It begins again. After nearly six months in Colombia, Diana and I hit the road. It was bittersweet to leave Bogota, a city that we had come to feel was home, but we were excited to start traveling again. We arrived in Bogota feeling a bit battle worn. Horace, our trusty motorcycle, had just broken his flywheel in two and this after he burned a hole in the alternator stator in Guatemala, and, less severely, but still fatiguing, popped a tire in Nicaragua. Mentally, I needed a break. South America was a giant on the horizon, and I was doubting my abilities to face him.
In Bogota, we met some great people who made us feel at home. We got Horace all back in order. We got a new seat made. We should have replaced it before we left. The foam was completely deteriorated.
It has been over a month since we left Bogota, so perhaps I should catch you up a little bit. We have been riding a lot, and with each day that passes, there is more to share and it has become overwhelming.
We left Bogota for Medellin at 5:30am. We hoped to beat the traffic, but alas we were not early enough. We slowly rolled northward, coughing along with the buses and trucks for almost two hours. We were eager to leave the unbearable ‘trancon’ and the sputtering clouds of exhaust behind us. It was our first time riding much distance on the bike in five months. In Medellin, we got the suspension rebuilt and adjusted by the extremely friendly guys at Motobox, which has significantly improved the handling. There are cascading ironies here. One of the last things I adjusted before leaving San Francisco, was the height of the front forks. I raised them to their maximum level, which is about 1 centimeter taller than the stock forks would have been. The result of this was slightly more travel, but the stock center stand no longer lifted the front tire off the ground. This meant I needed to buy a new, aftermarket, center stand, cut it down to size, weld it back together, and bolt it to the bike. This was an expensive and time consuming process. Little did I know how unnecessary all that was. I realized after Medellin that it made the handling worse and I would probably never need that extra travel.
We left Medellin for the Zona Cafetera to stay overnight at a coffee farm and take a coffee tour, but only a half hour outside of Medellin, we got a flat rear tire. It was exactly the situation I dreaded: a steep, curvy road with no shoulder and a lot of traffic. I managed to pull the bike off the road into a flat drainage surface. The ground wasn't quite level, so we used a book and a cutting board under one side of the stand to balance it. I changed the tube, but as soon as it was inflated, it burst again. I didn’t feel like trying again, and we did not have another spare anyway, so Diana walked to a nearby farm and enlisted the help of a friendly farmer. He took our wheel on his motorcycle to a nearby ‘montallanta’ shop and had it back with a new tube in a half hour. It only cost me around $10. The tire misshap set us back several hours and much of the remaining road was under construction. In Colombia, under construction means that only one lane is open, it is mud, and both lanes of traffic take turns passing, although sometimes motorcycles are allowed to pass if there is room. The rules are unclear. Although, as a rule, we never ride at night, we decided to push through to make it to the coffee farm that night. We rode slowly on dark isolated muddy roads through pouring rain for five hours. We were undaunted by the road conditions, however. A few weeks prior, we had ridden outside of Bogota to the Chingaza paramo or alpine cloud tundra ecosystem. There the roads are muddy year-round. The riding was intense and taught us a lot about riding in the mud. Compared to Chingaza, the muddy detours were child’s play.
It was still raining when we arrived at the coffee farm, so we decided to rent a cabana for the night to dry off. In the morning we took a tour of the facilities and then headed for Popoyan after lunch. We soon found ourselves riding in the dark again. We intended to push through, but when we stopped for a light dinner on the side of the road, we were warned not to drive through the next town at night. They showed us a nearby truck stop where we could sleep for cheap. We took their advice.
Popoyan is a colonial town known as the white city because the walls are all painted white. They are painted white because years ago there was a plague of bugs that burrowed into people’s feet. When their feet itched they would scratch them on the walls of the city. A cure was discovered for this plague: chalk. So the walls of the city were all covered in chalk, and soon the bugs disappeared. But the white walls remained.
From Popoyan we rode through mountains to San Agustin, a small town famous for ancient sculptures from a forgotten civilization. Except for the dozens of large distinct statues they left behind, little is known about the people who once lived there.
We rode to Hormiga, a small town near a small border crossing into Ecuador. The typically quiet border was busy with Venezuelan refugees. While we were processed, they arrived by the busload. The crossing was somewhat overwhelmed, but we heard the primary crossing at Ipiales was even worse. It is impossible for me to imagine what these people were going through, having left everything behind in a country that is falling apart. Everywhere we go there are signs of this mass exodus.
Ecuador felt immediately different from Colombia. As we rode into the country, it felt hotter, dryer, and more desolate. The towns appeared to be industrial, but not prosperous. Wide gravel shoulders ran along the paved roads. When we stopped to eat, we were told that they had run out of food. We tried two other restaurants, but they were also out. Finally we were directed across the street to the one restaurant in town that still had food.
The border has proven to be an unfair assessment of Ecuador, but surprisingly, we have consistently found ourselves without food in this country.
The border crossing that we chose put us in close proximity to Coca, a popular gateway to the Ecuadorian amazon. We decided to take a ten hour boat ride from there to Nuevo Rocafuerte to meet an amazon guide named Luis. He and his son Raul took us in a boat into Yasuni National Park to camp for four nights. We had a fantastic time there. We saw caimans, parrots, a giant frog, giant river otters, medicinal plants, and peccaries. We fished for, and ate, pirañas, and swam with pink fresh-water dolphins.
We continued exploring the Amazonia region by motorcycle for several more days. We camped along the Usa Yaku river at an hospedaje run by a friendly indigenous Quechua family. We relaxed, bathed in the river, and ate fresh tilapia grilled in banana leaves.
I am trying to share the highlights of our last weeks in South America with you, but I am loathe to leave out so many details that fill each day. If I were to attempt include everything, I would never finish writing. And my goal is to to get you caught up with us, because there is so much to share and everyday the backlog grows.
From the Amazonia we headed into Quito, the high capital of Ecuador. To get there, we crossed over a mountain pass at an altitude greater than 12,000 feet. It was raining and very cold. For several days we enjoyed the colonial urban charm of the city. And we were able to purchase new sleeping pads at a large outdoors chain called Tatoo. It was immaculate and well-stocked and reminded us of REI. The pad we had been using had suddenly failed beyond repair in the jungle. We made several attempts to repair it, but each attempt just revealed additional punctures. In total we counted over 20 different leaks.
As soon as we entered Ecuador, we felt we were on a different trajectory. The country opened before us in all directions as paths squiggled out across the map. We made only the vaguest of plans and each morning pulled up Google maps on my phone to look for a road that appealed to us. We took a circuitous route through the small country, enjoying many remote unpaved mountain roads.
For the first time, after nearly a year of traveling, we felt free to simply explore. In Mexico, we were constrained by the large distances we needed to travel, in Central America, by the diminutive size of each country, and in Colombia, by work and finally by an expiring visa. In Ecuador, we felt constrained only by our desire for adventure. We camped surrounded by ‘colibris’, hummingbirds, in Mindo, overlooking a river in Baños, and under crisscrossing tree branches outside Cañar, we watched a hailstorm from a high refuge at the foot of Chimborazo volcano and had a swing over a deep valley at Casa de Arbol in Baños.
We wrapped up our time in Ecuador at the charming colonial town of Cuenca where we found some amazing hamburgers at a place called T-Rex, and drank some artisan coffee at Sinfonia. Generally, the cuisine in Ecuador, typically undercooked rice, yuca (a bland root vegetable), and a meager piece of chicken, did not impress us. It was a welcome respite to find that food was taken seriously in Cuenca, and we tried to make the most of it.
From Cuenca, we picked up our pace and rode to Vilcabamba, a town famous for its eccentric ex-pat community and the legendary longevity of its citizens, but we found little of interest. From Vilcabamba, we rode to the Peruvian border of La Balza with a friend we met on the way. The ride was remote, mountainous, beautiful, and it rained nearly the entire day. At the border, our friend crossed into Peru, but we, directly behind him, had to wait until the official returned from lunch. The officials were friendly however, and after a half hour wait, we were processed through without a problem.
Peru, again, is a new story. We have been here for a week and have had a blast riding and exploring steep mountain roads, scarcely paved and occasionally trafficked. But, I will save Peru for another post, and I will try to write about it soon.