Category Archives: Peru
“Freedom means tremendous responsibility; you are on your own and alone.” ~ Osho, Freedom, Indian Mystic
To be free is an illusion of words and actions. I have learned that to be free for something is intrinsically different than to be free from something. Freedom, in the modern sense of the word, evokes the notion of free movement. Some would consider me free, because my movement for the last year and a half has been just that. But, it is not the freedom of movement that I look for. I search for another type of freedom, that makes all others seem like rusted chains. The purpose for freedom matters much more than what you are free from. I am free for a reason.
The Amazon. The very name conjures up a sense of wonder and images of adventure. People going into the unknown green madness with sweat stained backs as they endlessly swat mosquitos. They search of wild creatures, secluded tribes and medicinal herbs. It is the place where people go and never come back. They are taken hostage by the allure of rainforest. Some remain trapped mentally, others physically. I was certainly captivated by the majesty that is this massive piece of green flowing beauty.
To satisfy my hunger for adventure, I decided to step off the bicycle for some days and float down the Amazon on a series of boats to Ecuador. It is something I always wanted to do. The amazing vastness of the Amazon river and it’s tributaries cannot be full comprehended. It is huge; stretching across countries and landscapes. Here there are no more roads. The Amazon is the road and you must play by it’s rules. You give up all control to the river and the endless bends that lead the way home. This is where the adventure becomes real.
“We are the environment. The world is literally one biological process. The trees are our lungs. Look at the Amazon River system next to a human cardiovascular system, look at corals or trees and look at our lungs, you literally cannot tell the difference. They’re the same. So when we destroy our environment, we’re effectively destroying ourselves.” ~ Ian Somerhalder, Actor
My journey up the Amazon began in Pucallpa, Peru on the Ucayali River. I arrived at the loose sandy banks of the launches fairly early, after being told to get there to secure a comfortable spot on the boat. I had spent the previous day running around town getting extra food, water and a hammock. I boarded the boat and negotiated my way up to the third floor with my bike. It was almost empty at this point and I had my pick of places to string up my home for the next four (ended up being five) days to Iquitos. I had a great lookout alongside the window and settled in for the long haul north in my new hammock. This was to be my first and biggest boat of the trip, as well as the longest ride of my Amazon adventure.
My journey was off to a rocky start though. We departed to pick-up more cargo at a different dock and the boat caught on fire at the bow. It blazed up very quickly due to the dry wood crates surrounding the bellowing electrical fire. It is interesting to see the way people react in an emergency. A few rushed to save the boat from the blaze and others ran about, scared for their lives. Outside of mostly western countries, few people in our world learn to swim properly. I saw one man hoarding three of the very few life jackets around his neck and ready to jump. I will give him the benefit of the doubt that they were for his family, but I saw no family. I threw a few valuables into a waterproof bag and was confident with my hometown swimming lessons I could make it to shore if needed. The crew was busy tossing blazing cargo into the river and boats collected afterwards to scour the refuse like hungry vultures. Meanwhile, another firefighting ship arrived and saved the boat from the blaze. No one was hurt and we returned to shore. Pretty soon everyone was back to their laidback selves. It became clear very quickly we would not be leaving on time.
The loading continued for hours and into the night. Almost everything is loaded by hand. Hardened men sweat all day in the scorching sun, carrying loads that seem to be twice their weight. Men turned to mules. From my window, I watched the chaos as every imaginable item was loaded below and all around us. Chickens, potatoes, mattresses, dryers, refrigerators, sodas, snacks, tires, onions and the list goes on forever. In the distance I saw ships full of massive logs from the heart of the Amazon unloaded. They were sprayed with numbers and rumbled off ships with one last cry for help. The boat took on more passengers by the moment. My temporary oasis by the window was invaded by over two hundred people and their children. Hammocks were strung up like spider webs. Negotiating my way around immediately became difficult, between the crying babies and mess of people’s belongings.
Night came and went. In the morning we still hadn’t departed, when I woke up after a stagnant sweaty night. People were visibly agitated by the lack of knowledge about when we would leave and the rising heat of the day. I spoke to the laid back old salty captain, with a friendly demeanor, who assured me we would leave soon. He grinned a smile of capped gold teeth and also told me there would be no more fires. I don’t know if I could ever trust a man with gold teeth, but I had no real choice in this case. I returned to my hammock and sweat until the engine finally roared to life. I had already been on the boat for 28 hours before we even departed. The only thing that mattered was we were finally moving.
Once on route the mood of the ship picked up. I was happy to sit swinging by my windowsill and taking in the sights. Dinner was served as the typical meal of the voyage, rice and a tiny piece of chicken plucked from below the deck. We lined up like eager prisoners. The morning was usually some watery porridge gruel with bread. The rotation of food began. Luckily I brought some extra food with me and there were always people jumping onboard to sell fish, little snacks and drinks. On a cyclists appetite, the meals would not have been close to enough.
The first night I went up to the top deck and watched the stars light up the night sky. It was a beautiful showing with a full moon. As I looked off into space a shooting star blazed across the sky. I felt infinitely small at that moment, as the hum of the motor pulled us forward. I awoke the following morning in my hammock to the sun coming up over the canopy beyond the river. It was a stunning and welcome gift from mother nature. The days began early and finished the same with one lightbulb for the entire third floor. This was nice as the children would finally settle down to sleep in their hammocks or the floor that crawled with cockroaches.
There were many characters on my trip through to Iquitos. Some were more enjoyable than others. With only one other foreigner on board, everyone got to know me fairly quickly. I could focus on tons of people here, as I watched their personalities unfold during the course of the journey. But, because of time, I’ll just focus on one person: Angelo.
Angelo was a pouty little three year old boy that arrived with his baby brother, older sister and his Mom, just before departure. My arch-nemesis of the journey. They pitched up their hammocks next to mine and I knew we were in for a show immediately. Angelo was a very cute child, but it seemed that he and life in general did not agree throughout the journey. It was not ten minutes before he threw his first little tantrum over wanting some knock-off Peruvian Cola. Mom, of course, gave in to appease little Prince Angelo. As a Kindergarten teacher for two years, I found it hard not to step in at a few moments. It was hard to watch this poor overwhelmed mother deal with this child for five days of confinement. I often looked forward to Angelo’s naps and frowned deeply when I saw him guzzling piles of cola in between his sour poutings over nothing and river water baths. Looking back on the journey, it would not have been as memorable without him. Thank you Angelo.
On our second day we hummed along nicely all morning long. We were seemingly making great time until the ship came to a loud halt and everyone flung forward with the sudden stop. Angelo rolled to the floor like a bag of old potatoes. We had run aground on a hidden sandbar. No one was hurt. Though it is the rainy season in the Amazon, there has been a terrible drought this year. This has made the water incredible low and difficult to navigate. After some deliberation and a lot of coaxing the boat came unstuck. I could see in my mind the gold tooth captain grinning up at the helm when he got us free. It poured rain, thankfully, in the afternoon and we got stuck on another sandbar.
I spent most of my days window watching and writing in my journal. The view continued to show the wild side of the Amazon. At times the boat would stop and sometimes people would get off in the middle of a section of jungle with jeans and a sweater to walk inside. I presume that their homes are somewhere within the green reaches of the Amazon. I reflected back on my Grade 6 days, where a friend and I, used to write stories under the title of, ‘Adventures in the Amazon.’ We would present them every few weeks infront of the class. It was hard to believe I was actually here, though all the characters at play were much different than the ones my mind had created in my youth. There was always something to stay entertained with on the boat, as day dreams morphed into real-life.
“Ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made.” ~ Robert N. Rose, Poet/Writer
At night a storm rolled in again and we battened down the hatches as rain leaked in from all sides. At night you could hear the creaking of the old rusted ship as it carried us further up the river towards the larger mouth of the Amazon. In the quiet of the night after the storm died and all the little ones were gone to sleep, I listened to the sounds of the evening. Under the low hum of the motor I could hear the heart of the jungle beating in the veins of the river. It is the force of life that gives the jungle it’s energy. All things begin and return to the river.
During the fourth night, Angelo and his family departed at some unknown stop. In the morning my area was surprisingly barren and quiet in comparison to the last few days. It was as if I was now missing something. Angelo had a rather unfortunate time on his last day aboard though. He dropped his toy car down a set of stairs and it bounced into the river, never to be seen again. It took him a moment to understand the implications of his mistake, but when he realized that toy car wasn’t coming back, the waterworks exploded to new levels. I felt bad for him at this point. Mom quickly poured him a big cup of Peru Cola and bought him some candy from a toothless lady on board. Angelo soon forgot about the car as he wired himself for another night of his favourite game to play on his mom, “Where’s Angelo?”
The following day there were far few people on the boat. I went downstairs to get a final serving of prison gruel porridge from the ships cooks. The food on board, though included in the price of the ticket, left something to be desired. I was excited one afternoon when there was a bit of carrot in my rice. I brought cans of tuna, limes, onions and other snacks to spice things up along the way. I rationing my food like it may be the end of the world. We finally sailed into Iquitos, our destination, on the banks of the Amazon. Iquitos is the largest city in the world, that is not accessible by any roads. You either have to take a long adventure boat ride or a plane, as most tourists do.
Iquitos emerges out of the jungle like a temporary hallucination. Out of nothing comes a city bustling with activity and all of the amenities of any Peruvian city. On our way in, I saw pink river dolphins playing in the shallow water. In the distance, a beautiful cruise boat lumbered by with tourists dining in an open air hall, complete with riverside balconies to every room. I looked around at my squalor and wouldn’t have wanted it any other ay. While rolling up my hammock I looked at the space which I called home for the last five days and said farewell with a smile at the adventure that was the first leg of my Amazonian experience. When we docked the sky opened up and poured rain. Fitting. I disembarked the boat to struggle up the muddy garbage filled banks with my bicycle and gear. I arrived at a quiet hostel and fell asleep in a proper bed.
“If man doesn’t learn to treat the oceans and the rainforest with respect, man will become extinct.” ~ Peter Benchley, Author
It was not all beautiful sunsets and flowing jungle water though. Maybe it is the sheer size of the Amazon Basin that causes people to mistreat it so willfully. The fact that it has always been there during their life, they think it will always be that way. Throughout my journey the garbage and destruction I saw was disheartening. People on the boat throwing styrofoam containers and plastics like it was their personal dumpster. All the waste not necessary, directly into the water. The same water they wash in moments later and expect to deliver them delicious fish. Out of sight and out of mind.
In the following days, I explored the hectic Belen market where I ate fried grubs and saw barbecue alligator and gutted armadillos for sale. I got a very overdue haircut and shave. The humidity of the jungle is not somewhere that a big beard is particularly enjoyable. What took four months to grow disappeared in a matter of seconds at the hands of a discontented barber. I left the moustache for a few days, just for a bit of fun. One night as I wandered around looking for a cheap meal I was hit by kids with water balloons and a lady poured a whole bucket of water on my head. I laughed a bit and was told they were getting ready for Carnival the following week.
In Iquitos, I went to the post office to mail some letters and a friendly security guard asked me where I was from. I told him Canada and he howled like a wolf and said, “Wolves!” I laughed, then replied there were big wolves and howled back at him. We fist pumped and I was on my way laughing. During this time I also prepared for the next stage of my riverboat experience that would take me to Ecuador. The plan, for those interested in such a backwater adventures, was to take a series of boats from Iquitos to Coca. This would be a completely different journey than my Henry boat float days before.
I packed up and made my way down to the docks. When I arrived, there was a massive and steep set of stairs to go down with my bike. It was crowded and busy. A man offered to help me for a small price and I agreed. We reached the bottom and loaded my bike on top of a junky boat that was headed for Mazan. After the man departed I realized I was missing something. My entire bag of bicycle tools, which I had carefully collected since the beginning of my trip, was gone. A new bottle of mosquito spray I had just bought, for the deep reaches of the jungle, was also stolen. I chased back up the stairs to try and find who had robbed me. I returned to the boat with no luck and wondered at the awful person who had my things. In twenty months on the road no one had taken anything from me or for that matter, ever during my travelling. Tools that are vital and difficult to replace, would serve little purpose in the life of a regular thief. I hoped he enjoyed the bit of money he procured from my tools as he munched on the stale bread he bought. I made a list of things that were stolen and have since slowly begun to recuperate what was lost.
Soon we were off down the river on a short two hour journey and I forgot about the days earlier events. I watched life on the Amazon float by. We arrived on the banks in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. I unloaded my bike and biked across a small isthmus to Mazan. In Mazan, I found a ‘fast boat’ that was to depart for Pantoja (Peruvian border) the following day.
There is no schedule in this part of the world, and no one really has any idea when things leave. If people in Iquitos tell you that you must hurry and a boat leaves soon, they are just making things up to hurry you onto their boat. No one really knows. I got lucky though on this one and the captain said every Wednesday he leaves from Mazan. I settled up the deal and cooked a pasta dinner on the banks of the river to a gathering crowd. I spent the night for free on the boat in my hammock. Once again I was clearly off the beat and track. At times it felt like the back end of the world as people returned with the bare essentials to the isolation of the jungle.
We left the following morning, as the captain had promised. Another adventure had begun. The boat was relatively empty for once. There seemed to be few people making the journey to the frontier of Peru. Along with one adventurous backpacker from Belgium, only one other man made the entire journey to Pantoja. He talked the entire time. He talked even if no one was listening. I called him the talking man. Even when I put my earplugs in at night, I could still hear the low hum of his voice continuing to talk to me as I watched him swat mosquitos in his hammock out of the corner of my eye.
Most people got off on the first day at different locations along the river. It seemed like we were abandoning them at times as they waved goodbye with their few belonging. There was usually a few people coming to meet them. I felt bad when we left the deaf man on his own with a massive sack of rice and bread. I watched as he approached his village to get someone to help him. I had a lot of time to contemplate the difficulties of his life as we motored onwards.
On one afternoon, we ate a ball of rice with meat inside called Juane. The rice is set inside leaves from the jungle and boiled in water. It was actually really good. Read about Juane and some other typical types of Amazonian food at http://authenticfoodquest.com/surprising-amazonian-food-from-peru/
The feeling in general was very peaceful and quiet. I had the Amazon to myself. These people must survive on the things they grow themselves or are able to find in the jungle. I had one fruit that grew on a tree and tasted exactly like a sweet potato. It was a very interesting life to ponder as the dual motors roared us along the Rio Napo. I saw boats that chugged along slowly like the one they used in the horribly awesome 90’s movie, Anaconda. Sadly, I didn’t see Ice Cube or Jennifer Lopez aboard any of the boats though.
We stopped at dusk on the banks of a tiny village. I put up my hammock once again and prepared for another night on the boat. We had some dinner and a storm rolled in as I went to sleep under the covered roof of the boat. Up early, we were off roaring just before 6am. The sunrise came over the horizon of endless greenery and little riverboats could be seen skirting along out for a morning fish. It was one of those travel moments you dream about and will cherish for as long as you live. The Amazon came to life as it shook off the cool of the night and a pink river dolphin jumped out of the water in the distance. Another day on my Amazon adventure had begun as our captain guided the driver down the shallow banks full of old trees stranded in the water. We sped by many whirlpools sucking debris down into the depths below.
During the day a storm came up and we lost some time docked on the edge of the river to wait it out. The boat got covered in water and everything was damp, but the air was much cooler. We pressed on after the storm passed. As night approached it became clear we would not make Pantoja. We docked near someone’s home. The captain arranged dinner for us to be cooked by the family living there. Hey loved isolated in the middle of the jungle. We were all welcomed into their simple home and made small talk as dinner was prepared. We had a basic Caldo de Gallina (chicken noodle soup, kind of) and I went into a sound sleep in my hammock. The next morning we were off roaring towards the border at first light.
We arrived at the Peruvian border frontier around 10am. The vibe in Pantoja was not very friendly at all. The border patrol was clearly bored and likely saw almost no tourists through here. They looked at every item in my four bags. I checked out of Peru and was off on a fast boat towards Ecuador. Arriving near dusk I was stamped in very quickly and let to go on my way. I found a cheap place to sleep. My last boat remained in the early morning to where the road began again in Coca. I woke at 4:30am to pouring rain and boarded an overloaded boat for eleven cramped hours of sleepy head-bobbing.
Finally arriving in Coca I had my first real taste of a new country and the end of my Amazon riverboat journey. It was a bittersweet moment at the port. It was some of the most introspective days I have ever had in my life. I don’t know if it was the beauty of the jungle or the life giving energy of river, but I felt alive. I felt like I had connected with a part of myself that I didn’t even know existed. I felt free of body and mind. I felt ready to get back on that bike and cycle the rest of the way home. I was ready.
*If you are truly interested in this once in a lifetime, do it yourself Amazon adventure please send me an e-mail at email@example.com. I will give direct details on prices paid, times of boats and what to expect. You wont find this trip in any guidebook and you will never regret it. It is one of the last great adventures of public transport available. Only necessity is patience and time. Time and patience.
**A big thank you goes out to Des & Judy McKenna, The Laidley Family, Edith Devlin, Shirley Kindellan and Queen Elizabeth School in Perth. They are all the recipients of personal thank you letters in the mail and have brought us up to 200 donors on my journey home. I am so blown away by this. Thank you to all the individual people, organizations and schools that have come together to help build a better future for kids around the world. I am currently heading towards Shuid, Ecuador and the site of the next schoolhouse. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
***To read more about the amazing force that is the Amazon River CLICK HERE.
“Peru, Peru. My heart’s lighthouse.” ~ Steven Patrick Morrissey, Singer/Author
Cycling around in the Andes of an ancient civilization like the Inca, can give you unique perspective into the nature of then and now. We as humans like to believe that we are somewhat indestructible. We think that our particular civilization is the centre of the world and will last forever. I am sure most people in ancient Egyptian, Roman and Incan societies all thought this. We think we are the best and our way of life will continue to spread forever. However, only remnants remain of all these once powerful and great nations.
Have we learned nothing? Are we that deeply vain to believe our current life-ways will be any different? It is clear at our rate of consumption and modern way of living will not last on the course we are on. Tensions rise over non-renewable resources like gold, oil and diamonds. Wars still being fought over who the same man in the sky favours. Are we still this primitive with all our modern advances? I guess we are.
We have the intelligence to sustain ourselves in peaceful ways, but we choose to ignore the thoughtful path and let economists dictate the future of our world. Maybe not in my lifetime, but in the future another change will come and people will wonder how we all didn’t see it coming. It doesn’t take traveling long on ground level to see that the Chinese have already won the secret quiet economic war they are waging, no matter what the ‘value’ of the American dollar would have you believe. Weren’t they just on the brink of economic collapse? I guess everyone just forgot about it. While the world worries about immigration and ISIS, the Chinese shrug their shoulders and lend out another stack of cash and build another road in exchange for resources in Africa. I admire their ability to do it all so quietly with all eyes diverted to more entertaining developments. Grab your bottled water and microwave popcorn.
It was a rainy afternoon when I past into Peru from Bolivia. The rain picked up and turned the dusty border town into a muddy soup. I decided to resume my journey the following day as I checked into a cheap guesthouse to shake off the rain. The following day saw me riding along the vast banks of the highest navigable lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It was beautiful views to the right as hungry clouds puffed their muscles waiting to unleash in the afternoon. Being the rainy season in Peru, it rained with predictability almost every afternoon and most of the night. This meant my days started much earlier than usual. On one occasion I tried outrunning the clouds, which eventually caught me. They unleashed a freezing cold rain, followed by painful hail, that turned into snow and back into a horrible rain to finish things off.
During the sunny hours I plied along windy roads waving to farmers working their fields along the banks of the life-giving Titicaca. I made my way to the first large city of Puno, where I celebrated Christmas. It was another quiet Christmas for the guy on the bike. I walked about the main plaza wearing a santa hat I had bought and listened to the local police brigade play in their orchestral tribute to Christmas. I decided to treat myself to a new pair of shoes, as mine were looking battered and the smell was overpowering for the unsuspecting person. I found a new pair in the market and said goodbye to the shoes that pedalled roads since Egypt. For dinner I had some roasted chicken and got to bed early.
I was off the next morning towards Cusco. The road was relatively flat and riding was quick for the first section. At one point though I found myself at the summit of a 4,300 metre pass huffing for air up a slow hill. It was a good thing I had no idea it was coming or it would have been a harder mental battle to get going that morning. At the top of the pass I met another Canadian cyclist for the first time on my trip. We chatted for over an hour and wished each other good luck. We both had a huge downhill to look forward to. I flew like the wind for the next 40km meeting a German couple and a Korean cyclist on the way. I met more cyclists on the stretch from Puno to Cusco over four days than I did the entire time I was in Africa.
The road to Cusco became an up and down struggle but the valley views were spectacular and life in the little villages along the road was interesting. Putting in my last uphill battle I pulled into Cusco surrounded by honking horns and hoards of traffic spewing the typical fumes in my face. Tiny mini buses cut me off at every chance and people just did whatever they wanted on the road. Peruvian drivers are very impatient and don’t do well with stalled traffic in front of them. They honk as if their horns will suddenly part the cars and they will be given the all clear to go.
In Cusco I stayed at the Estrellita, which is known to be the hostel where cyclists congregate. It didn’t disappoint and soon I had met a good group of people waiting to celebrate New Years. Some of the French travellers put together a nice New Years dinner and we played some sort of miming game. I explored a bit of Cusco, but found it to be one of the most touristy cities on my trip. I found some local restaurants that served nice food for cheap, away from the centre of tourist pizza heaven. For lunch in Peru I always looked for the market. Almost every town has at least one central market, where for one or two dollars you could get a deliciously unique soup and a full meal with a drink. On the road this was always a welcome break and gave me the energy to continue tackling the monstrous hills that lay waiting for me in the afternoon.
From Cusco I took off towards Machu Picchu. It had been one of the few pin-points on the map I had actually planned on seeing during my time in South American. Most people in town were organizing some expensive tour to the site, which I could not afford or wanted to be apart of. The ticket itself was a huge expense for me, but I didn’t mind paying it. The cheapest route there involves a 5 hour collective van, followed by an additional van of 2 hours, which ends at a place called Hydro-Electrica. Here backpackers walk along the train tracks towards Agua Calientes, the town, at the foot of Machu Picchu. The train almost totally empty at times is the biggest scam going with white table clothes and white collar tourists. The walk to the town took an additional 3 hours on the tracks and I arrived to the sight of burritos and overpriced pizza once again. I was actually amazed by the power of tourism and the Disney Land created in the beautiful Inca valley.
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.” ~ Hiram Bingham, Explorer
I grabbed a cheap dinner from the local market from a friendly lady and was off to bed. Up at 4am I started my climb with the line of other sleepy travellers to the top of Machu Picchu. There was already a line for the bus to the top. Yes, there is a bus to the top. For $24US you do not have to walk a step to get all the way to the top of one of the world’s most iconic and historical feats of ancient human creation. I arrived at 6am in time to enter and see the site before all the crowds arrived. Changing my shirt already soaked from the climb up I came around a corner to see the view for the first time and was blown away in the morning light. It was truly worth it. All of the effort cycling to get here made my contemplative moments more special, as I gazed over the terraced walls and restored structures.
I thought about the other pin-points on the map I had brought myself to with the power of the bicycle. The Taj Mahal, Iguazu Falls, The Great Wall, Pyramids and Colosseum. I found sitting there on the edge of the world, that same old feeling I always had at these places. Of course I was once again humbly overwhelmed when you consider the scope and grandeur of it all. I truly am a lucky person and I know it. However, I felt the feeling of emptiness. These places now only exist for tourists to come in droves with selfie sticks to share on Facebook. It is not these wonders which have given me the rich experiences I have achieved on the road. Sure these are massive pin-points on the map. They are somewhere to look forward to and set your sights on, but they are never the objective. What I love is what is in between. Meeting the people that call these countries home and seeing a clear road challenging me. I missed the freedom of my bike and returned down the same path to Cusco. I packed up and continued onwards where the real adventure and memories are made. For me, they are found out there on the road.
After Cusco I had a huge choice to make which would dictate the course of my Peruvian trip. I could head down to the coast where riding would be much flatter, warmer and easier, but far less interesting. My second choice, was the intensely difficult Andean route towards the Amazon where, I heard from my good friend and cyclist Steve, you could take a boat up the Amazon to Ecuador. The second sounded like the type of adventure I thrive on. From Cusco the climbs began and they didn’t stop. For days I would spend my entire day crawling up mountains at 6km an hour to reach summits over 4,000 metres. At the top I would be treated to a stunning view and then race downhill for next hour or two. Then repeat it all over again. The highs and lows were literal and mentally battles crushing.
On the road I broke my rear cassette at the top of a mountain pass and strode downhill with no pedals. I eventually found a spot to fix my bike and had to have my whole rear wheel rebuilt. I finally found some quality parts and took the opportunity to repair a few lingering problems. Out of a city called Abancay I descended some 10km and then climbed up 45km along a road that looked like it was a stray piece of spaghetti. At the end of the day, as the sun was getting low, I finally reached the top of my climb to see where I started my day. It was the first time I have rode all day long and could still see where I had begun. The climbs here were by far the most massive and difficult of my journey. Nothing can ever compare. The mountains from here wound their way along beautiful cliffs and windy stunning roads to Ayacucho, where I took a day to rest.
Here I ran into a French cyclist, named Remy, who I had met in La Paz and Cusco. We decided to ride to Huancayo together. Along the way we communicated in Spanish as his English was poor and so was my French. Our collective Spanish was surprisingly better. From Ayacucho the route was dry and full of cacti. The road narrowed and turned into a one-track route. We pushed through terribly steep climbs along the river, inside massive canyons. We camped in tiny towns, shared food and stories. One day we saw a small gathering of people where a truck had flipped off the side of the mountain and lay on the roof. Clearly the passengers had not survived and we were silent for a long while afterwards, each playing with our own thoughts. The riding in this section was extremely slow and involved a lot of hard work.
Camping in a small town we cooked dinner in a space where we were told to sleep. The village crowded around to watch us cook our dinner and asked us the same questions on repeat. I was slightly irritated at this point and wanted everyone to just give me a moment of peace after another long day. The next day saw some faster riding and we made good time until reaching yet another 35km hill. We talked it over and agreed that climbing this pass today was not in either of our interests or would make our trips any more fulfilling. From here we took a lift over the rest of the mountain pass and to Huancayo where we found a big proper dinner.
At this point Remy and I said our goodbyes. We both had a bit of a different way of riding after so long on solo missions. We also had different routes which we intended to take. It was nice riding with someone for a few days and I truly appreciated the company. However, I know myself and I always do better on my own. It is hard to describe to people when they ask about being alone, but if they were on this type of journey they might then understand how flying solo makes sense. Undertaking a trip like this you must know and understand yourself very well, if you are to involve another person in it with you. I spent the following day getting my dirty laundry sorted and explored the crazy weekend market of Huancayo, where I ate a delicious ceviche. For Peru’s claim to fame in culinary beauty and simplicity, see a recipe here on one of my favourites, delicious CEVICHE.
“A bicycle does get you there and more. And there is always the thin edge of danger to keep you alert and comfortably apprehensive. Dogs become dogs again and snap at your raincoat; potholes become personal. And getting there is all the fun.” ~ Bill Emerson, Writer/Journalist
From Huancayo I made my way to the Jewel of the Andes, Tarma. It was a bit of a long day with a huge mountain pass that never seemed to end. The dogs in Peru are notorious among cyclists for being some of the worst in the world. They definitely did not disappoint on this day. I made it to the top and the sun began to start sinking behind the mountains and as I wound my way down to the city. It was one of the most beautifully set places I have ever rode into. With perfect looking terraces stretching out along the switchbacks, I meandered with my mouth open past waterfalls and beautiful green into Tarma at the heart of the valley. I found a cheap place to sleep and debated my onwards route through the Andes or to sink down early into the Amazon. Discussing with a few locals solved my problem and the next morning I found myself on a 75km downhill into the Amazon Basin. For many stretches in Peru the views have been stunning, but commuication with home and my beautiful supportive fiancé has been a bit more difficult than we all would like sometimes.
The weather changed almost instantly and the people seemed to change as well. It was as if I had entered a completely different country. Everyone wore flip-flops and seemed very laid back. There were pineapples for sale and even coconuts in fridges serving up cold coconut water. One of the best things you can drink on a hot day while cycling. I explored the little towns as I went and began to see fruits I had never seen before. Places like La Merced, Villa Rica and Puerto Bermudez were waypoints for me as I made my route towards Pucallpa. There were two large climbs on dirt roads which I sweat over ten litres of water. It was for sure top five hottest places on my journey and definitely the most humid. It was too hot to do much of anything, let alone cycle up the side of a mountain. However, I persevered for three days of sweat filled beautiful riding.
On one day late in the afternoon I was racing down a hill after a long climb when a truck stopped me to chat. A nice man named Walter introduced himself and invited me to stay the night. I happily agreed. Walter was 81 years old and was still working as a farmer. He got up everyday at five to tend to his animals and milk his cows. He was also rebuilding his house at the moment after some ‘terrorists’ destroyed it. I never understood what exactly happened to his house, but he was super welcoming all the same. He was of Italian origin and had lived in Peru all of his life. I enjoyed our chats together and after breakfast the following day, we took a photo and said goodbye. Another kind friend from the road.
I spent the night the following day, after a horribly steep climb, along one of the tributaries to the Amazon in Puerto Bermudez at the guesthouse of Spanish born Jesus. In 18 years of owning this rustic guesthouse, I was the first to arrive on bicycle. A huge complement and an example of how off the main track I had gotten myself. I was happy to share some stories with Jesus (believe me he had a lot) and left early the following day. From here it was a two day ride to Pucallpa, where the road literally ends and my Amazon boat adventure would begin. I sweat like crazy all day in the hot sun. The year was decidedly abnormal as it usually rains almost all day here during this time in the rainy season. Jesus made it clear he was very worried about this. However, it had not being raining at all. If it had the road would have been mostly washed away or impassable on a bike.
Sleeping in a mosquito filled guesthouse I got little sleep and started riding at 5am to make Pucallpa. However, my legs and energy levels were not agreeing. I felt sick and slightly cold, which was not a good sign. I was either dehydrated or had eaten something of poor choosing. I looked at the next hill like it was a mountain. I had nothing left in me and my legs felt very weak. A van passed by and picked me up. Finishing the day in Pucallpa, I was very ill and spent the following day recovering in a state of exhaustion. However, I had made it. Not the way I intended to arrive, but I was here and ready for my next adventure. We cannot always predict our paths in life, but sometimes must take them as they are and accept that it all happens for some reason or another. The story picks up in the following post, where the road ends and I float my bike down the Amazon River towards Ecuador.
The route through the Andes and down to Pucallpa in the Amazon Basin was wildly difficult. It was also some of the most stunning scenery I have ever been privileged to. The downhills were extraordinary and the stars at night jumped out of the canvas sky like real life characters. I would recommend the Andean route to anyone who has a bit of time and some patience for struggle. The alternative Pan-American Highway along the coast would have given me little to wonder about later on.
“If I listen I have the advantage, if I speak others have it.” ~ Peruvian Proverb
The Andean route of Peru was well worth my while and given me insight into a world I never knew exist. Life for the local people here is tough. It has few rewards and is demanding of mind and body to survive. I am happy to have shared a piece of their struggle. We are all not that different. We all want the same things in life; whether it is now or hundreds of years back during the time of the Inca. We are all chasing that internal dream of light and energy we call, the good life.
*In a weeks time I will be visiting our charity project with Free the Children in Ecuador. I am very excited about this opportunity and look forward to sharing with you my experiences afterwards. I am still also sending out three more handwritten thank you letters to the next three sponsors. CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**At the moment I am now cycling in Ecuador. After an adventure and a half up the Amazon, I have made it through Peru. It was a challenging and beautiful journey. Update and photos from that adventure to come soon.
***A Canadian friend I met while traveling in China and Kyrgyzstan, has just released a new travel blog for adventure backpackers and travel enthusiasts. Stephan goes to some pretty interesting countries and has a lot of experience in the wild yonder of our world. Check out his site here, with a travel guide specifically for Peru at http://www.unchartedbackpacker.com.
In our modern society we have been conditioned to think that the quickest way is the best. People thrive on speed and ease. We expect information to come in seconds and feel empty even when we have access to more knowledge than ever. Conversations that used to last hours are ended in moments with a quick Google search. We believe in 7 day weight loss programs, a pill for every ill and that the world generally owes us something. We live in a world of I.
The value of struggle has been lost. We want something and we want it now. Get rich quick schemes are all the rage. My junk mail box proves that. People are hoping to get ahead and not have do anything for it. With the New Year upon us, it is a booming time for gym memberships and diet programs. Typically, people will forget about these resolutions in a month, when life gets busy again. It is not that we aren’t good enough to follow through with these goals, we just approach things the wrong way. People give up because they weren’t ready and someone else told them what to do. No one likes being told what to do or how to do it. Take every child someone told do something. You need to come up with your own path to the changes you think you need to make.
We forget that any of the great feats in our world were not accomplished in a day. They instead took time, careful planning and exponential amounts of energy. The invention of the light bulb, automobile and the development of Wayne Gretzky’s hockey skill did not come overnight. All of these things took a lot of dedication.
I understand we are all busy, tired and stressed by modern day pressures. However, there are some simple things you can do to feel better about yourself in the New Year. Start small and grow gradually until those positive aspects become cornerstones of your life. Get to the point where you don’t talk about the change anymore, but just do it. It becomes part of a better and new you.
Making a regular healthy dinner is not that difficult, nor is writing a letter to an old friend. These are just examples, that involve simple planning and execution. However, the rewards far exceed the effort necessary in return. If you pour yourself into something that truly means a lot to you, you will succeed. Make 2016 something you can be proud to remember.
“May the sun set on where my love dwells.” ~ Bolivian Proverb
Crossing the Paraguayan border into Bolivia was not exactly what you would expect. I had essentially been in cycling limbo for the last three days after checking out of Paraguay some 300km beforehand. I crossed the military checkpoint and finally was able to punch into Bolivia at an ‘immigration’ post called Ibibobo some 50km from the border. The border control was basically a shack with one man giving stamps and a lady to change money.
As I was leaving another cyclist from France named Laurent rolled in. A huge surprise given our locality. We decided to have a bit of lunch together and shared stories from the road. As I was leaving Laurent tried to get his exit stamp to the sight of the border control taking off with the money exchange lady on a motorbike. I found out later he had chased the man down in the nearby village and received his exit stamp.
I rode off very tired into a new country after ten straight days of riding through the Gran Chaco of Paraguay. Though I was very excited to see a hill for the first time since Asunción some 800km back. There were parts of the road which were full of loose gravel where I had to walk my bike for short stretches. I thought very little of it at the time. I was mainly focusing on making it to the first town, Villamontes. Not far down the road was a return to civilization and a well deserved rest day. What I didn’t realize that this was a small warning for things to come. An ominous look into the misery of the Bolivian road system ahead.
Arriving in Villamontes I promptly ate two dinners and fell into a deep sweaty sleep. This part of Bolivia is known to be the warmest in the country. The temperature in my room was 38 degrees and only a small fan on the wall to cool off. After the first night I pushed my bed to the other side of the room to be closer to the fan. It didn’t help much and I avoided the oven of my room as much as possible. Instead, I stuck to drinking awesome fruit juices and eating Salteñas in the market. Though a Salteña is similar to an empanada, it is decidedly much better in my opinion. Click on Salteñas to see a delicious and savory recipe.
From Villamontes I decided to begin my ascent to the altiplano of Bolivia where the weather would be cooler and less rainy. The total climb would be upwards of 4,000 meters higher than where I currently was. The ascent started almost immediately. I was followed by hoards of little biting flies and a scorching sun as I cycled up the dusty dirt road. Stopping in a roadside village, I was invited in for lunch at a school. The kids all laughed at me and I shared a bottle of local cola with one of the teachers. Pushing on in the heat was draining and slow but the views along the canyon I was riding up were fantastic.
Near the end of my day I heard a terrible sound coming from the back of my bike. I inspected and my cassette had come loose. I tightened it back on but it didn’t last long and I was stranded with no hope of moving. I hitched a ride to the next town where a mechanic and I with the proper tools ‘fixed’ the problem. About 45km into the following day towards my next destination, Tarija, the problem returned once again. When I tried to fix the problem the cassette opened up and ball bearings went all over the road. I was upset as I had just replaced this part in Paraguay, but was sold a very cheap piece of equipment. Because of this my continuous route of cycling from Buenos Aires was broken. I felt down as I waited on the side of the road for a ride to the city over the mountain pass. When you invest yourself in something like this and things don’t work out, it is sometimes hard to swallow.
A nice man, also named Mark, picked me up not long after. Luck would have it he knew a mechanic who could help me in Tarija. We found a new cassette in the bike market and returned to the nice mechanic who promptly put the heart back into my bike. He wouldn’t take payment when I offered. I thanked him a dozen times and went off to my new friend’s pizza restaurant. His restaurant was inspired by his travels overseas and we shared a bottle of Orange Fanta while I admired the decor. I found a restful hostel called CASA BLANCA and got my mind back in order.
“It’s easy for people in an air-conditioned room to continue with policies of destruction of Mother Earth. We need instead to put ourselves in the shoes of families in Bolivia and worldwide that lack water and food and suffer misery and hunger.” ~ Evo Morales, Bolivian President
There was a very long and steep climb out of Tarija as I made my way towards Tupiza. By the time night rolled around a nasty storm was upon me and a little old lady invited me to sleep in her house. She cleared a room for me in what was most certainly one of the poorest families I had stayed with in a while. There was a knock later at my door and the lady had a nice looking soup in hand. I ate it quietly feeling humble as ever on my chair missing the back.
Talking to locals back in town, I was told that the road I had chosen was very difficult and I was decidedly crazy. If it was crazy and terrible that also meant it would be beautiful. I was certainly right about the beautiful part. But the locals were also right about it being terrible. It was one of the hardest roads I have ever traversed with rutted dirt tracks to the top of mountains and a howling wind. Once in a while tarmac would appear out of nowhere and I would coast like a giant along empty smooth roads. I have amazing memories of larger than life views with clouds crawling over the sides of mountain ridges. In a small town one night I had nowhere to sleep until a nice guy named Osman welcomed me to his house. He was still working, but let me into his place all the same. When he returned we watched a new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and I fell asleep.
In the morning Osman and I had some chicken soup together before I descended down my own ‘Road of Death.” Thousand foot drop offs with zero railings and crumbling loose gravel on the edges of the road. Every once in a while a bus would come roaring around a blind corner and shower me with dust. I usually stopped on some firm ground and waited for it to pass if I heard something coming. Though it was some white knuckle riding, it was completely worth the effort. The ride to Tupiza was stunning and the struggle for beauty was the reason I chose to come this way through Bolivia.
Arriving in the canyon town of Tupiza, I found a delicious lunch after days of cooking bland pasta. I then found a cold shower and scrubbed the dirt from my life. After exploring the markets of Tupiza I planned what can only be described as a hair brain venture down the wrong road. I was headed towards the largest Salt Flat in the world near Uyuni. Everyone I asked told me the road directly to Uyuni was the worst in Bolivia and I should take the route twice as long that was paved. I was here for adventure and I chose the exactly what you would expect. I chose struggle and misery, mixed with dashes of solitary beauty.
If ever there was a road I am happy to have left behind it was this one. It began with sandy riding through spectacular canyons. Supposedly where Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid met their end. I pictured olden days of people struggling through these passages with ox carts as I rode. Lightning struck off in the distance and set the scene for an end of days western shootout.
“Bolivians die with rotted lungs so that the world may consume cheap tin.” ~ Eduardo Galeano, Writer
Eventually, I made my way up to Atocha. It was one of the most interesting settings for a town I have ever seen. Set into the edge of mountain it lay at the side of an extinct river and a sleepy railway. As an old mining town it seemed that everything here had seen better days. There is a long history of exploitation in Bolivia and the use of their people to mine plentiful natural resources by developed countries at low cost. Nevertheless, I was welcomed by friendly curious locals into their town. I couldn’t afford the nicer hotel in town and was shown to the second cheapest room of my entire trip, at the equivalent of $2. The bed smelled like spit and the odor of the communal toilet wafted into my room through the cardboard window in my 4×4 square. I slept in my sleeping bag, with my cycling buff over my face and didn’t dare touch the stained sheets. I escaped the room as soon as possible in the morning and gagged one more time as I headed back in to grab my bags.
The following two days to Uyuni saw some spectacular but difficult riding through amazing rocky landscape. I followed a volcanically poisoned river and passed along high canyon walls. Later I bumped past as Llamas grazed on the sides of the road. I huffed up steep hills into a strong wind as the corrugated road bounced me to pieces. Sometimes the road wasn’t much more than a drift of sand and gravel. In spots roadwork was in progress, but at the rate they seem to be going it will be done in ten years. Eventually the dusty tourist jump off point of Uyuni emerged and I tumbled into reality like a space monster. Tourists laughed in the streets as they headed off on their tours with blinders on. I could see them through windows in English looking pubs eating pizza at outrageous prices while they drank cold Corona beers. It all seemed extremely odd to me after where I just came from. I ate my regular local meal of chicken with rice and hid away from it all in my room after a fruitless search for a new bungee cord for my bike.
At this point I was far more consumed by the adventure ahead. The largest salt flat waited for me in the morning. I was truly excited. It serves for most cyclists in South America as the quintessential cycling experience. As I approached the entrance to Uyuni the following day I heard a loud snap and a broken spoke. Terrible timing with Uyuni some 15km behind. I rolled into the town on the edge of the Salar and found a truck mechanic. We used his tools to take off my new cassette and my ball bearings exploded all over the sand. With his kids we picked up all of the little pieces and put the thing back together. A ten minute job turned into two hours. (I have now purchased all the tools to do this myself) When I finally entered the Salar de Uyuni, the wind was already roaring, not in my favor. I met four cyclists around one of the hotels made of salt. They were being carried by the wind without even pedaling. I’ve never been so jealous.
I pushed onwards into one of the most naturally stunning landscapes on the planet. A completely flat and a magically disorientating experience to cycle. At first the Salar was truly fun. I took lots of silly photos as I headed to an island called Incahuasi in the middle of the Salar to camp. However, after seeing the island in the far off distance for more than half the day it seemed to come no closer. I kept thinking it must just be a few more kilometers ahead. But it never materialized. The sun was getting low and I stopped in the howling madness to snap some photos. At this point the wind was stronger than ever and I was exhausted. I resorted to pushing my bike towards the outline of the looming island. My mind was playing tricks on me and I imagined nightmarish creatures following me. To be honest I whimpered a bit and felt delirious from the sun and wind. By the time I arrived it was after 9:30pm and had been dark for hours. I found the tourist centre and pitched my tent with my last ounce of energy. I ate some cookies in my tent and passed out.
I was awoken early by the arrival of hoards of tourists to the island. Less than impressed, I packed up and ate some bread as people snapped photos of me where I gave a begrudging thumbs up. The nice ticket man let me go up the island and take a photo for free and gave me a bottle full of tea. He said he saw me arrive late the night before and I think he was worried about me. I felt exhausted beyond all belief, but knew I couldn’t stay where I was. I headed for land and the volcano in the distance.
After a few kilometers of riding I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt awful and threw up a number of times from exhaustion. I positioned my bike in front of the sun and lay in the shade under my bike and had a nap. When I woke up the sun was beating down on me, but I felt much better. I got back on my bike and slowly made it to land where I found some nice tourists that shared their dinner with me.
From the volcano Tunupu, I carried along a very beautiful and sandy road towards Salinas de Garcia Mendoza feeling much better. In this part of the world water is very precious and it was many days before I was able to get a shower. As I turned to rejoin the main road towards La Paz, I met a cyclist from Mexico who told me just three kilometers down the road it turned to asphalt. I have never been so happy. From that point on the hills were less strenuous on a fully paved road all the way to La Paz. Along the road I watched deer grazing in the distance while dust tornados whipped up around them. I flew past Llamas and Alpacas as I rode with speed on the finished road.
Approaching La Paz I was on my last bit of steam and in need of a break. When I came around a bend in the road and saw La Paz in the valley below from El Alto, I was speechless. I had never seen anything quite like it. I felt insanely small as I pictured myself down in the mass of buildings that seemed like little toy pieces from above. As I weaved my way down into La Paz I felt like an airplane coming in for a landing. I landed in the famous Casa de Ciclista where I recharged my batteries and met some nice people before heading to the border of Peru and onto the next adventure.
It was a month long journey through Bolivia with extreme highs and some serious lows. Coming through on the other side I can certainly say that it was a challenge worth the time and effort. It is one of the most raw and beautiful countries I have ever been to. Biking here definitely has all of the rewards you can imagine. Getting away from the main roads is where the adventure happens and the light of the world sparks the engine for adventure inside your heart. Maybe it was the adrenaline of sheer cliffs or the pressure of thin air, but I look back with extreme fondness on my days in Bolivia. Here you can learn the true value of struggle.
*We are now at 195 donors and over 1/3 of the way to the schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. Pretty awesome stuff! If you hung on and read this far, I am proud of you. I also like to honour the type of lessons I preach. Therefore, I will be sending every donor up to #200 a personal handwritten thank you letter in the mail. Your name will also appear in the next post. If you are lucky you may receive a letter from the Amazon as I head north. I know most people don’t collect stamps anymore, but I think that would be really cool location to get a letter from. But, that’s just me. Thank you for all of your support! CLICK HERE TO DONATE.
**At the moment I am riding in Peru, where the views are larger than life and the mountain climbs are monstrous. I spend most of my days huffing up massive hills as I head north and will eventually find my way down to the Amazon Basin. Here the road itself ends and I begin my great Amazon adventure towards Ecuador. Thanks for reading and stay tuned.
*** Below is a nicely written message from my walking friend, David, which I received around New Year. It is hard to stay in touch with everyone I have met along the way, but this is one chap I am always happy to hear from. Walking to India at A TASTE OF ANCIENT ROUTES.
“You are doing the ultimate and every day brings you closer to your final goal. This is for you my friend, when I think about your journey:
It can be tough, it can be a breeze;
some days are filled with hardship,
others gust with ease.
The people wave,
And smile and frown,
You pass them by,
Heading out of town.
The bed is hard,
the ground is your home,
Even if you feel it,
You’re ever alone;
Thoughts move in your brain
As you leave the road behind you,
Again, and again, and again.
“Paraguay is an island surrounded on all sides by land.” ~ Augusto Roa Bastos, Novelist
The idea of success and perseverance to a goal is only as difficult as our mind will allow. There is only one obstacle between us and our goals. The mind. This is what prevents us from making the best decisions for ourselves, finishing or starting that project and following our dreams. When I sat down to write this post, my mind wouldn’t let me continue. It said you have no good ideas, there are other things to worry about and no one really cares. I was in a bad mindset. There was only cannot and excuses. I gave up for days and the page lay blank. It’s not that I didn’t think I had a good story to tell, it was the inner slob pouring out. I was not in a mindset to feel the inspiration I needed.
However, it’s all in your head. You are only going to be successful at what you do, if you allow your mind to break free. Dreams, abilities, strengths and weakness are all linked to our internal perceptions of ourselves. One moment we could feel like we can conquer the world and the next we have trouble getting out of bed. Sometimes laying there I feel like this. I think that home is so far away. There wont be anything interesting to see today. I convince myself I feel tired, hungry and thirsty. These are all just excuses of the mind. When you get out there and start taking action, things begin to fall into place. The same goes for this post. The same goes for setting new goals for ourselves. The same goes for getting out of my warm sleeping bag and putting another day in on the bicycle. Ignoring the distractions our minds create for us and getting on with things is one of the most important tools for achieving new boundaries of personal potential. Without a clear mind on your side, you are lost.
“Gratitude is the least of virtues; ingratitude is the worst of vices.” ~ Paraguayan Proverb
I entered Paraguay via a ten minute ferry ride across Rio Iguazu from Argentina. I thought this would save time and a huge hassle at the renowned tri Argentina, Brazil & Paraguay crossing. All three countries meet at this point near Iguazu Falls. I found the ferry and immigration post easily enough, but was wrong about the time saver part. Not to bore you with Visa legality problems, but I will say I have an undeserving 600 Peso mark against me should I ever return to Argentina. There is also a border guard I am less than fond of now. In some places corruption prevails and no amount of truth will save you.
It was not the best way to leave Argentina, but soon all was forgotten and I was off riding in Paraguay. I sorted out some new country business and took the day to see the largest hydroelectric dam in the world. It was pretty impressive to say the least. Paraguay is not known for their sights. They have almost no mountains, it is terribly hot, landlocked and extremely flat in most areas. It is skipped over by most travelers and who cannot even say why they didn’t go. However, this was the country I had been dying to see since I arrived in South America. Some may wonder why I was so excited, but it was the sheer fact that I knew nothing that interested me the most. Very few tourists visit here and I was thrilled at the opportunity to cycle from one end of the country to the other.
At first when I got rolling the road had a similar feeling to the one behind me. Hill after hill in extreme humidity. Stopping every few minutes to wipe my face and stare at another impending hill. I took lots of breaks on my three day ride to the capital of Asunción. The people were very friendly and I was already happy with my choice to come. I often dove into air conditioned gas stations beat red to cool off and snacked on empanadas. Learn about and see delicious empanadas receipes HERE.
On my final day into the capital I had to push myself very hard. I was exhausted entering the city with buses spewing black smoke and stopping all over the road. It was very typical of entering many capital cities on my trip, but I was almost out of steam. In Paraguay they drink mate, the same as Brazilians and Uruguayans, but instead of hot they drink it ice cold. Smart if you ask me. Many people carry around jugs of ice water to go with their stimulating mate. One man likely seeing I was struggling up another hill, stopped his car and filled my water bottle with some of his ice cold water. It was exactly what I needed to get me through the final push to my hosts house in downtown Asunción.
When I arrived at Silvia’s house I was greeted by her amazing mother, who instantly began to feed me delicious foods. For the next few days I got caught up on my things, ate up to my ears, explored Asunción and shared stories with my gracious host. I also did a presentation on my ride at Canadian School and met another Quattrocchi. This was quite possibly the most extended and random of chance encounters on my trip, but one of the most interesting. Not everyday you meet someone with the same last name as you in Paraguay. I certainly had never met anyone with an uncommon name such a mine that I wasn’t related to. I ate a pile of cheesy fries and we shared stories about our lives and family histories out of Sicily.
Saying goodbye to a nice host, comfortable bed and security is never easy. However, setting out into the infamous Gran Chaco of Paraguay was even more difficult. It didn’t help that every person told me I was crazy. I had 850km of completely flat, semi-arid and mostly empty landscape ahead of me to the first town in Bolivia. Taking a photo goodbye I felt that same old tough feeling which is hard to describe. A sense of adventure welled up in me for the next stage, as did a longing for some normalcy in my life. Something predictable to hold onto is always a sneaking white rabbit for the long distance cyclist.
“Paraguay is a well-kept secret of South America; and its music is a passport to international recognition.” ~ Berta Rojas, Paraguayan Classical Guitarist
(Click below to listen to some of Berta Rojas beautiful classical guitar)
Setting out into the ‘Green Hell’ of the Chaco, as it has been dubbed by some, I quickly discovered it was very green but not as hellish as I thought it would be. The road was completely flat. I have been promised flat roads countless times on my journey, but they were all lies. This was the first time it was completely true. After the road behind, no amount of isolation could dampen my spirits.
On my first night into the Chaco I was looking for a place to camp. However, the sides of the road were all full of very tall grass or marshy land. The houses had disappeared and were taken over by massive cattle ranches that stretched way back into the distance. I could see disinterested cows grazing in between the palm trees to keep shade. It was very hot and I was ready to be off the road. Seeing an inviting looking ranch sign and a bench I pull off the road. I saw a man walking around a very long driveway back to the ranch and decided I’d ask to camp. I waved at him and after a moment he noticed me and began to approach. It took him about 5 minutes to get closer to me as I didn’t want to trespass before given permission so I remained there smiling. As the man got closer I realized he wasn’t carrying a stick, but a large shotgun. He had a bulletproof vest on and looked hardened. At this point returning to my bike and pedaling away would have been a poor choice and I knew at once the answer to my camping request would be a big fat no. I asked anyways and got the answer I was hoping for. No.
I bid a smiling farewell as he pointed down the road and claimed there was another place to camp. I tried not to look back as I rode, but he watched me until I was way out of sight. Whomever owned that ranch clearly did not want to be disturbed. I shrugged off my first failed attempt at camping and the next ranch welcomed me with open arms. I set up camp and fell into deep sleep until the rooster crowed the following morning. I awoke to a hoard of ants in my tent and danced like a crazy to shake them off me and out of my tent.
My days over the next week took a similar form as I plied across the flattest road to ever exist. Ride all day until a small village or gas station presented itself, stock up on supplies, mentally regroup and head back out into the green flat yonder. On one night one of the worst storms I have seen since Ethiopia descended upon me. It poured rain all night, blew my tent to pieces and I had a fitfully nightmarish sleep. Dreams of being swept away filled my moments of unconsciousness and my tent filled up with water. In the morning outside looked like a typhoon had hit and I was a personal disaster. I packed up my sopping wet things and set off to just get moving. My eyes kept closing on the road which had not seen a turn in a few days. The Chaco was now living up to the reputation I had heard of. However, the birdlife and butterflies were stunning. At times I found myself riding in nothing but butterflies. I felt like I was in some obscure Disney movie and the bottle trees looked like they were out of a Dr. Seuss book. I kept thinking of my favourite children’s book, ‘Oh, The Place You’ll Go’ and tried to remember the words as I rode. Back teaching Kindergarten in Sanya I used to read the book to my kids every few weeks, simply because I loved it so much.
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…” ~ Dr. Seuss, Writer
Just when I thought that I was riding my bike into the back end of nowhere, civilization began to emerge. Shops with more than just stale crackers or aging empanadas emerged. I was entering which can only be described as a civilization within a country. The Mennonite towns began. Back in the 1930’s Mennonites avoiding persecution came to Paraguay from Russia, Germany and Canada. They came with the promise of religious freedom and to colonize Paraguay’s empty western frontier. To read more about the successes, struggles and history of the Paraguayan Mennonites CLICK HERE.
I rolled into the Mennonite capital of Filadelfia and found an organized society. Roads were on a grid system, the co-op was bursting with good food and everything seemed to run smoothly in the dusty town. Out of nothing these people had built their own society with functioning banks, a post office, nice hotels and a museum. I decided to take a peek at the museum for curiosity sake. I was given a full tour of three sections of the museum and a colonial house from a nice lady. The motto of the town was printed on one of the the walls as “The common good before personal interest.” When the lady asked me where I was staying that night, I told her I would camp somewhere outside town. She insisted I stay and sleep in an empty nearby classroom instead. Always one for strange vagabond sleep locations, I was thrilled. A nice man named Norbert was the grounds keeper and gave me Wi-Fi. He was sleeping in a dormitory next to the classroom and we made some jokes about being neighbors. “Keep it down in there!”, I banged on the wall. He was a lighthearted man. Before going to sleep I scratched ONE ADVENTURE PLEASE on the chalkboard, while a nighttime driving school class took place next door. I could smell my shoes in the corner of the room as I drifted into sleep.
I said a slow goodbye to the nice people in the morning and set out on the last few hundred kilometres to Bolivia. After a days ride I encountered the number one worst section of road on my trip. Straight well maintained road degraded into the most bumpy, patchy and completely destroyed piece of road I have ever seen. There are no nice words for this stretch of road which was once flat tarmac. I am told that it was only good for the inauguration and deteriorated soon after with all money scooped off in corruption to build a mirage. When inquiring about the state of the road one man just said, “Ask the President.”
I bumped through a terribly physical and emotionally crushing day. At some points I entered pot holes that were as tall as my bike as the only traffic, heavy oil trucks from Bolivia, carved deeper holes to find a path through the madness. At one point I was cycling just in front of one of these tanker trucks for over an hour. We were traveling the same speed forever, until he hit a flatter stretch and showered me in dust. In the heat and rocking of the road my mind began to play tricks on me. I hadn’t seen any life for hours and began to imagine a Jaguar prowling the Chaco was stalking me. In the corner of my eye I saw something move and I jerked to life in fright. My bike flipped sideways and crashed across the rough road. My leg was cut and bleeding. I looked behind to see the supposed Jaguar was nothing but a rogue cow. I laughed to myself and felt so ridiculous. Back to reality I came and pressed on until the pavement reappeared.
That night I camped out on the edge of a police booth and patched up my leg. I found some old looking empanadas and ate seven while looking like a zombie on a plastic chair as I lethargically swatted at hundreds of mosquitoes. During my dinner a tapir came out of the bushes and tried to take my dinner. With its’ weird nose and huge body it lumbered after me. Even though it was my first time to ever see this strange animal, I was not amused. The locals then joked I was eating tapir empanadas. I laughed politely, didn’t really care and escaped to my tent. I had one more day left of riding to reach Bolivia and I was worn out. Two more days to reach the first town on the Bolivian side. I told myself I could do it. My nose was burnt bright red and my energy levels were low. I was tired of the same old pasta and it was a mental drain each day to push forward.
My last day was a push to the border. I felt slightly sick and was tired of the slog on straight roads. After a few hours I had barely seen any traffic until three strange images emerged from the flat yonder as some touring cyclists. We chatted for over an hour and shared some cookies. It was exactly what I needed to make it to the border. When I arrived all of the border security were taking a day off, as it was Sunday, to play the most obscure game of volleyball I have ever witnessed. No hands were allowed. It was amazing to watch. There is no actual immigration here, it is more of a military post than anything. I had stamped out of Paraguay about 3 days before in Mariscal as protocol dictated. I had effectively not been in any country officially for the last little while. The one guard asked me if I wanted to join them and before I knew it he showed me to a nice cold shower, while the guards barbecued a delicious dinner. A nice end to a wonderfully difficult adventure I thought to myself as I went to sleep on a mattress laid out for me.
The Gran Chaco will stand as one of the greatest mental challenges of this trip. Though the road may have been completely flat, it is not for the unprepared or beginner. The Chaco will test every inch of your resolve and spit you out if you’re not careful. All of that being said, Paraguay stands as one of my favourite countries on the journey. It was the challenge I needed to refocus my future goals. I have many wonderful stories of the people along the way that I cannot fully share here now. The Chaco rejuvenated my love for the wild and seldom explored reaches of our planet. It made me remember why I started this journey in the first place. It made me feel that life pumping energy you get from exploring the new and unknown. It made me think about all that I hold dear in my life and thankful for the strength of mind to persevere. All of this has changed me into someone that is more adaptive than I ever thought possible.
As I pedaled on into Bolivia I thought, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go…’
*We are off to an awesome start with the fundraising towards the new schoolhouse in Shuid, Ecuador. In only a few short weeks we have already raised over 1/4 of the money to build the new schoolhouse. Beautiful work! A big thank you goes out to St. Joseph’s School in Toledo as well as J.L. Jordan for all of their hard fundraising. Seeing kids helping kids is one of the most rewarding parts of this experience. I would also like to thank close family and friends for getting the ball rolling as well. You are all wonderful people! Please CLICK HERE TO DONATE
**I would like to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Last year I celebrated in India and a year later I am riding in Peru near the highest alpine lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. It is amazing where the world can take you. I am thankful for more things than I can count this holiday season. Updates on the beauty, struggle and challenge of Bolivia to come soon. Thank you for continuing to follow along!