Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Kicking Off the New Year in Peru

Crossing into Peru was very easy and everyone was extremely friendly. We've continued to be impressed with how hard everyone tries to give us a great welcome and a good first impression of their countries, and Peru is no exception. We were wished a happy New Year as we pulled away from the border offices and began our day of riding in the hot, dry, and desolate northwestern part of the country.

While riding down the PanAmerican Highway for an hour or so, we get an unfortunate next impression of Peru. The sides of the road are extremely dirty with garbage, moreso than we saw in Central America. We're hoping that as we ride into the mountains, into the less populated areas, this will change. Aside from that, the people are very friendly when we stopped for lunch, happy to chat and help out with advice. The scenery is beautiful, and the road conditions are good.

Our first destination in Peru would be the town of Chachapoyas, which is a fun word to say, and also is a great area to explore with all its famous ruins. On the way, we turn off into Olmos. It's a small town, and most of the streets outside of the main square are unpaved and very dusty. We find a hostel on the outskirts of town with a very friendly owner who was getting ready to throw a big party for New Year's that night.

One tradition that we learned about while in Southern Ecuador, and apparently is also practiced in Peru, is the burning of a muñeca or life-sized, firework-stuffed effigy at the stroke of midnight to get rid of all the evil from the previous year. I couldn't wait to see this! Around 11:30 at night in the dirt streets of Olmos, everyone started hauling their muñecas out into the street and hanging them up on wooden stakes. We felt very out of place standing in front of their houses watching the tradition, but everyone was welcoming and didn't mind sharing with us. At the stroke of midnight, the neighborhood sounded like a warzone with all the fireworks being lit off. The muñecas were all doused with gasoline, lit, and quickly turned into very big fires with bottle rockets and other fireworks shooting out of them in random and often dangerous directions. It was awesome.

The next day, we decided to ride all the way into the mountains and rainforest of eastern Peru to the town of Chachapoyas. Chachapoyas is a beautiful Spanish colonial town from the mid-1500's and a great base for exploring many Chachapoyan (pre-Incan) ruins and sites. The ride from Olmos to Chachapoyas started out in the desert on ordinary roads, but once it climbed into the mountains, turned into one of the best roads we've ridden so far in the trip. The beautiful, paved road followed every twist and turn of the river and snuck under many rock overhangs. We were in awe the entire time, and as we had hoped, there wasn't nearly as much pollution and litter as on the PanAmericana.

"Don't use explosives to fish."  We asked and yes, this is an issue in the rivers.
One thing we were warned about was people on the roads posing as police, holding up cars for bribes. We hadn't seen this so far in the trip, but sure enough on our way up to Chachapoyas, we came upon two armed men in plain clothes who had set up a "checkpoint" in the road. Quickly assessing the situation, seeing no uniforms or official vehicles, I called out to Brayde on the intercom to pin it, and we sped around the checkpoint with the two men yelling after us. Many miles later, we came across another one. This time with one of the men holding a shotgun, and an oncoming car stopped, handing him some money. We blasted through that stop at speed also. We didn't know if they were official or what exactly was going on but didn't feel like finding out at the time.

A saddle made entirely out of a Goodyear tire
We arrived in Chachapoyas just in time for a huge downpour and spent some time running around in the rain looking for a hostel. After getting situated in our room for a couple of nights, we do a bit of research on tours of the nearby Kuelap ruins. The tours are so cheap running out of Chachapoyas and some of the sites are so remote and far away, that it makes sense to take a break from the bikes for a day and go with one of the guides in a van. We lucked out on a great last-minute deal up to Kuelap from one of the guides in the square for the next day.

The next mission for the night was a beer and dinner. Chachapoyas has a few "touristy" bars and restaurants that we avoid and head straight into a divey little place filled with locals. After finding out they did not serve food, we decide to just have a quick beer then find somewhere else. They were playing good music anyway. After ordering a beer, I notice that everyone else in the place is drinking the same purple liquid from a carafe in the middle of their table out of little shot glasses. We couldn't for the life of us figure out what it was, so I got up the courage to ask one of the guys at the next table what they were drinking. One thing led to another and pretty soon we were sitting with a group of Chachapoyans who bought us drinks all night. These are the kind of random experiences we love, and even though they spoke no English, and we have limited Spanish skills, we had great conversations and learned a lot about the area. We asked them about the armed men in the road at the checkpoints and if it was legit. They explained to us that they were volunteers that patrol sections of the road to keep the robbers away and ask for donations for their services. It was totally safe and normal. Oops...

The purple drink was a local specialty, liqueur made from blackberries and aguardiente, by the way. (I don't remember what it was called).

The next morning, we took a van up the long and twisty road to the ruins of Kuelap. The ruins are located at 3,000 meters high on top of a ridgeline, and even though they are not far from Chachapoyas, the road is so steep, narrow, and curvy that it takes about 3 hours to get there. Because of all the rain, the upper part of the road was deep with thick, clay mud. We were secretly glad we didn't ride the bikes. It would have been a mess, and all the hiking at elevation would have been tough in riding gear. The road passed through quite a few nice, small villages, one of which we stopped for a lunch break at.

Kuelap is an ancient pre-Incan walled city on top of the hills built by the Chachapoyan civilization. It was eventually conquered by the Incas, but due to the remoteness of the city, was never found by the Spanish conquest. The walls are tall, and the hill is steep. It is a prime location for protection against attacks and has beautiful views. The hike up is steep and strenuous, our first real experience getting a workout at high elevation. We can definitely tell the difference, but other than being a bit out of breath, we do alright.

We met a few friends in the tour van, so all meet up for a drink and a walk up to a city viewpoint after we arrive back into town. The next day, we'll keep heading south towards the city of Cajamarca for even more Incan history.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Exploring Ecuador

Naturally, one of the big milestones for this trip is crossing the equator. Neither of us has been in the southern hemisphere before, so it's a highlight for us. We were so close to it in Otovalo that it didn't take long to arrive at "the" point when we got back on the road after Christmas. 

As we were doing the obligatory photo shoot at the globe sculpture on the side of the road, a local guy walked up to chat. He was driving a classic Mustang, and when Matt could talk shop with him, he got very excited. He asked for two of our trip stickers, and proceeded to proudly put them on his car. We felt honored. 

That morning, we received an invitation from a contact in Quito to meet him and friends on the eastern, rainforest side of Ecuador in the town of Tena. The route to Tena would take us over the mountains to the "drier" side of Ecuador (which is a bit of a misnomer, being that it's in the tropics). The prospect of avoiding the big city of Quito and possibly drier weather sounded good to us, so we accepted the invitation and soon found ourselves crossing the highest pass yet: 13,250 feet. Things became foggy and rainy quickly, which made it a little interesting when the road just disappeared in a couple places. Still, there was much lighter truck traffic, which was a welcome change of pace for us, and we managed just fine.

Arranging meet-ups on the fly with fellow riders can be a bit tricky because we can't really be in touch while we're on the road, and that in combination with no mobile service leaves a lot of room for unknowns. We pulled into Tena by mid-afternoon without really knowing where to look or who we were looking for. We didn't see any signs of big bikes in the general downtown area, so we figured we'd arrived first. We'd read about a town further into the rainforest that was a launching point for cool Amazon Rainforest tours, so we pushed on to Misahualli. The area and prices didn't really strike our fancy, though, so we booked it back to Tena, checked into a cheap but friendly hostel, and discovered an email from our contact Ricardo. He and his friends had arrived to town and invited us out for dinner. One thing led to another, and before long, we found ourselves at a discoteca. Turns out that everyone goes to discos here, regardless of age, and everyone LOVES to dance! We relish unexpected cultural encounters like these, and everyone had a great time.

After that, we headed for Baños, having been told it's fantastic for nature activities. Unfortunately, we arrived in a drizzle and aside from passing waterfalls along the way, we couldn't see a thing, not even the volcano that the town was built at the foot of. ::Sigh:: I really wanted to see the flora and fauna of the rainforest, so we did a little reconnaissance and discovered that jungle tours are typically several days long. While we could see the area and town are lovely, it just didn't seem to be a good choice to join a tour given our weather luck and time constraints. So, we pushed onward after eating a set lunch and taking in yet another holiday procession.

Riobamba was within reach, and we were hoping to take the Nariz del Diablo train in the morning. We tend to fly by the seat of our pants, and often—like the case of Tena—it works out well. In this case, however, a little planning and research would've been helpful. Turns out, the train no longer leaves from Riobamba. "Nariz del Diablo" is a mountain that looks like a nose, which the train climbs by taking switchbacks up it. It used to be a point along a regular passenger train route that started in Riobamba and ran through the Andes. It has now become a 2-car tourist train that runs out and back to Nariz del Diablo from the town of Alausi. We made plans to get up early the next morning and try again. In the meantime, we found a huge holiday display in Riobamba's main square. The scene was an attack on the senses: tons of street food stands, sections of sidewalk cordoned off for family pictures with everyone from Santa to the Simpsons, competing loudspeakers on every corner, huge Christmas light shows on the buildings lining the square… even mimes in the street! From the looks of it, the whole town had turned up in the square for the event.

In our wanderings, we also discovered that Riobamba appears to be the place where all broken-down, creepy mannequins go for a second chance. Every store had at least one or two creepy mannequins missing limbs, eyes, or were pieced together like Frankenstein.

As planned, we got up early the next day to try to catch the train in Alausi, but no dice. The train was booked 4 days out. Well, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. So, we realigned our sights for Cuenca. 

Maps on the GPS aren't really complete in southern Ecuador, so we're going old school, relying on maps and road signs. The approach works perfectly, and we arrived just after noon. It's a pretty big city and has a really neat old town, which we enjoyed and probably would've enjoyed even more if more places were open had it not been the holiday. We stayed around Cuenca an extra day with hopes of securing tires, and our new friend Ricardo tried to help us from a distance, but it just didn't work out. The particular tires we want are sold out of Matt's size for the next 3 months, and no other brands carried in the town make an enduro tire the 1200's size. C'est la vie.

With friends in Peru beckoning us on, we ended up spending our last night in Ecuador on the border in Macará after a nice day of riding a twisty highway past rice fields. After spending so much time in Colombia, it felt like one week in Ecuador was relatively quick. It's markedly smaller than any other South American country we'll visit on this trip, though, and we certainly didn't rush as we zigzagged through. They say you can experience great diversity here by eating breakfast on the coast, lunch in the mountains, and dinner in the rainforest here. We absolutely partook in all of it. As we said goodbye to Ecuador, we recounted our observations from this beautiful country:
  • Everywhere we look, we see people dressed in traditional, indigenous clothing. Women wear colorful, long skirts and shawls with brimmed hats. Some men wear vests and jackets, others wear bright ponchos, all with brimmed hats.
  • Women carry everything from children to groceries in big scarves folded over their shoulders. Men typically carry nothing.
  • Truck taxis are available everywhere to carry people, furniture, or anything else you need.
  • Life-sized muñecas are for sale everywhere you look. They're designed as politicians and superhero villains and stuffed with straw and fireworks. At the stroke of midnight on New Year, people light them on fire in the streets to get rid of evil luck/spirits over the past year. If Peru's anything the same, this should make for an interesting New Year celebration!
Much like Colombia, Ecuador exceeded our expectations in every way. As we move on to Peru, the country we've been looking forward to since the day we left, we're excited to see what more South America has to offer!

Monday, February 16, 2015

Christmas in Otovalo, Ecuador

Our first South American border crossing was a breeze. The whole process from Colombia into Ecuador took a total of about an hour and a half, much faster than the crossings we got used to in Central America. To leave Colombia took six minutes! We couldn't believe it, and I had to double check with the customs agent that everything was complete and we were ready to go. He said, "Yes, that's all," so I told him we were just confused because some of our other crossings had taken up to four hours. He replied that they were much faster here in Colombia. We agree.

Entering into Ecuador took longer to register the bikes and get copies, but everyone was extremely friendly. Our welcome into the country was a warm one, and we could tell that Ecuador wasn't going to let us down. It's amazing what a difference a good first impression makes on your whole outlook and attitude when entering a new country. Also, it was a nice surprise to have no charges for entrance. Along with Colombia, South America has been "fee free" for us so far.

It was Christmas Eve, and we wanted to ride somewhere nice to spend the holiday. Our destination was the mountain town of Otovalo, situated in the Andes between three beautiful volcanoes. A couple-hour ride from the border, with a pretty major detour for construction, and we arrive in Otovalo.

Outside of town there was a nice hostel recommended to us by friends, but unfortunately after a 6 kilometer ride up a rough, rocky road, we found that they are full. About one kilometer back down the road was another hostel with an equally beautiful setting overlooking the town and one of the volcanoes. Although pricey, the setting alone was worth it. We planned to stay a couple nights, relax, Skype with our families, and spend Christmas together.

On Christmas morning, we woke up and took the six kilometer hike into the city to look around, have lunch, and buy groceries to make ourselves a Christmas dinner. The hike was beautiful through pastures and along a stream into town. We passed through several small communities that you could only hike into. 

For being Christmas, the town was surprisingly busy. The market was very active, and we were able to buy all the vegetables and meat we needed to make a big pot of soup for dinner. 

Hard to tell in picture, but these are bigger than basketballs!

For just under two dollars U.S., we made a whole dinner of soup and bread that fed both of us and a couple of campers from Quito that showed up with no food. It turned out to be a very nice night of conversation with new friends.

We're really far away from home, friends, and family this Christmas.  It isn't the first time we've been away for the holidays, but this time it'll be months before we return so we feel extra far away. We always manage to make the most of it though, and we couldn't have celebrated in a more beautiful setting.

The day after Christmas, we pack up and hit the road. Next, we head towards the rainforest and will cross the Equator in the process. Ecuador has been beautiful so far, and we're excited to see what else it has in store for us.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Colombia Part 3 – Bogota, Coffee Country, and South


Back on the road, we were able to take advantage of the newly completed Ruta del Sol on the way to Bogota. It was nice to able to actually ride at highway speeds for much of the time again, something we haven’t been able to do much of since arriving in Colombia due to heavy traffic. Once we got to the big city, we headed toward a hostel our contact let us know about. Unfortunately, we discovered it was actually full for the night, so back on the road we headed. After circling around Bogota’s maze of one-way streets for a couple hours in the rain, we finally managed to score a decent hotel with secure parking. Our purpose for making the trip to Bogota was to get new tires for the bikes. The bad news is that that didn’t actually have the tires we had been told were there. The good news is that they did have some replacement parts for the 650 that we weren’t expecting. To get those parts, it took us 1 ½ hours to ride 12 kilometers in gridlock traffic. It doesn’t take a mathematician to see that we spent more time sitting than riding. The effort was worth it, though, and after a stop at Bogota’s Touratech shop, followed by more riding in the rain—seems this is a theme in our trip—we installed the parts, and the 650’s in pretty good shape again!

Coffee Country

We’re not sure if traffic is always this thick in Bogota or if it’s a symptom of the holidays, but it took us an hour to go 11 miles while leaving town. Sheesh! Needing a break from big city life, we set our sights for the small town of Salento in coffee country. Happily, as we got further from Bogota and closer to Salento, traffic got lighter and lighter. We’ve been struggling a bit with ATM’s accepting our debit card here in Colombia, so we started pulling into towns well before Salento to make sure we had enough money on hand. This process took us into the town of Calarca, where they clearly do not get regular moto tourists: when we pulled into the central square, we were swarmed by locals curious about us, our bikes, and the trip. People literally lined up to ask each of us questions! We tried to leave politely a few times, but each time, we were caught by more people wanting to chat. Sometimes, during journeys like our own, it’s not about us and our schedule. Rather, it’s about being open to experiences as they come, which makes everything richer anyway.

When we finally rolled into our destination, Salento, we couldn’t have dreamed up a more quintessential setting. The town itself is small and nestled on a hill surrounded by coffee plantations. 

We stayed at a 100 year-old coffee plantation turned hostel and were not disappointed with the experience. In the morning, we took a tour of the plantation, learning about the coffee process from start to finish. It was filled with bean tastings at every stage as well as many cups of the final product, of course. Because coffee grown in the traditional manner requires planting fruit trees every third row in order to provide shade for the beans, we got to partake in bananas from the tree, too. Awesome. If ever you get the chance to visit this corner of the world, we highly recommend it!

Afterward, we jumped in a very full, old Land Rover out to Valle de Cocorá. This unique valley is filled with pastures punctuated by extremely tall palm trees. Someone forgot to tell the trees that they have no competition for light out there, so the trees grow up to 200 feet tall, making them the tallest palms in the world. The ride out, it was absolutely pouring rain; luckily, that subsided shortly after we arrived. There are great hikes through the valley, but because of the rain and time constraints, we stuck to the main road and still felt satisfied with the trip.

That night, along with some new friends from our hostel, we tried our hand at the local game tejo. Who could resist a game of throwing stones at explosives? Truly, the game is set on a clay “board,” where four triangles of gunpowder are placed around a ring. Players stand about 20 feet away (the local, hardcore players stand more like double that) and huck stones, or “tejos,” of various shapes and sizes at the triangles and score points by either exploding a triangle or getting closest to the metal ring in a round. Think bowling on steroids meets shuffleboard, with some explosives thrown in. And naturally, beer is involved on the side. A good time was had by all, indeed.

Southern Colombia

We could’ve stayed in Salento for a long time, but we are starting to feel the pressure of the clock, so we begrudgingly head off. We’d much rather stick to the small country towns, but we still need new tires for the bikes and have been told we may find success in Cali, so that’s our destination. The highway and lighter, Sunday traffic made the trip relatively quick and painless and allowed time to both get settled and explore a bit. We hiked up from our hotel to the top of Colina de San Antonio to enjoy some drinks on a rooftop terrace and take in the view. Once again, we found ourselves wrapped up in a Christmas procession, this time with a marching band played by the local police. Later, we stumbled onto a whole section of the downtown transformed into a Christmas wonderland. The Latin Americans really know how to celebrate this holiday.  In the morning, we found a huge district dedicated to motorcycle shops and managed to find one of the four tires we needed: a rear for the 650. It wasn’t the TKC 80 we were aiming for, but it was still an enduro tire that could support the weight of a heavier dualsport. Turns out, the 650’s rear is a common size, but the 1200’s rear is not, nor are either of our fronts. Given our recent luck, we decided to pounce on the offer. 1 out of 4 is better than 0 out of 4.

With the new tire strapped to the back, we set off for a smaller town further south. Around quitting time, we pulled into Popayan and bumped into a hostel whose sign had a silhouette of a 1200GS rider—how could we go wrong? The staff were friendly, helpful, and all riders themselves. After a stroll around the old town center, which was packed with people Christmas shopping, we headed back to change the tire on the hostel’s front sidewalk. Half an hour later, the 650 had a new rear tire. That night, we were allowed to park in the lobby, which is always appreciated.

The next day, we set our sights for as close to Ecuador as we could get. The ride through the countryside was absolutely beautiful, although it’s a little difficult to enjoy because the drivers here are so aggressive that it takes 100% of our attention 100% of the time. There are also the random distractions, like a Christmas procession of children marching down the highway with traffic in a remote mountain village. Never a dull moment! That night, we pulled into Ipiales, which unbeknownst to us, is home to the beautiful church Santuario de las Lajas built on a bridge across a gorge. At the encouragement of our hotel staff, we went to scope out the church out in the morning and must admit that we were impressed.  

With so many fantastic experiences in Colombia, it was harder than we expected to finally say goodbye. Could anywhere else be as good? Guess we’ll find out.