ECUADOR Ends- PERU begins.
I wasn’t sure I got the translation right when Sylvia said “No charge” in Spanish. But then she said “Buenviaje!” And wanted to take a picture with me. I was at Sol de Verano brewery outside of Vilcamaba. I almost passed the restaurant because I thought it might be ‘touristy’. I was told that parts of Ecuador and Peru had delicious and a wide variety of foods, but then I realized that that information came from a “normal traveler”, not a bike traveler. It’s different when you’re on a bike- obviously it is- but I even sometimes forget this. When bikepacking you go to the places between the places, in fact you spend most of your time in these remote More off the map places, often navigating by peaks and passes instead of towns and tourist destinations. So while I hear Peru is known internationally for its gastronomic feats, I mostly eat white rice with over cooked chicken (sometimes not overcooked!), overcooked goat, soup with a surprise chicken foot and chicken liver, and my own simple camp meals. There is also some good fried trout, often the only thing on the menu, which is fine. I’m not saying it’s bad, just that my hesitation for this menu in English was a few steps out of what I had become accustomed to.
Turns out. It was one of the most delicious beers and meals of my trip. Slow cooked goat, cole slaw that was cut so long you had to twirl the cabbage on your fork like noodles, with fresh ground mustard seeds. Mashed potatoes. A fatty sauced-up pork rib on the side that used beer (brewed on site) in the sauce. A hoppy blonde ale and even the limonada was delicious. All organic, Chef Sylvia proudly told me. “No quimicos!” Like most meals in Ecuador, it was salty, just the way I like it. These people know how to salt food and it was a nice almost send off from Ecuador.
With Gestures like that, it’s not about the money, its all in the joy someone else feels in giving, and the immense joy I am capable of expressing by receiving. A delicious meal that Sylvia prepared, plus the wonderful conversation she and I had, is a gift worth writing a paragraph about.
That same day, August 10, I continued down into Vilcamaba to meet up with Jean Pascal in full sun and heat. I set up camp at a gorgeous eco lodge/campground, took a shower, a nap, and went to town for ice cream and groceries in that order. So. Lovely. That day sort of set the tone for the next few weeks- still moving forward and including some challenging days, but a more relaxed and enjoyable pace while taking time to enjoy the scenery, the people, and take better care of my body with yoga and rest.
Jean Pascal and I made dinner that evening and I could tell we were going to be good travel companions. He’s long been obsessed with Latin America, it’s culture, and language, so I had much to learn from him. He had also recently been riding with friends, so we were both feeling the hole that company leaves. He’s a writer, working on a novel as part of a masters program and so we often discuss literature and movies and cross cultural references and languages, of which he is a pro.
We climbed up and over paved mountain roads heading south towards Peru. We had a goal of getting to Cajamarca, Peru, by August 21 to Meet my husband Tom. It was an ambitious itinerary. Throughout the days together we went back and forth on if we would make it or not.
Our first day together I pushed for an ambitious end point, sending us climbing over 13,860 ft and camping inside of a cloud. I remember seeing nothing but his neon rain poncho flapping in the wind, fog droplets dripping down into the bike. The birds made all sorts of perpendicular songs and we even got to spot a few new ones which I don’t know the names of, but bark brown, lime green, yellow and a cacophony of sound was lovely.
We got back into the lowlands via long descents (wheeee!) and enjoyed it until we remembered all the bugs that bite you. In the first few days We camped behind an abandoned conservation office, in a barn, in a small banana plantation along a river, then a former road that had become overgrown with grass and had a great view. The vegetation got more scrubby with the ever morphing but always present sagebrush variety accompanying our route.
The roads started the get dusty as we crossed over the river into Peru at La Balsa. It was an extremely laid-back border crossing, sort of like waiting in line at the pharmacy when there’s no line. We ate lunch #1 across the desk from the border official on the Ecuador side while we waited for him to finish his computer tasks.
On the Peru side my hands were so dirty the finger print machine wouldn’t read them. The nice man gave me hand sanitizer and that seemed to work. He was probably eager for us to get through because our clothes hadn’t been washed in a while and… um… it was apparent. Afterward we celebrated this little milestone by having lunch #2 and a beer at the restaurant on the Peru side. It was my first border crossing with a companion and it was nice!
My stomach was uncomfortably full as we pedaled too few flat miles then slowly up, heading upriver. We had some rain but it was warm again so we didn’t mind. We started cooking ginger quinoa with “stir fry” vegetables (whatever few veggies you can find cooked in soy sauce, your limited seasonings) that is a new favorite, which is good because when bike touring you usually have the same/similar thing several nights in a row because you don’t have a refrigerator and that’s just the way ingredients go.
The moon was getting near full again which I LOVED. In Ecuador, Sharat and I had stayed in more hostels than I really like, and I was ready to get back in time with the moon phases.
We camped along a river that we evacuated with adrenaline at the last minute, as a flash flood took out our tent spots and we teamworked to move our stuff strategically. We ate dinner watching the river come in and change course before our eyes. The moon was almost full that night and it was glorious! After the excitement of the move we couldn’t sleep.
Back in the tropics, We rolled into Jaén passed papaya and pineapple and sugar cane juice stands. In town we were amongst suicidal tuktuk drivers, 6 abreast all honking and texting and swerving madly while viewing a red light as a mild suggestion of slowing down. It wasn’t a huge town so I still don’t know where everyone was going.
We had two rest days in Jáen, one where I drank copious amounts of espresso and wrote my blog and journal, enjoying every minute! And one where we tackled JP’s rear wheel issues. The yellow moon came up fat and welcoming across town as we sipped beer on the hot rooftop of the hostel, trying to cool off. grandmas waited in the street for a taxi and the ever-present soccer games continued next door.
We finally set out from this literal hot spot on August 18 and put in big miles on the pavement, having good conversations and trying to only speak in Spanish (JP is fluent, I am not). We camp in varying locations and one night get turned down 3 times, which baffles us. We finally camp without asking with the night on our heels in a nice spot, next to a friendly pig. I got paranoid when the owner shone a flashlight on us in the middle of the night from the ridge up above, but then in the morning only wanted a picture with us!
I came down with a vicious head cold and cough that did not help progress towards Tom and was supremely annoying. My Brain was full of concrete and turned into a pulsing sponge saturated with toxins.
I was slow as molasses going up the hills. But the immense beauty and tranquility of the valleys was not lost on me, no matter how sick I was. Still green in the lowlands with rice patties and sugar cane, slowly giving way to drier areas with more rock and a few gypsum mines, we tried to take it all in, sometimes pedaling up into a cloud and then back down into sun.
Just when I was wanting adrenaline to reach Tom in time, in my mind I thought, “hurry! Yay Tom!” But in my body I was… “soooo…. slllooowwww…..” We go through Cutervo then Chota and I have a delicious Caldo de Verde, which heals me some. It literally translates to “broth of green” but it’s a vegetable broth with spinach and delicious fresh cheese and potatoes. The food in Peru is sometimes better than Ecuador, often more distance between tiendas, sometimes worse, often very similar. A lot of rice and meat and potatoes but the rice is generally better.
August 21: today is the day. I drink theraflu daytime which has me caffeinated like a speed junkie talking a mile a minute to a most-likely-annoyed JP. It’s sunny like a perfect fall day, cool and crisp and full of possibility.
After a few miles of climbing, We can’t find a tienda to supplement our meager food supplies. After talking to a man on the side of the road, he yells to a woman inside a flower-covered building and this wonderful woman and her smiling baby cooked breakfast for us in her dark and smoky kitchen. a flavorful buttery pile of potatoes fresh cheese and coffee that again we were not allowed to pay for. I was tempted to leave money anyway, but in Peru that is an insult, like you’re not really accepting the gift they are trying to give you. We were nourished and ready to tackle the day.
We had been trying to make it to Cajamarca by this day (Tom has flown in Aug 20 in the evening). Obviously we did not make it but I had coordinated so that TODAY WAS THE DAY we see TOM. I was elated. The plan was for Tom to get a ride from Cajamarca to the pass then ride downhill towards us. I was giddy and put on my best/cleanest cycling clothes and even a tad of mascara.
We rode on and on up the pass toward Hualgayoc, an indigenous town literally tucked high up in the mountains. They also had a bull fighting ring and a marching band. There were fireworks and a parade and a fiesta. It was a Wednesday afternoon. We rode past, still looking for Tom who we should have seen by now. The sun disappeared behind cold clouds and then rain comes as we inch towards the pass. We had climbed for almost 4 hours at this point and Still no Tom. It had been two and a half months since I had seen my husband in Panama City and I was anxious on many levels. JP and I keep passing good wild camping spots and he rides ahead of me.
As we get closer to the 4000m pass it’s 4pm then 5pm, and a steady rain forced me to finally change out of my shorts and put on all my clothes. So much for looking “good”. I stop in a turnout and layer up, rain pants, yellow jacket glasses, ugh. and decide to get out all my frustration with Tom out loud. I talk to myself, out loud in the rain on a mountain in Peru. Needless to say, this wasn’t what I had imagined from my day “full of possibility.” I cussed him out for not getting out of the taxi at the right spot, for making me worry that he had gotten hit by a car with these CRAZY Peru drivers, for making me bike until almost dark near a pass in the rain, for not following motherf^*|*ng directions, etc etc. where was he?!!! I started out again in all my gear looking like a yellow sumo wrestler, nerdy with glasses, mascara long washed away, but feeling better after my venting rant to the wind.
I was on the inside of the next switchback and the handsomest bearded cyclist in a dark orange rain jacket came around on the far side. “Tom!” I yelled, my heart melted, this moment I had been rehearsing in my head all day was warm and full of love and only a little awkward, with two lanes and rains between us, helmets touching some as we hugged and kissed. I reprimanded him for making me worry about him, but that was it. I didn’t care about anything else. A sigh of relief for every cell of my body. He was there. He was there with me. We were together. I didn’t have to hurry to meet him. everything would be better with him there.
We rejoined JP who was a few switchbacks ahead and the three of us navigated a muddy chaotic literal gold
Mine traffic Jam in the dusk. Huge dump trucks and road works and pickups. We found shelter at a semi-abandoned (or still under construction, always hard to tell in Peru) road works building and the three of us made a great dinner and had plenty to talk about. Tom and JP got along great as I knew they would, and Tom kept pulling out treats from America: kettle corn, whiskey, beef jerky. We settled into our tents with wind howling and rain falling outside, with a hacking cough and sleepless night, nothing could bother me now that this wonderful man was actually and finally next to me.
The next day we got kicked out of the shelter at 6am which at first was rough but then as we watched the sunrise over the high altitude plateau, we realized we were lucky. After an epic descent on the road into Cajamarca, a celebratory dinner was in order. We had made it! We talked for ages over delicious food and two bottles of wine. Everything was right in the world, with a good friend, the love of my life, a few mountain passes behind me and a few days off ahead of me, I was utterly content.
NUTS AND BOLTS. Miles and Smiles. The world is in metric. America is not, I still don’t know why. But If you want to convert the numbers, multiply the kilometers by 0.61, and the meters by 3.3.
August 11: Vilcabamba- near Villadolid, 56km(mi), 4,192m up; 3,613m down
August 12: near Vallodolid- near Zumba, 56km, 2647m up; 4,200m down
August 13: near Zumba- Puerto San Antonio Banana plantation = CROSS INTO PERU! 52km, 2500m up; 2750m down
August 14: Puerto San Antonio- San Ignacio- river spot ,
66km, 1500m up; 2100m down
August 15: river spot- Jaén, 68km, 1000m up; 650m down
August 16: rest day, Jáen, 0 miles
August 17: rest day, Jáen, 0 miles
August 18: Jaén- spot on ridge, 81km, 3458 m up; 2380m down
August 19: ridge spot- near Cutervo, 38km, 2419m up, 1822m down
August 20: near Cutervo- past Chota, 47km, 1614m up; 1390m down
August 21: near Chota- near gold
Mine, Catilluc, 51km, 2400m up, 1253m down
August 22: near mine- Cajamarca, 72km, 800m up, 1766m down
Enemy of the People.
I mostly hate dogs now. They chase you and it’s scary.