Wednesday, 29 December 2010

59. Happy New Year from El Salvador

Happy New Year from El Salvador! Border crossings are becoming an almost daily occurence lately, having pedalled through southern Honduras after Nicaragua and following a quick foray across eastern El Salvador we'll cross into the western highlands of Honduras. Christmas was spent in the southern Honduran city of Choluteca, where Ellie nursed a throat infection for a couple of days and we got in our full quota of TV for the coming year in one weekend. Christmas lunch was a mountain of chow mein and fried noddles from the only person in town not celebrating Christmas and open for business. At midnight on Christmas eve, Choluteca rocked with explosions as hundreds of homemade fireworks were set alright in the streets. In fact they've been blasting away all week and I've been waiting to see someone drop a cigarette into the stacks of fireworks they're selling at the side of the road.

Crossing the border yesterday between Honduras and El Salvador at hot and dusty El Amatillo, we headed for the bustling market town of Santa Rosa de Lima before turning north into the Morazon department and the mountains. Tomorrow morning we'll finish the 20km climb to Perquin, a town that was one of  the strongholds of the FMLN guerillas during the civil war in the 1980s. We've found people very friendly as usual and today the police drove past as we were climbing up to Osicala and then reversed back with the lights flashing to ask us about the trip. Better than my last encounter with a Honduran policeman yesterday who was adamant I should be giving him a late Christmas present.

Wishing everyone tailwinds and downhills for 2011!

Osicala, El Salvador
Trip distance: 39,493 km

Monday, 20 December 2010

58. Trying to fletcherise in Nicaragua

We´ve spent the past ten days meandering up through western Nicaragua. Off the main roads, the pace of traffic has slowed down, with less cars, more bicycles, horses and ox-carts trundling along beside us. The rainy days of Costa Rica and Panama are behind us and we´re back camping under the filling moon. I´ve lots to write but I´m also hungry and tomorrow we leave for the Honduras border, so instead I´ll cheat and cut and paste a poem by the national bard, Rubén Darío, founder of Spanish-American literary movement known as modernismo in the late 19th century. The poem was a reaction to the involvement of the United States in the separation of Panama and Colombia that subsequently allowed the US to construct the Panama canal and retain jurisdiction over the Canal Zone until the last decade.

To Roosevelt by Rubén Darío (translated by L. Kemp)

The voice that would reach you, Hunter, must speak
in Biblical tones, or in the poetry of Walt Whitman.
You are primitive and modern, simple and complex;
you are one part George Washington and one part Nimrod.
You are the United States,
future invader of our naive America
with its Indian blood, an America
that still prays to Christ and still speaks Spanish.

You are strong, proud model of your race;
you are cultured and able; you oppose Tolstoy.
You are an Alexander-Nebuchadnezzar,
breaking horses and murdering tigers.
(You are a Professor of Energy,
as current lunatics say).

You think that life is a fire,
that progress is an irruption,
that the future is wherever
your bullet strikes.

The United States is grand and powerful.
Whenever it trembles, a profound shudder
runs down the enormous backbone of the Andes.
If it shouts, the sound is like the roar of a lion.
And Hugo said to Grant: "The stars are yours."
(The dawning sun of the Argentine barely shines;
the star of Chile is rising..) A wealthy country,
joining the cult of Mammon to the cult of Hercules;
while Liberty, lighting the path
to easy conquest, raises her torch in New York.

But our own America, which has had poets
since the ancient times of Nezahualcóyolt;
which preserved the footprint of great Bacchus,
and learned the Panic alphabet once,
and consulted the stars; which also knew Atlantic
(whose name comes ringing down to us in Plato)
and has lived, since the earliest moments of its life,
in light, in fire, in fragrance, and in love--
the America of Moctezuma and Atahualpa,
the aromatic America of Columbus,
Catholic America, Spanish America,
the America where noble Cuauthémoc said:
"I am not in a bed of roses"--our America,
trembling with hurricanes, trembling with Love:
O men with Saxon eyes and barbarous souls,
our America lives. And dreams. And loves.
And it is the daughter of the Sun. Be careful.
Long live Spanish America!
A thousand cubs of the Spanish lion are roaming free.
Roosevelt, you must become, by God's own will,
the deadly Rifleman and the dreadful Hunter
before you can clutch us in your iron claws.

And though you have everything, you are lacking one thing:

 On Ometepe island

Preparations are underway for next year´s presidential election. This poster is for incumbent Daniel Ortega of the FSLN (Sandinista), most of them are.

At the market in Granada

Mural painter in Granada

Morning time in the central highlands

Watering cans

Ellie crossing a stream near Ciudad Dario

A christmas tree in front of Leon´s cathedral

Portrait of General Sandino at the monument to the Nicaraguan revolution in Leon

Leon, Nicaragua
Pedaled: 39,146 km

Sunday, 5 December 2010

57. Cruising through Costa Rica

Palmar Norte

Eight days of cycling brought us north from the Paso Canoas borderpost, along the steamy Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The busy, shoulderless Pan-Americana gave way to smaller coastal roads through the Ballena national park and up to the resort of Jaco.  Much of the property on the coast has been bought up by North Americans and large billboards advertise new gated communities with a choice of either ocean or forest views.  Those engaged in the tourist trade are gearing up for the holidays when wealthy Josefinos and foreigners descend on Costa Rica's coast. Others, who live in the wooden shacks on the floodplains on the periphery of these resorts were still cleaning up the damage that had been caused a month ago when the tailend of Hurricane Tomas resulted in severe flooding and a declared state of national emergency. Hospitality at tico firestations has been as exemplary as their Panamanian counterparts and we were always able to pitch our tent, often amid the relief supplies that had been sent in for the floods.

Racing the tortoise

Before continuing up to Guanacaste province and the border with Nicaragua, we take a detour on some steep gravel roads up to the cooler heights of Monteverde on the westward side of the Cordillera de Tilaran, home to a Quaker settlement since the 1950s when they moved from Alabama to avoid being conscripted to fight in the Korean War. The area is also home the Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve, a ten and a half thousand hectare reserve of tropical rainforest of immense biological diversity.

Near Ballena national park 

Climbing up to Santa Elena at 1400 metres 

Hummingbird at Monteverde Cloudforest Preserve

Santa Elena, Costa Rica
Trip distance: 38,535 km

Saturday, 20 November 2010

56. Pirates of the Caribbean - la segunda parte...

Our last night in Colombia and we lay on the deck of the sailing boat that was going to bring us across this corner of the Caribbean to Panama. Earlier we had covered the bikes in a plastic sheet and lashed them to the railings with lots of rope and large, unsailorlike knots. Cranes were busy loading containers onto a ship in the port, while the gentle swell lapped against the side of our moored home for the next seven days. The city lights cast a yellow glow that faded as the rain moved down from the hills and into the harbour while the sound of the urban bustle barely reached our fibreglass island - an 8-berth catamaran that the captain believed could comfortably accommodate 18 passengers.

Calm waters - sunrise on Day 2

Morning time and several more passengers had arrived during the night and were already mid-way through the coffeepot and cereal. Studying the eating habits of our fellow inmates, it quickly became apparent that in order to assure yourself of some breakfast you would have to be poised mug and bowl in hand. Missing, however, were the two Africans whom the captain had taken a deposit from. An irate immigration official informed our captain that there were two forged passports in the bundle that he had dropped off at the immigration office to clear us out of Colombia. Our French captain feigned surprise to the official but told us about his doubts beforehand - neither of the two young men could speak French, despite traveling on French passports. The immigration official, indicated that for a price, he was willing to stamp the two forged passports with exit stamps as he was happy to burden some other country's immigration with the hassle of processing the forged passports and their holders. The captain went and paid some money, got the passports back, but then as his ship was listed in the passports he decided to throw them overboard and merely informed the two young men, whom appeared to be from Sierra Leone,  that they'd better run because the authorities were looking for them. So with eleven passengers and three crew on board and a day later than expected we set sail for Panama.

El Porvenir - immigration and customs post at Kuna Yala, Panama

Our boat was bound first for Kuna Yala (also known as the San Blas islands), an archipelago of 365 islands, off eastern Panama's Carribean coast. Billed as a tropical paradise for wealthy visitors, the low-lying islands, surrounded by stunning, life-sustaining coral reefs and inhabited by the Kuna face a direct threat from any  future rise in sea-level. Meanwhile, tourism is big business on the islands and passing sailing boats and chartered cruisers lie in the sheltered bays beside the palm leaf homesteads. After leaving Cartagena, the wind failed to pick up and we were forced to motor the entire 200 nautical miles to Kuna Yala, a  rolling 50-hour journey that had most of us retreat to different corners of the deck.

Where do old American school buses go before they die?
Our arrival in El Porvenir, a sandy atoll complete with palm trees and green coconuts, marked the official entry point into Panama. Ironically, one of the most picturesque of any recent border crossings could have become the most problematic when our captain was told by the rotund Panamanian immigration official that they had received a tip-off that he had clandestinos onboard. Everyone then paraded in front of the immigration official in various states of undress when their name was called out. A moment of confusion when the immigration official thought that it was the Irish passports that were fake, more explanations and then finally we all got stamped in.

A container ship coming down the Panama Canal through the Gauillard Cut

All of our fellow passengers disembarked at Carti in Kuna Yala, catching a four-wheel drive taxi to Panama city. We had opted, however, for one last sailing leg up to Puerto Lindo, closer to Colon and the entrance to the Panama canal. The captain assured us the voyage would be rougher than the previous days and once we were out from behind the protection of the reefs the boat lurched wildly in the turbulent seas. The captain would need his full concentration for the 12-hour night voyage and began fortifying himself with marijuana and rum. Heavy rain drove us inside, Ellie and I lying on the floor beside the amplier in a nauseous stupour. I awoke to a crescendo of rolling waves and deafening techno music in the middle of the night, our wild eyed captain snorting lines of cocaine off his main instrument panel. I sought sanctuary in our confined cabin as the music evolved into what Ellie later described as "inverted helicopter blades with alien noises being crunched through them".
Sunrise at Guadalupe firestation

At ten o'clock the following morning, we stood by a small kiosk in the village of Puerto Lindo, still feeling very wobbly and trying to settle our still-rolling stomachs with crisps and lemonade before setting off on the bikes for Portobelo and on to Panama city via the Panama canal at Pedro Miguel locks. After a day off in Panama city we headed out on the Panamerican highway, for several days riding west towards the Costa Rican border. Most nights we found ourselves camping at firestations along the way, always being told we could stay as long as we wished. Our intention was to get off the Panamerican highway just before David and head north across the mountains to the Caribbean coast and the Bocas del Toro province, before continuing on into Costa Rica.

After a day climbing up the mountains, we were making a steep descent before some more climbing. I had arrived at a police checkpoint and had my passport checked and was waiting for Ellie to appear around the bend behind me, having just been visible before in my mirror. A passing car, however, motioned to me and told the police that there was something wrong. I headed back up the hill and found Ellie sitting by the side of the road, being helped by some passing Canadians, amid scattered panniers and a twisted bike. Ellie had  lost control on the corner on the fast descent and almost escaped without injury by going over the handlebars into the soft ditch but her left leg had gotten caught and twisted in the bike. A couple of pickup trucks stopped, the convoy of the mayor of Boquete, and we were offered a lift to the hospital in David. We  lifted Ellie into the front seat and piled the bikes and gear into the back and after a  45-minute hair-raising drive back down the mountain, with Ellie winching at the pain of every pothole we bumped over, we were in the emergency room of the regional hospital in David where painkillers were injected, an xray of her leg taken and her wounds cleaned. Three hours later the friendly doctor told Ellie that the xray was ok and she'd just have to take rest for the muscle damage. Two days since the crash and Ellie is shuffling well though still with some pain. So now we're resting up at a hostel in David, doing some therapy through television, and hope to be back pedaling soon.

David, Panama
Trip distance: 38,066 km

Thursday, 28 October 2010

55. Pirates of the Caribbean

Last Sunday we rolled and splashed our way into Cartagena de Indias. Once upon a time the principal port of the Spanish empire in the New World, where the region´s wealth was drained through enroute to the Spanish mainland. This wealth also attracted a lot of interest from sailing privateers and the English buccaneer, Sir Francis Drake, famously laid siege to the city for over one hundred days in 1586. Following Drake´s withdrawal fortifications were built to protect the city from future attacks and the old walls still ring the old city.

While the picturesque old city is home to most of the preserved colonial architecture and museums, most of the city´s population lives in the surrounding modern concrete jungle. As we rode through the flooded Sunday morning streets last weekend, drain covers surfing the gushing outflow of rainwater and sewage, some raggedly dressed, barefooted entrepreneurs got some coins by laying wooden pallets and planks across the flooded streets so pedestrians could navigate their way across the road without taking their shoes off.

Cartagena is the end of the road for us in Colombia and South America. The Pan-american highway fails to live up to its name in the dense and troubled rainforest of the Darien Gap, the border region between Panama and Colombia, where the highway is broken for over 80 kilometres. Many obstacles have led to the completion of the intercontinental route through the Darien Gap, including environmental opposition to the destruction of more rainforest, protecting the livelihoods of indigenous groups inhabitating the area, and a belief that a finished highway would lead to easier overland routes for drug traffickers to use. It has also been argued that the Darien provides a natural boundary for foot and mouth disease that is prevalent in South America from being able to travel north. In recent years, the border area itself has become particularly unsafe for visitors with FARC, paramilitiaries and the Colombian government all trying to control the area.

Prior to the conflict in Colombia affecting the safety of the area since the 1990s, numerous attempts were made to cross the Darien. The first crossing by four-wheel drive in 1959 left Chepo in Panama and took 136 days to reach Quibdo in Colombia on 17 June 1960 - with an average of 201 metres per hour. The first fully overland wheeled crossing (others were using boats to travel up rivers and across swamps) was by the late British cyclist Ian Hibell, who rode from Cape Horn to Alaska between 1971 and 1973, and crossed the Darien with two New Zealand cyclists, Gary Bishop and John Bakewell. The video clip below shows some rare footage of the journey they made and the conditions they faced.

Instead of attempting to follow in Hibell´s tyre tracks, however, we´re settling for the hopefully more sedate option that most overlanders choose these days, namely taking a sailing boat from Cartagena across to the San Blas islands and then on to the Panama mainland where we´ll start pedalling again in a week or two.

Cartagena, Colombia
Trip distance: 37,439 km

Sunday, 17 October 2010

54. Out of the Andes and into the adjectival rain

After seven memorable months of cycling over, along and beside the Andes, a few days brought us over the last of the high passes and a long descent to the sultry, sodden lowlands on the banks of the muddy Cauca. For Ellie the first days of the bike (check out for her take), cycling up 9000 ft passes and dealing with altitude and a loaded touring bike were somewhat a pedalling baptism of fire, but she coped very well and still smiled momentarily at the end of each day before passing out. We both read Peter Carey's The True History of the Ned Kelly Gang in the past few days and so everything is adjectival this and adjectival that.

The descent to the lowlands also saw a rise in the number of military and police checkpoints and a larger display of firepower. Caucasia, the town where I´m writing this, first appears as a relatively bedraggled yet sedate capital of the Bajo Cauca region, lying alongside the swollen river. Yet while many talk about the violence and troubles of Colombia as being a thing of the past, this town and the surrounding area has become an increasingly important strategic city for the warring groups of drug traffickers who wish to control the smuggling routes along the river. According to Michael Deibert's recent article the groups regularly distribute anonymous pamphlets that issue death threats to a particular group's enemies and often use young teenagers to carry out grenade attacks, with 76 people killed in the Bajo Cauca area in the first six months of the year. With political ideologies put aside,  far left-wing paramilitary groups such as FARC cooperate with local criminal gangs and former right-wing paramilitary groups, the former protecting the cultivation process of coca in the surrounding mountains and the latter organising the distribution of the drug. Ok, well there endeth another rant.

Another week or so will bring us to Cartagena and the Caribbean coast... and if you thought the sodden Celtic Isles were wet check out the chart below...

Average annual rainfall for London, Bogota, Cartagena and Medellin

Caucasia, Colombia
Pedalled: 37,022 kilometres

Monday, 4 October 2010

53. Back in Medellin

"Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia." H.G. Wells

Nothing to do with cycle tracks, but this grumpy-looking fella was in Medellin's aquarium

The ciclovia or 'bike path' event emerged in Colombia's capital, Bogota, in the mid-70s as a way of encouraging citizens out on their skates or bicycles on Sunday mornings. For several hours each week, sections of motorways around the capital were closed off to traffic. Today, Bogota's ciclovia is over 120 kilometres long and each Sunday an estimated 2 million people get to experience tarmac that is only congested with the sound of meandering skaters and cyclists. The concept has since spread to many cities around the world.

Why do they all look in the same direction?

On Saturday evening as Seamus, Ellie and myself prepared for a night out in nearby El Poblado, I momentarily disappeared to the bedroom, only to be woken up at 5am by the voices of Ellie and Seamus who had just returned from El Poblado's dancefloors. An hour later the sun was rising on what promised to be another sunny day in Medellin and after the others had gone for a snooze, I pumped up Rocinante's tyres and rode through Envigado to the main Route 25 (the Pan-Am highway) that runs north-south, dividing the valley that Medellin lies in. One side of the highway was closed off to accommodate the ciclovia and although still early, many cyclists were already out on an assortment of bikes from flashy racing bikes with sleek lycra-clad riders with serious faces to rusty old mountain bikes with banana-shaped wheels. As I rode towards the city centre I passed young entrepreneurs sitting on the kerbside with a bicycle pump and an assortment of bicycle spares prominently displayed, ready to jump to the aid of any troubled cyclist. Vendors had parked their carts under the shade of trees or overpasses and were pressing fresh orange juice. I reached the northern suburb of Bello before returning to Envigado, happy for being reunited with Rocinante and also glad to have found a good way to make our escape from the city next weekend, the only other option being a 30km climb with a 2000 metre gain in elevation, not the easiest way to be initiated into cycle touring.


Ellie and I met in Bolivia several months ago and spent a month visiting the Amazon basin and hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru. In a moment of beer-induced euphoria she told me she would love to come cycling with me. Yet she still left to fly to England. However, five months later, having chased her the eight thousand miles to Brighton, made a visit home to Ireland, we were Colombia-bound. We landed back into Medellin airport on Thursday evening and after successfully navigating our way through Colombian immigration and customs we were soon squashed into a taxi with Ellie in the back, asleep on her unchristened bike, and me left chatting with the apparently mute taxi driver whilst we wound our way back to Seamus' apartment in Envigado.

So now there are two. Next weekend we plan to start pedaling from Medellin towards Cartagena and the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia before crossing by boat to Panama.

Medellin, Colombia
Pedalled: 36,714 kilometres

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

52. Two years on in Colombia

The thrill that accompanies an international border crossing was beginning to subside when one of three Colombian policemen motioned me over to the side of the road, just north of the bordertown of Ipiales. More closely resembling a small artillery unit in appearance than your average bobbies on the beat, the burly olive drab clad officers cracked some jokes about smuggling contraband on bicycles before offering me some of the loot that they were about to help themselves to from the rear of a deeply-dented Chevrolet that was overloaded with cheaper Ecuadorian foodstuffs. I declined the offer of some smuggled sardines whilst looking at the expressionless face of the driver who was clearly used to hassle from the police and factored in their petty theft to his profit and loss calculations.

Pigeon chasing Popayan

The Pan-American highway winds its way northwards over the verdant and unrelenting landscape of the Cordillera Central, rising and falling from chilly 3000-metre passes to the humid, soporific, fertile valleys at 500 metres and back again. I managed to time my arrival in Colombia to coincide with some unseasonally wet weather. A minor inconvenience for me but which I later learned has led to at least fifty deaths throughout the country and a lot of homes being damaged and crops destroyed. I passed through Pasto and went on to the small colonial city of Popayan for a three-day break off the saddle. Whenever I have been near a cable TV since arriving in South America ten months ago, Colombia's ministry of tourism continuously reminded me "that the only risk is wanting to stay", backed up with a beautiful montage of the country's diverse landscapes designed to rebrand the country's long tarnished image. 


Apart from the odd military patrol and the friendly sentries guarding the bridges from sabotage along the Pan-American highway, there is little sense to the passing cyclist of the war that is still being waged amongst the confusing array of parties that includes the national security forces, left-wing guerrilla groups such as FARC and the ELN and right-wing paramilitaries - all deeply divided ideologically yet united with the underlying common denominator of profiteering from coca leaf production and the cocaine trade. As long as the eager party-goers in wealthier nations continue to fork out silly sums of cash for snorting some powder off the top of a toilet, countries like Colombia and Mexico will continue to be pulled apart with the violence, corruption and political instability that accompanies the illegal drugs trade. Caught in the middle are the primarily rural populations who attempt to carry on living amidst the different factions. In yesterday's Herald Scotland, Julia Horton details the impact of a recent landmine explosion on one man's life in her article on the "Human cost of Colombia's cocaine wars".

Many Colombians I have met over the past couple of weeks are justifiably happy with the improved security that they have experienced in the last decade. Beginning in the mid-90s with a decline in the corruptive power and stranglehold of the Medellin and Cali drug cartels and more recently with military successes against the largest guerrilla organisation, FARC, and with increased military and financial support from the USA under Plan Colombia, the recent administrations have managed to greatly reduce the levels of violence that were being experienced during the previous years. Despite a lack of success in curbing cocaine production through aggressive tactics such as aerial fumigation - a tactic that often leaves rural producers short not just of a coca harvest but also food supplies when their other crops are damaged in the process and provides them with no alternative livelihood strategy to turn to - USA's Plan Colombia has at least, as a somewhat unintended byproduct, been successful in supporting Colombia's security forces and reducing overall violence, although the security forces' attention is disproportionately focused on the left-wing guerrillas rather than the demobilised paramilitaries who historically have been tolerated by and covertly supported by the security forces and continue to "operate in vast areas of Colombia and are responsible for massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, as well as drug trafficking. Their targets have included human rights defenders, trade unionists, and ordinary citizens who speak out and resist involvement in criminal activity",  according to Human Rights Watch.
Independence day, Salento

Of course, all this is quite far from the Colombia I experienced.  And the ministry of tourism is right, probably the only risk is wanting to stay. I had a break in quaint and tourist haunted Salento, in the middle of the coffee zone where I stayed on a coffee farm for a few nights and witnessed the sombre  military parades for Colombia's 200 years of independence celebrations. In a one finger salute to the bicentennial celebrations, indigenous rights groups organised marches that occurred the following day in Bogota, protesting against the US-Colombia military pacts, the continued harmful exploitation of their lands and resources  and demanding to be effectively represented in the political structure.  

From Salento I covered the remaining 250 km to Medellin through more mountainous and spectacular scenery and now I am staying with Seamus, an old friend from Wickla, who will mind Rocinante while I take a two month cycling sabbatical and fly back to Europe, before returning to Colombia to continue northwards. Medellin is a city that has undergone a radical rebirth in recent years since the infamous days of the world's most famous drug-lord, Pablo Escobar, who ran the hugely powerful Medellin drug cartel, who at their height were estimated to be trafficking 15 tons of cocaine per day into the USA. Escobar is still a very controversial figure in terms of the veneration he is held with by many for his contributions to housing projects, church construction and sports venues in the poor barrios of Medellin, as well as being remembered for a cultivating a ruthlessly violent culture in his pursuit for dominance of the extremely lucrative cocaine trade. By the end of the 1980s the ongoing turf wars between different drug cartels led to the city becoming known as the most violent city in the world. In 1991 alone, 6500 people were murdered in the city. Finally, however, by the early 1990s pressure was on the Colombian government both internally and externally to move against the drug cartels and in 1993 Escobar was killed in a shoot-out with police in Medellin. Over the following years the murder rates subsided by over 80% and under several different visionary administrations Medellin went through a physical and cultural rebirth that has seen the city being transformed into a icon of urban and social development and is frequently used as a model by planners and administrations in other cities troubled by gang warfare and drug trafficking. 

Medellin at night

Social transformation, however, ain't quick and easy. In 2008 the former paramilitary leader, Don Berna, was extradicted to the USA to face charges of money laundering and drug trafficking, a power vacuum was left that has resulted in a rapid escalation in violence in the city's poorer barrios since, with soaring murder rates that doubled in 2009 to 2,186 and has already seen over 1000 killed in the first few months of this year, in a city of 3.5 million people. After getting a taste of Saturday nightlife in the vibrant and affluent barrio of El Poblado on Saturday night, we headed out on Sunday afternoon and took a ride on the metro and new cable car to an ecological park above the city where we met many Colombians making their annual visit home from the US or Europe and who love to hear their city and country of birth being praised. The cable car passed over the barrio of Santo Domingo and one of the stops is at the new Spain Library, a dramatic piece of architecture that is part of the city's plan to invest "the greatest amount of resources, of the highest quality and aesthetic excellence in the poorest and most violent parts of the city" according to Angela Sanchez, with a specific focus on education. While there's still a great sense of hope it's also obvious that Medellin's past will continue to haunt it and for the unemployed youth in the poor communes on the hillsides above the city, involvement in la violencia and the control of the drugs trade represents one of a very limited number of options available for them to pursue.

Medellin, Colombia
Pedalled: 36,663 kilometres

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

51. Over the Ecuador

A couple of days out of Cuenca and Klaus' leg infection was troubling him again, so after packing up our tents at the back of a petrol station I headed on while Klaus scored a lift to Riobamba and got a bus to Quito, in time for his flight home. Klaus had spent the previous couple of days managing to continue cycling by truck surfing up to the top of the big climbs as we wound our way through Ecuador's central highland region. Hanging on to the back of these slow moving diesel trucks was tough on the arms though, with the ascents so steep that the bike and rider were being effectively dragged upwards and on our last climb out of Alausi, Klaus caught onto the back of a truck that I had been hanging on to but had to let go of. Klaus was caught by a piece of metal jutting out from the truck and sent into the ditch a couple of kilometres up the road. So we revised our strategy of truck surfing and it was back to the traditional method of pedalling to get up these steep hills.

 Mulalo village

The importance of a good map was emphasised when I met Joe, an American cyclist, in Latacunga a few days back. Suddenly new options opened up before me and I was able to detour off the increasingly busy Pan-American highway and pedal via the Cotopaxi national park and avoid the traffic congested roads around Quito. After a night on the park ranger's floor I crossed back into the northern hemisphere yesterday, stopping at the monument that Quisato, an interesting research project, has built to mark the equator. The south didn't let me go too easily though, for when I went to pick my bike up off the equator after posing for an obligatory shot I found a nail in my rear tyre.

 Cotopaxi volcano

After another day's ride on a busy road to Cayambe, it was back on the friendly cobblestone backroads to Ibarra, where I took today off and had breakfast. Then another breakfast. Then a trip to the bustling market for an almuerzo of beef soup and beef, lentils and rice. Bought some papaya and bananas for tomorrow's breakfast and went online while more unseasonal rain fell. Finished reading The Gangs of New York and then walked a couple of kilometres to the supermarket. The friendly hostal owner pointed out a number of interesting nearby attractions that are worth cycling too, but as is often the case on a day off, I wasn't able to get beyond the essentials of food, books and some internet and shudder slightly at the thought of cycling anywhere. Tomorrow I leave for the day's ride to the Colombia post border at Tulcan. As with Peru there's a lot more of Ecuador left to explore but I'll have to wait until the next lap. I have a flight booked from Medellin in Colombia at the end of July to make a visit back to Ireland for a couple of months, whilst Rocinante is put out to pasture on coffee and coca leaves.

The equator
Ibarra, Ecuador
Pedalled: 35,650 km

Friday, 25 June 2010

50. Going bananas in Ecuador

Heinz Stucke's entry in the guestbook at Casa Amistad, Trujillo, Peru. Heinz left Germany in 1962 and has been pedaling ever since. Between 1962 and 2006 he rode 539,000 kilometres in 192 countries. He's still cycling...

The Casa Amistad (friendship house), the original Casa del Ciclistas in Latin America, has been providing a refuge for cyclists since the mid-80s when an Italian biking enthusiast living in Trujillo, northern Peru, began hosting passing cyclists. Already five guestbooks have been filled and I was guest number 1333. Lucho and his family have been managing the house for the past twenty years or so and as a former professional cyclist and a bicycle mechanic he provides invaluble support to those passing north or south along the Pan-American highway. I brought him the first ever Shimano chainring he had encountered that didn't fit the Shimano cranks I have but after much filing and reminiscing over the 2000 Tour de France and more filing, Rocinante had a new chainring. I spent two days wandering about Trujillo and making regular forays to the nearby market for plates of ceviche, a local dish of raw fish marinated in lemon or bitter orange juice.

Two Colombians, an Argentinian and an Irishman outside Casa Amistad... 
leaving Trujillo, Peru 17th June

As I left Trujillo, Lucho warned me about one town, Paijan (pronounced pie-han), 50 km to the north along the Pan-Am highway whose young moto-taxi rogues appear to have developed a fondness for relieving passing cyclists of their belongings. Warnings become so frequent that one tends to dismiss them in order to maintain sanity and I had previously thought that Paijan was only a problem in the distant past, but recent entries in the guestbook at Casa Amistad proved this was not the case. Most problems have occured when cyclists have stopped in the town and then given time for a posse of young moto-taxi drivers to organise themselves and rob the cyclist on the outskirts of town. Lucho's advise was pretty simple. Don't stop. Ride very fast. To give more protection he called his friend there and arranged that I would phone him from the previous town and he would cycle with me through the town. The final strategy, which some cyclists have used with some success, was to have the police escort me out of town past the stretch where most of the robberies have taken place.

Rocinante outside the Casa de Ciclista in Chiclayo, Peru

So I said goodbye to Lucho and the other guests at Casa Amistad, passport and valubles buried deep in the four corners of Rocinante's panniers, apprehensive but confident that enough fail-safes had been put in place. At the first toll-booth on the Pan-Am, north of Trujillo, three smiling police officers motioned me to pull over and asked where I was from, where I was going and had Ireland made it to South Africa. Everyone with a passing interest in football seems to have heard of the France-Ireland qualifier and Henry's mano de dios and there was much sympathy. Without prompting they told me not to worry about the road ahead, everything was tranquillo and they would radio ahead to each of the police controls, which occured every few kilometres to let them know I was coming. In the town before Paijan, I called Lucho's friend but I was later than had anticipated and his friend was already in work. I told him not to worry, that the police seemed to be helpful and everything would be alright. I pedaled on towards Paijan, using my new mirror to watch the moves of moto-taxis and past a couple of more friendly police controls. The town of Paijan itself only lasts for about three kilometres along the highway and had it not been for Lucho's warnings would have appeared like any  other Peruvian highway town, dusty and ramshackled but overall fairly friendly. Instead the whistles from groups of young mototaxi drivers lounging about on the roadside became aggressive and threatening in my mind. With a slight downhill and strong tailwind I cruised along at over 30 kph, overtaking mototaxis and weaving between buses. No smiles, no waves, just get me back in the desert please. On the outskirts a  police car loomed into view ahead, the last police control. I pulled over and began the idle chat before asking the police to escort me out of town, as Lucho had told me to do. The chief of police had also told Lucho that cyclists should do this. The officers agreed it was a dangerous stretch of road but said they needed money for petrol if they were going to escort me. The one who was looking for petrol money began asking me about what I was carrying on the bike. Since there was evidence that in previous robberies, the police may have been acting together with the robbers, I was vague on details and again tried to drop names like Lucho's and the chief of police. Eventually they agreed they'd follow me out of town to make sure I wasn't followed by the mototaxis. As I rode on though, the jeep sat stationary and never followed me. A few kilometres out of town, I began to relax as Lucho had assured me that it was only on the immediate outskirts that the robberies had taken place. Ten, fifteen, twenty kilometres. On we rolled. Fifty kilometres later we pulled up at the nice surfing town of Pacasmayo.

Crossing the Sechura desert in northern Peru

While the rest of the world sat down and became engrossed in the World Cup I pedaled north towards Ecuador. From Chiclayo to Piura, lay a barren 220 km across the Sechura desert. This was luxury desert though, with restaurants every 20 or 30 km, serving filling almuerzos for about a euro and fridges stocked with an endless variety of cold drinks. On my final night in Peru I pulled up outside a police station that was sited on the beach about 65 km before the border crossing. I asked if I could pitch my tent. I was initially told this wasn't a hotel but after a few minutes of watching world cup highlights and asking about the trip, I was given a seat. Later I sat and watched as the three officers on duty set up a checkpoint outside the station and appeared to pull people at random off buses and taxis to check their IDs. Over a bowl of delicious fish soup that one of the officers had cooked that morning, I was told that things were much better in Fujimori's time, a sentiment I have often heard along the Pan-American about the former president's decade in office during the turbulent 1990s. He is currently serving a 32-year prison sentence for human rights abuses and embezzlement charges.

Things get green and sweaty in Ecuador

I crossed into Ecuador over the new Puente de la Paz and eventually found the poorly signposted migration office. Apparently bananas need passports too because as soon as the sandy, barren terrain of Peru ends, a tropical garden of Eden begins in Ecuador, with banana plantations lined up at the borderline like an invading army in wait. Klaus and his bicycle were standing outside the migration office and since we were both heading for Quito, we agreed to cycle together for the next few days. After a night in Santa Rosa we passed through the banana plantations around Pasaje. Del Monte. Dole. Household names at home and this is where it all starts. The surrounding villages and towns were pretty grim places really and I wonder what pay a worker on a banana plantation here receives. In the market Klaus bought ten bananas for 50 US cent, the US dollar being legal tender here in Ecuador since the collapse of the sucre. We began the climb out of the sweltering coastal lowlands as we turned east and headed for Cuenca and the Andean highlands. Halfway to Santa Isabel, however, and we had to load Klaus and his bike onto the back of a pickup truck as an infection in his leg was spreading and a nurse at a village clinic said he should go to the hospital in Santa Isabel. I continued climbing and by nightfall was just a few kilometres from Santa Isabel. I asked in a house on the roadside if I could set up home in their front yard. The friendly lady showed me to a place behind some trucks and offered me use of the outdoor shower and toilet, which was very much appreciated after the dodgy rice and chicken lunch that I had earlier in the day. The guard dogs were fairly sensitive to any movement, however, and were repeatedly breaking into hysterics during the night at any roll of the sleeping bag. I was sent off in the morning with a wave and a bunch of bananas.


Failing to find Klaus the following morning in Santa Isabel but receiving his email that he had been treated and would be heading for Cuenca, I headed on for the last 80 km up to the highland metropolis. The third largest city in Ecuador and the suspected site of the mystical city of gold, El Dorado, Cuenca lies amid verdant green pastures full of milking cows at a pleasant altitude of 2500 metres. Getting here involved climbing some steep hills up past the mountain towns of Santa Isabel and Giron but 25 km before the city, the road leveled out and I was able to make it by nightfall yesterday.

Village in Ecuador, near Pasaje

Back into the Andes - climbing to Cuenca

Near Cuenca, Ecuador

Cuenca, Ecuador
Pedalled: 34,945 kilometres

Sunday, 13 June 2010

49. Blowin' in the wind

Six hundred and eighty-six days since leaving home and I awoke on my thirtieth birthday to a tent being buffetted by what I confidently presumed was the prevailing southerly that is blowing me up to Ecuador. Well almost blowing me up. With Rocinante loaded, I pushed us back through the sand to the tarmac, trucks and kamikazi taxi drivers already plying the highway in the dull morning dawn, thick clouds only allowing a hint of sunlight through. Ten kilometres on a couple of eating houses stood in a ramshackle pile around a junction. Plastic bags fluttered by and to paraphrase Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, "there's nothing like the smell of piss in the morning". Breakfast was tea and a small hill of spaghetti and lomo saltado. Fortunately for the happy pedalist, portion control has yet to arrive in Peru. A friendly truck driver insisted I have half of his fish, and unbeknownst to him I received my one and only birthday present. It tasted delicious.

The following day I left Nazca early and headed north on the Pan-Americana. Deeming a flight over the lines a luxury I couldn't afford, I settled for the small viewing tower 25 km north of the town. Only two of the famous geoglyphs are visible from the viewing tower and the ten-minute experience was frankly rather underwhelming. A bellowing North American voice summed up my more reserved first impression, "Is that it?". The lines were created by the Nazca culture between 200 BCE and 700 CE by removing the reddish coloured stones and uncovering the paler ground beneath. Theories as to the purpose of the lines has varied from a combination of astronomical and religious practices to runways that served another highly advanced culture and their flying machines, the former gaining more widespread support but the question is still contentious. In any case, I think a flight is probably necessary to gain a better appreciation of the site. I plugged the music back in and continued north.

Nazca lines

On the outskirts of Ica a group of women were gathering around a taxi after a day labouring in the fields. I was asking the taxi driver directions and the women started asking questions about the trip. How long? How old? When they found out it was my birthday the day before they searched for a present and pooled a pile of the pecan nuts that they had been collecting and poured them into my pannier. They had spent hours harvesting fairly meagre piles of their own and here they were giving me a substantial portion of them. They passed by in the taxi further down the road shouting whoop whoops out the window and offering one of their daughters.

Melville, near Ica

Six o'clock Sunday morning and I rode through Ica with people still stumbling out of the nightclubs. A stall on the street corner was serving chicken and spaghetti soup with egg and coriander. A few kilometres of town and Melville, an off-duty policeman, pulled up alongside me and kept me going at a slightly too brisk clip at this hour of the morning. He told me the areas to ride through swiftly, the parts of the road ahead with no shoulder and wished me luck as he turned around to head back to Ica. Later on after riding past the outskirts of Pisco, I got my first puncture in the 6000-odd kilometres since Mendoza (where I had replaced my worn-out Marathon XRs with a new set). I pulled off the busy highway to a shack where a father was playing with his two young children. The kids stared at the show while the father carefully supervised my puncture repair techniques, pointing out when I was doing something he didn't like. Somewhat worringly it wasn't anything that had punctured the tyre, but some of the beading that was starting to poke through very slightly in one place. The kids gave me sugar-coated peanuts they were eating and I thanked them with a pile of fruit that had been maturing on the back of the bike.

I wasn't particularly enamoured by the thought of traversing Lima, capital of Peru and with eight million souls, one of the largest cities encountered in the past two years on the bike. I left Canete as dawn tried to break through the fine drizzle and made good time on the 140 km towards the city centre. First came the playgrounds of the rich, the gambling town of Asia and its luxury resorts. Then a gradual deterioration as I neared Lima. Shacks lay precariously pinned to the sides of colossal sand dunes. Many inhabitants of Lima's poorer districts having come from the mountains, displaced by the violent uprisings during the 1980s that repeatedly threatened to topple the government. On into central Lima and soon I found myself along palm-lined avenues, homes and businesses protected from the dune people by steel fencing and armed guards. Every possible North American fast food outlet lined the main drag, Avenue Bemvides, in the genteel suburb of San Antonio. I arrived at a hostel and was dumbfounded at the price of a dorm bed but too tired to move on. I took one day off in Lima and failing to connect with a couple of contacts I had there, I skipped anything of historical or touristic importance and settled for patroling the aisles of a luxurious Chinese supermarket and heading back to the kitchen hostel for some non-fried delicasies.

Clemente, owner of La Balsa restaurant, km 347 Pan Am Norte

Northbound from central Lima the city dragged out. Roadworks on the Pan-Americana norte thankfully slowed down the vehicles on the highway out of the city, unaccustomed as it was to bicycle traffic. I stopped at a petrol station after Chancay later in the day and pitched up beside the trucks that had pulled over for the night. I continued north, days interspersed with desert and then green cultivated valleys. Sugar cane being cut by hand and loaded onto rickety old trucks. In Huarmey I pulled into town one afternoon and discovered as I doodled in the internet cafe that the parents of a Peruvian fellow I had met in Chile lived there. So I called around and was put up for the night. Further north and I pulled into a restaurant at kilometre marker 347 and instantly Clemente had asked his wife to prepare fresh fish and chips as he showed me the guestbooks from all of the cyclists they had put up and fed over the 43 years he had been living there. Familiar names in the lore of bicycle touring and long distance walking popped out from the pages, including old messages from Karl Bushby and Jean Beliveau, both walking around the world. I sat reading the books and catching up on my journal and an hour after I had been fed fish and chips the restaurant was busy with Saturday afternoon traffic. Seventy-one year old Clemente kept popping by, however, and asking if I wanted lunch. Wasn't that it? A couple more cups of tea and I headed into Casma to try my luck at the firestation to see if all the rumours of Peruvian bomberos hospitality were true. Within moments, my proposal of pitching my tent on the floor between the tenders was waved aside and I was to be given a bed. Marvellous. Unfortunately I don't see a pole to slide down in the morning. That would have been fun.

Casma, Peru
Trip distance: 33,726 km