!  It really helps to lessen the mystery, giving some solidity to places you plan on visiting, beaches where you´ll be swimming, ruins you´ll be exploring, etc. 
Consider purchasing a Spot satellite tracking device ($150 to buy, and $150 for a full year membership).  You may have noticed ours on the top left of the website, it tracks us to within 3 meters, and you can even zoom in on Google Earth and see the city/road we´re on!  We typically turn it off when we reach a town where we´re going to stay (to save batteries).  There is a "we´re okay" button, a "help" button that sends a pre-set message (we met a guy who´s message is: "I´m heading into a sketchy situation, if you haven´t heard from me in six hours, send help."), and also a 911 button.  The 911 button is received by the company, and they send your location and information to the nearest embassy and emergency services in whatever country you're in.  It is a really nice thing to have.  I like knowing that if we go off the road in the middle of nowhere, just have engine problems but there´s no one around for miles, or if we can´t get to a phone after an earthquake but we´re fine, we can get help, and send a "we´re okay" message straight to our families' emails.
Consider taking a GPS.  We use ours like crazy, not only for roads (sometimes the map is better) but for direction and backtracking.  You can download countries before you leave and later have a detailed route map of where you went on your adventure!
I have a feeling this is far more information than necessary, but there are so many details that once discovered seem so useful!

Keep copies of your paperwork somewhere.  Keep your passports and credit cards separate, that way if one of you loses yours (as happened to us) you have a backup with the others' stuff.  Access to money, identification, etc.  It helped to have a color photo copy of the passports and extra copies of the vehicle title.  Also, take the original vehicle title, and copies.  Adam made laminated copies of everything and will use those (except for passport) when crossing borders.  Extra passport-size photos are also a good idea.

Have a dummy wallet for getting pulled over by the police.  Though rare, it happens on occasion that they will try and get a bribe for giving you your stuff back.  If they have only copies, then you can just leave it and go on your way.

Be nice and friendly with officials.
And (especially with police) Play Dumb.  This was suggested by a border "helper" and has helped us on more than one occasion.  Military checkpoints are many, but the soldiers in our experience are always kind and often curious.  It is their job to look for drugs and weapons, so smile and be helpful (they may ask to open some of your luggage/bags).  Usually as soon as you start to open anything they say "okay" and send you on your way.  As for the police, they are often best at giving directions.  Or, they will pull you over and want money for a bogus charge like speeding.  Like I said, play dumb.

This one is pretty obvious, but try not to travel with anything you can´t lose.  I often wish I had my cute boots or pretty earrings, but realize it would be terrible if they were lost or stolen.  So I make do with slightly less stylish clothing, but don´t have to worry as much.

Take lots of music from mellow to fun "roadtrip" music.  There are many many miles between here and there, and although I love the silence sometimes, I love love love my music.  We have an iPod Touch which is great for not only music, but movies (we have seven of them and a duel-plug for two sets of headphones), and we can check email and use Skype when wi-fi is available!  For us, a better option than taking a laptop.

Okay, places to avoid:
The border town of Ciudad Juarez in Mexico.  Actually, all Northern border towns of Mexico.  Certain parts of the state of Sinaloa, as that is where the head of one of the drug cartels is located.  People will let you know, but check out a map before you go.
We had no problems in Mexico, nor did anyone we met who had traveled there. 
Places like Mexico City, Guatemala City, are just huge dirty cities and if you go: drive only during the day and stay where there is guarded parking.  We didn´t visit either one.

Keep notes handy for what you´ll expect to pay at each border crossing.  Knowing what others have paid is helpful amidst the confusion.  Also, have your notes handy on which buildings to stop at, what paperwork you need, etc.  Avoid the Guatemala to Honduras crossing at the Eastern border of Corinto.  Corruption there is soooo irritating.  Cross at Copán.
All of Guatemala was wonderful.  Colder than you expect, because of the high altitudes so have thermals and wool socks.  This is one of the countries that we were warned about because there is still a very large poor population, and many indigenous people who are wary of travelers (and freaked out that they´ll steal their babies)  but keep your money in a zipper pocket, and don´t pick up other peoples' babies without their approval.  Seems pretty basic.  At lunch one day a woman handed me her baby boy and I held the little cutie for quite a while.

Leave a folder of important phone numbers, account information, loan details, etc with your parents or a trusted friend.  In the event of a credit card getting canceled, don´t forget to reroute auto-matic payments to another card!!  Just one of those details. 

Get international traveler´s insurance because you need to have it, although you´ll probably never use it.

Use ziploc freezer bags.  Lots of them.  The air down South is crazy humid, so books, paperwork, shoes, pants, journals, get wet. 

Put together a great First Aid Survival kit.  Although ours has only been used to help someone else, we can rest assured that we are prepared.

Take a sarong, or two.  I suggest them instead of towels which take too long to dry, and get stinky.  Plus, a sarong is multi-functional as towel, changing gown, curtain, sheet, beach blanket, sunblock, and windbreaker.  Oh, and bag, bathing suit, skirt or dress.

I would like to give some information on border crossings and suggestions on places we really enjoyed, but I think I´ll save  that for another time.  This note has gotten ridiculous, really.
Good luck with all of your plans!  I can´t recommend it highly enough.  I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to see places I´ve only imagined, to meet these amazing people and peek into lives so different from my own.  I have more compassion and empathy because of it, and have had unrealized stereotypes fall to pieces.  This adventure is made all the more great because I get to share it with someone I love.  We have spent nearly 24 hours a day together for over 3 months, and simply put, it has been super.
I hope at least some of this has been helpful, and that you haven´t had to wade through too much extra goo to get to the good stuff.  Please let me know if there is anything else I can help with, like giving your Mom my mom´s phone number so she can ask questions of someone who´s now enjoying the ride and wishing she were along on it! 
Last thing: before buying anything from a child remember that you are saying, "It´s not important for you to be in school, it´s okay for your parents to use you to make money."
Just a thought.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Colombia: More Than Just Cocaine and Kidnapping :-)

(Cartegena, Colombia - Bogota, Colombia)

I`ve been following a couple blogs from bikers ahead of us that have already passed through Colombia and have been particularly interested at how they all seem to rave about this country, particularly the incredible scenery and hospitable people. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical. I suspected that they were just being good travelers and attempting to spread good will back in the States in an attempt to assuage all the stereotypical American fears of Colombia. Now that we are here however, I couldn´t agree more!

This country has been absolutely fantastic! Aside from losing my passport (which I´m gonna go ahead and attribute to my own absent mindedness), Cartegena was amazing, Taganga a relaxing beach getaway, and now we are traveling in the mountainous regions of the country´s center and it couldn´t be more impressive.
As for the people, they really are genuinely thoughtful. Now, I have no intention of dropping my guard just because we´ve met a handful of nice people, but I have to say that we´ve certainly warmed to the culture. In the last few days we´ve had a guy stop on the side of the road and help tension the chain, we stopped to ask directions and another guy kissed his girlfriend goodbye and proceeded to lead us across town on his motorcycle around traffic to our destination, we´ve been invited to lunch by a wonderful family we met at the US Embassy who also invited us to stay at their cabin, and just last night another family invited us to a political rally where we were given free dinner and drinks while we socialized and danced into the night. Nevermind that there were pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevera lining the walls and a big anti-bush poster up by the stage, everyone we met was incredibly nice and had high hopes for the new administration :-)

From Cartegena we headed Northward to the town of Taganga. Initially we had considered staying a night in Santa Marta, but quickly realized that it was not for us. The beach wasn`t particularly impressive and the walking areas less than inviting. After about an hour of searching for the road we finally made it over the hill and around the bend to the little beach town of Taganga. This turned out to be a really nice two-day getaway where we lounged about and drank probably 15 fruit smoothies a piece. We stayed at the Pelikan Hostel and ran into the French couple we had met at the Boca Lara community in Darien, Panama. We had been told that Taganga was a hot destination for Israelis and in reality I think Hebrew was more widely spoken in town than Spanish.

Southward from Taganga we had a long day of riding down to Sincelejo. This wasn`t exactly a planned destination, but rather a convenient stop on our way to Medellin. And then Tragedy Struck!
Upon arrival at our hotel in Sencilejo I reached into my pocket for my passport and found only empty air and shattered dreams! I keep my passport in a plastic bag w/ my credit cards and spare cash, in a zippered and velcroed pocket of my shorts, underneath my riding pants. I feel that it has been well protected for the entire trip and have had no problems with this arrangement. Generally I only need access to this bag when we are crossing a border or being harassed by the local police, and so it happened that about an hour North of town we were stopped at a military checkpoint to have our paperwork looked over. The soldiers were really nice and all of our paperwork checked out but I was having some electrical trouble with the bike and was engaged in sorting that out at the time that they gave my paperwork back to me. I can´t remember the exact details about what transpired, all I know is that when we arrived in Sencilejo I still had all the bike permit paperwork but my passport, credit cards and cash were MIA :-( A high speed 60km drive in the pounding rain back to the checkpoint to ask about the missing items and, surprisingly, the officers had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe I dropped it on the road, or maybe they stole it, in any case I was SOL. I limped back to Sencilejo with my tail between my legs where Grace was patiently awaiting my return. Grace, could you please fill us in on what you were up to while I was gone?

Grace´s Story:
Adam rode out into the evening, and I took a shower and prepared for an hour or so on the bed relaxing and watching television. Not fifteen minutes passed before I received a phone call from the front desk, which ended in my heading downstairs to answer some very detailed questions about where we were coming from, and when, and all in Spanish which made me a bit uneasy so I asked why. The clerk answered that the hotel had received a memo from the government requiring them to ask more questions of tourists and travelers. Odd, but okay. So, that line of questioning finished, I headed back upstairs and once again laid back on the bed for some rest. Ten minutes later I received another phone call, and she requested I return to the front desk. Frustrated and a more than a little confused, I headed back down. Whereupon I came face to face with not one, but five Colombian Health Officials with intense faces and rapid-fire questions (again, all in Spanish) that had me shaking and sweating within 30 seconds. It didn´t help that it was hot and nearing 100% humidity. They wanted to know where and when we had been in Mexico, and if Adam or I had shown any symptoms of, yep, you guessed it: Piggie Flu. The intense line of questioning lasted 45 minutes, with me repeating everything multiple times, taking out my passport to prove the dates of my departure from Mexico (it had been exactly two months). As the conversation progressed, and I asserted that we had shown no symptoms, nor had anyone we had come across, they began to simmer down a bit. By the end of it, they were practicing their English skills on me. -end Grace´s story.

We weren´t sure how long it would take to get a new passport and the only embassy is in Bogota, so from Sencilejo we headed straight for the capital. About 200km North of Medellín the road begins to climb into the mountains, the hillsides turn a brilliant green and every hilltop community necessitates a quick stop to photograph. These fantastic colors are due of course to the generous quantity of rain they receive of which we have had the pleasure of driving through on more than one occasion. We passed through the grand mountain city of Medellín where we wanted to spend a couple days exploring but decided to skip as we would now be visiting Bogotá.
We spent a short night in La Dorada after an 11 hour ride where we enjoyed a great corner stand dinner and woke up early on Thursday morning to finish our ride to the city. We arrived in Bogotá amid a torrential downpour and made a B-line for the US Embassy which was scheduled to close for the weekend at Noon on Thursday. It was 10:30am.
We found it fairly quickly, got the paperwork filled out and were told to return at 3pm to pick up my new temporary passport. Total cost, $100 USD. Fantastic! Meanwhile, we had struck up a conversation with a father-daughter duo in the waiting area and they invited us back to his office for lunch. We had to wait till 3pm anyway so we decided to join them. The dad, Javier, owns an engineering firm that works exclusively for the US Army Corps of Engineers building roads and barracks. We got to meet the whole family and had a fantastic lunch. They own multiple pieces of property around Colombia as well as in the US and even invited us to use their mountain cabin 1 hour outside the city. Incredible.

So far Bogota has exceeded our expectations. A far cry from other capital cities that we´ve visited thus far, Bogota is cold, wet, and delightful. Granted, the city is enormous and we have spent our time almost exclusively in the ¨Old Town¨ area where the majority of museums, churches and walking streets are located, but we´ve been enjoying it immensely. We´re staying at a great little hotel named El Dorado which is right across the street from a delicious bakery that we´ve had breakfast for the last two days.
Yesterday we took a gondola ride up to Monserrate, a monastery perched on the hillside on the edge of town that provides spectacular views of the city. It was here that the chaos of May 1st, 2009 began! We had a great view down into the large Plaza Bolivar and saw that it was packed full of people in some sort of demonstration. While gazing down and pondering what excitement we might be missing we heard 3 loud BOOMS and saw smoke in the square followed by the frantic disbursement of the crowd. Hmmm... this can´t be good. By the time we made our way back down into the city, the streets were filled with police in riot gear and all of the banks had had their windows broken out and walls graffitied. We were very careful about where we walked and who we talked to but in reality nothing about the environment felt particularly unsafe. Aside from the enormous police presence, there were families all around, kids eating ice cream and chasing birds, and people just casually going about their business. After asking around, we learned that May 1st every year is a holiday to recognize Colombian workers and invariably a time for the Political Left to come out against the corruption and poor performance of the government on social matters. For this reason, some people in the crowd decided it would be a good idea to throw rocks and paint balls at all the banks in town as well as graffiti some of the churches, government buildings, and random store fronts. It seemed stupid to us and a bit of a waste, but the chaos was short lived and by the time we arrived everything was once again tranquilo.
The good news is that we were invited to a killer left-wing political fiesta where Grace and I enjoyed free food and drinks and danced our socks off to the blaring beats of a local rock band. Good times.
Today we are spending one last day relaxing and walking around town before we once again hit the road. From here we head South towards Cali, Popayan, and on to Ecuador. But first we may have to take up our new friends' offer and pay a visit to their farm house in the mountains. Apparently they even have a chef there who will be taking care of us.
Much love,

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From - Two for the Road -