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Monday, August 2, 2010

Quito, Ecuador to Trujillo, Peru

It was difficult to leave Santiago's house and our new group of friends at the Casa De Ciclistas but we were anxious to get back on the road and excited to reunite with our friend Danny in Cotopaxi National Park. We had not heard from Danny for months and received an email from him informing us that he had taken up temporary employment at a lodge in Cotopaxi. As you may remember from our blog from Baja, Danny is driving his Jeep from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Tierre Del Feugo and we have been fortunate enough to have crossed paths with him twice now. Visit his website at (

We departed Quito in the mid afternoon preparing for a short, easy cruise to the northern entrance of Cotopaxi National Park. Nearly three hours into the ride we passed an old man in a pickup truck and I rolled up to his passanger window hoping to confirm that we were headed in the right direction. Immediately the old man started shaking his head in disbelief and proceeded to climb out of the truck, walk over to us and tell me that we were never going to make it.

“The roads are too steep, there are too many turns, the nights are too cold and it's too far to make it there tonight!”

I assured him that we were more than prepared for these hardships and that we liked climbing and the cold and so he reluctantly got down on his hands and knees and drew a HUGE map for us in the dirt with no less than 15 turns.

Two hours later we arrived at our predetermined destination only to find that there was no where to buy food and thanks to our poor planning we were only carrying a small bag of rice. Frustrated and loosing daylight quickly we decided to carry on. A few kilometers down the road we passed a small farm and Parker came up with the ingenious idea to pull over and buy some eggs to accompany our handful of rice. As we were remounting our bikes a Landcruiser pulled over and the gentleman driving told us that he owned a lodge just ten minutes down the road with food and hot showers. He told us that he was headed into Quito but that he had a gatekeeper that would take care of us upon our arrival. Overwhelmed by a sense of relief and thankful for our good fortune we remounted our bikes and stared down the cobblestone road towards the lodge.

An hour later and in total darkness we were no longer praising the kind lodge owner. Two hours later we began a climb that would end up taking us nearly a half hour..the rough roads dimly lit by our small headlamps. We finally called it quits, set up camp in the middle of the road and settled down to cook our rice and eggs only to realize that we were out of cooking fuel (aka gasoline). Through some miracle we were able to use the remaining fumes in the bottle to cook the rice and eggs...the stove sputtering and finally dying just as the rice became edible. We fell asleep hungry, saving half of the small pot for our breakfast.

We were not prepared for the view we awoke to the next morning. Because we arrived in total darkness we had no idea that we were camped adjacent to such a magical landscape.

The ride from our campsite to the Danny's lodge was one of the most scenic rides of the trip. We arrived at the lodge in the mid morning and were warmly greeted by Danny his staff and the fellow guests. We set up our tents just outside of the lodge dinning room and despite the fact that we felt slightly out of place in these plush surroundings it did not take us long to settle in. Danny treated us like kings at the lodge and we are so grateful for his hospitality. It was wonderful to reunite and we are already making plans to do so again in Argentina.

After two days we reluctantly said goodbye to Danny and left the comforts of the lodge for our life on the road. We followed rough dirt tracks into Cotopaxi National Park, climbing to nearly 13,000 feet and enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery that we had experienced in Ecuador.

Another two rather uneventful days on the road found us in Cajabamba where we received word that Parker's passport had finally arrived at the US Embassy in Quito. I am still not clear on the whole story as Parker is still to frustrated to discuss it but I know that it took him nine buses and two taxi rides to get back to Quito and retrieve his passport.

As we left Cajabamba we once again crossed paths with Sean, Igrid and 9 year old Kate. We have been leap frogging with this family since Medellin, Colombia and actually crossed paths with them the first time all the way back in Canada.

From Cajabamba we followed the Panamerican to Cuenca, a beautiful colonial town set in a high valley. Cuenca is a remarkably clean city, has a great vibe, good food and a skyline punctuated by massively georgous church steeples.

From Cuenca we traveled onto Loja, the city of enormous food portions. The riding continually difficult but equally rewarding with magnificent views from every vista.

Ecuador is know for its climbs and notoriously steep gradients. Many of the climbs, especially in southern Ecuador will range between 20 to 60 kilometers (12 to 36 miles) in length and last hours if not a full day. Fortunately, after every uphill you are rewarded with an insane downhill were we generally reach speeds of 80+ Kilometers per hour (48+ mph).

A short ride from Loja we entered Vilcabamba, a town known for it's abundance of residence over 100 years of age and more recently a huge influx of Expats and hippies. Despite the gringo vibe of this town, Parker and I fell in love with the climate, the scenery and the ultra laid back atmosphere. We camped on the lawn of a local hostal and met a fellow traveler named Scott who abandoned his life in the states as a Landscaper to start a full time life on the road. Scott has a website and did a feature story on our mission and travels.
Opting for the more remote, more challenging route through Southern Ecuador Parker and I headed due south from Vilcabamba. The pavement ended shortly after Vilcabamba in Yangana and the real climbing and adventure began. We had remarked in days prior that the road seemed to follow a very straight line despite the abundance of mountains. As it turns out the road does in fact cut over some very, very steep mountains but what the map failed to show were all the tight switchbacks which make the ascents possible.

Parker and I realized early on that this trip is absolutely about the journey and not about the intermediate destinations. We opt for the road less traveled because it almost always provides us with better scenery, friendlier people and the adventures that the pavement seems to blanket.

On our first night south of Vilcabamba in Podocarpus National Park, despite our typical reluctance to do so, we had chosen a campspot that was visible from the road. The remoteness of the road and the infrequency of passing cars reassured us of our decision. Just as I was settling into my sleeping bag, I heard an approaching car. I strained my ears to listen to make sure it continued past and I was startled by the sound of tires skidding to a stop on gravel. I waited and there was nothing. I knew the car was no more than thirty feet from our tents. I sat up in my sleeping bag and grabbed my knife from the side pocket of my tent. Suddenly someone from the car screamed.....


I readied myself for a confrontation and crawled out of my tent in my long johns.

“HEY!” I yelled back. Noticing that the car was filled with people.

“Where are you from?” The man asked with hostility.

“The United States.” I replied.

“How many of you are there.”

“Three of us.” I lied. Wishing I could say more but realizing that we only had two tents.

A long pause.....

“You better be careful. Careful.” The man said and then the car peeled away down the road.

Needless to say we did not sleep that much after that. I kept imaging the car showing back up with even more people and a huge confrontation ensuing. But alas, nothing happened. We woke early made some coffee and set out once again on the beautiful road through Southern Ecuador.

As we got closer to the border the riding continued to get more challenging as the grades became nearly unridable in spots.

As we neared the Peruvian border we arrived at a military checkpoint with two guards no more than 18 years old working the post. They checked over our passports and told us that we were free to continue. The road forked immediately after the station so I asked them which way to Peru? They both pointed different directions! I started to laugh and realized they were not kidding. They got into a small argument and then both agreed that it was to the right. Nervously, we took there advice and took a right

Two hours later we arrived at the Ecuadorian/Peruvian border. The whole town consisted of an Ecuadorian Immigration Station and one restaurant. When we arrived on the Ecuadorian side the office was completely empty. We went and ate lunch and return to find the border official sleeping on a cot. We woke him up; he stamped our passports and sent us off across the river to Peru. We crossed the river into Peru and realized that the immigration office was closed! As we started to turn around and walk away someone yelled to us that we should go to the officer’s house just down the block. We did and when we arrive at the house a young girl told us that the officer was swimming in the river. We walked down to the river and yelled to the officer, holding up our passports. She was in a bikini, holding a beer in an inner tube and she yelled back to us that she would not be reopening the office for another 3 hours. We decided to cut our losses and we joined the rest of the town in the river for a couple of hours.

As you can see security at the border was not too tight...

As we began to doze beneath the shade of a tree she yelled over to us that she was ready to open the office and that we should bring our documents right away. I got ready first and headed over to the office ahead of parker. When I arrived the Immigration officer was wearing bright red lipstick and a tube top and way too much perfume. She was blaring Riana..from the American Top 20s Music Charts. She asked me where I learned Spanish. I told her I learned it in the street. At this point I realize she has absolutely no interest in looking at my passport. She smiles and asks if I can do her a favor. My mind was spinning and I immediately think that she is going to ask me for a bribe. No, she wants me to translate the lyrics of Riana onto the back of my tourist visa. I laugh and tell her that I can't even understand the lyrics and I speak English somewhat fluently. She does not laugh and hands me a pencil. So I sit there with Riana on repeat until I've scribbled down what I'm half sure were half of the lyrics from the chorus of the song. When I finish she took the sheet from me, restarted the song and I do my best not to laugh as she tries to read off my lyrics. Just as she is belting out the chorus, Parker walked in and looks at me in complete confusion.

As we start out into Peru from the border it was almost as someone flipped a light switch on the gradients. The climbs are much more manageable but the roads are in even worse condition. Another noticeable difference is that we are no longer the opening set we are the MAIN ATTRACTION. People are absolutely fascinated with us.
The first night in Peru we arrived in a small mountain town. After parking our bikes next to the community center, I walked into town to purchase two beers and when I returned a 13 year old boy was peppering Parker with questions. After 20 minutes he bid us farewell and just as we are settling in to our nightly routine he showed back up with over 20 people. At one point the crowed swelled to over 35 people. The people were not interested in asking us any questions they just wanted to stare at us. Men, women and children crowded us as we cooked, ate and set up our tents. I was glad when the crowd finally dispersed and I was able to collapse from the exhaustion of the attention and the days riding.
The following morning I awoke early to the sound of voices outside of my tent. I laid there for a minute trying to figure out how many people were talking. As I started the zipper, all noise ceased and as I poked my head out of the hole I found a group of youngsters under blankets literally waiting for me to wake up.
The dirt roads of northern Peru were remarkably bad and in need of maintenance. The size and frequency of potholes meant that even going downhill we could rarely exceed 12kph. The density of people and towns dramatically decreased from Ecuador and our Gringo nickname returned in full force. All walks of life love yelling Gringo to us like they have spotted an endangered species and want to alert everyone around that they saw it first. Kids will spot us from hundreds of meters away and will chant Gringo in unison as we approach. Their cries remain audible even as they disappear in our rearview mirrors. Despite this, the people are painfully friendly and eager to help or assist us in whatever way they can.

Including calling us over to the side of the road to offer us fresh papayas from their farm...
Just before Jean, Peru we returned to the asphalt and let the sweet buzz of the pavement message out our aching muscles. Just as soon as we arrived, we left the comforts of the asphalt for a side road that would take us around the city. When we first exited the highway, the gravel road was in remarkably good condition. We congratulated ourselves on a great decision to divert Jean. As we rode further, the dirt road turned to a rough jeep track and then into a single track and eventually into a goat track.

Literally the only traffic we were passing was goats. We hit a series of forks in the road and each time we would look at each other and then start down one not sure if it would take us in the right direction.

At one point we actually ended up having to traverse through a fisherman's yard.
Eventually we could just make out car traffic on the horizon and we knew we were headed in the right direction. So we pushed on, despite the fact that the path was becoming worse and worse. The path dead ended into a barbwire fence and we found a gate and crossed into the private property. The path fizzled to nothing and we stopped our bikes and noticed a lone man farming the hillside. He looked up at us, startled by our presence and immediately approached us.

We told the man that we were trying to get to the highway and he began to laugh and pointed at the massive river that stood between us and the asphalt. We asked if there was a bridge close by and he said no that the only way across was in his uncle’s canoe. All three of us looked up at the sun and realizing that we were loosing daylight he offered to take us immediately. As we pushed our bikes towards his uncle’s property Parker and I realized that all four of our tires had fallen victim to the infamous Goathead (a small spine that kills bike tires). We had four flat tires! Realizing we had no time to mess with replacements we pushed on and followed Javier to his uncle’s boat.

We arrived at the side of the river and we realized why Javier was carrying an innertube over his shoulder. He had to swim to the other side to retrieve the boat.

Javier performed all of this with such enthusiasm that we were sad that we had to part ways with him on the other side. His positivity would be a great asset on the road. All that he wanted as payment for his services was my water logged Timex watch which I had found on the side of the road in British Colombia. I happily handed it over, although I must admit now the date function was pretty handy. I no longer know what month or day of the week it is.

When we left Javier it was already dark so we only made it a few kilometers down the road to a small town. When we arrived a local police officer offered up the abandoned police station as nightly accommodations for us. We thanked him and took up residency in one of the most scary buildings we have slept in during our travels.

From Chamaya we traveled towards the coast along a series of rivers which offered up some very flat riding. It was a welcome change from our last couple months of relentless climbs. After one last 7,000 foot climb, we enjoyed a sweet downhill into the coastal desert of Peru. We hit the coast at Chiclayo where we took one day off, which turned into two after I suffered some food poisoning. Chiclayo is a great town, with phenomenal ceviches, and a massively intense market, where you can buy everything from magic potions to shark fins.
It was just two days of riding from Chiclayo to Trujillo through the Peruvian coastal desert. The trip would have been easy if not for two small setbacks. One, the relentless headwind and the other a little town known as Paijan just north of Trujillo. Just the word “Paijan” will send shivers down the spine of any touring cyclist familiar with South America. This is a town that we were warned about all the way back in Alaska. A town that is infamous for hundreds of armed robberies of touring cyclists. A town that is known for a gun point incident that left a French couple with nothing but their spandex and more recently an incident where our friend Ed was robbed of everything and was forced to watch as his bicycle was thrown off a bridge. And a town, that after much discussion, we decided to ride through.
We left Picasmayo at just before 6am, in hopes of crossing through Paijan before any ¨bad guys¨ would be awake. The early hours of our ride clicked by without incident. As we rolled through Paijan, we received many unwelcoming looks and someone actually yelled at us that we were crazy. Upon exiting the town I was keeping a keen watch in my rear view mirror and just like so many other people have described a mototaxi materialized about 200 yard behind us. I called attention to it and we crossed the road so that we had the two lanes separating us and the approaching vehicle. As the mototaxi got closer I saw that there was a young man driving and 3 masked men packed into the back seat. The driver smiled to me and blew me a kiss. He turned around to the other three...unsure about what to do.
The mototaxi sped ahead and then pulled a u turn so that they were headed straight for us. They started flashing their lights and motioning for us to stop our bikes. Obviously there was no f´ing way we were going to stop. Just before we collided with the taxi they swung out into the roadway and then peeled back so they were headed straight the sides of us. I narrowly avoided having my back wheel clipped out and Parker veered way out onto the shoulder.
At this point the mototaxi sped up along Parker and put two wheels over the side of the road to try and push parker into the ditch below. I was riding along the other side of the taxi to jump to Parkers aid, preparing for the inevitable crash. Just when I thought Parker was gone for sure he slammed on his brakes and the mototaxi flew ahead. I was still next to the taxi and both of us were headed into the oncoming traffic. I started to swerve in and out of both lanes in order to slow the traffic going both directions. No one would stop for us and semis narrowly missed us as they came barreling down blasting their air horns. I positioned my bike at a diagonal over both lanes and started enough of a commotion that the mototaxi called it quits and turned off the highway and disappeared into the corn fields.
I am providing this detailed info in hopes of helping anyone who is approached with a similar situation and to urge everyone not to ride through this town. We narrowly, narrowly avoided being robbed of everything and it left both of us with a sour taste.
A few hours after this incident we arrived at Lucho's Casa De Ciclistas in Trujillo were we received a warm welcome from no less than eight other touring cyclists. We will stay here, gain our composure and wait until our package or resupplies arrives...namely new drivetrains and shoes. From here we will head back into the mountains via a famous route known as the Canon Del Pato, which will take us to Huraz, the mountaineering capital of Peru. Despite these recent happenings we are both very excited about the next leg of the journey. We would like to give a very special thanks to our new sponsor Xtracylce for providing us with new freeloaders and top decks and to Chris at Roaring Mouse Cycles in San Francisco for keeping our bikes fully equipped and running with the best components available, to Keen for keeping our feet warm, dry and comfortable, and to our parents for their continued support and coordinating our packages.
On a side note I keep feeling like my seatbelt is unfastened. If anyone knows what that is about please let me know. I have actually reached to fasten it more than once.


Sean said...

Incredible post. Unbelievable get away. Must've been that Marin County blood that taught you all those street skillz.

Lawrence said...


Harmony said...

Holy Smokes Cuz..... God be with you! You are braver than I.
Love You Guys,


jeff said...

Lawrence, aint no state in the union going to give u a drivers license haha although i love ur driving that time in hermosa w/ me, parker, and marco
-pedalers; great great post!

kelis4 said...

I can't find the words to tell you how your adventures move my heart with excitement, fear and admiration. Gods speed to you.

kelis4 said...

You guys are simply amazing and have moved my soul with your amazing adventures

Grecy said...

Wow guys, just wow.
I need to figure out if I can cross the border where you guys did.. getting across that river might be a challenge :)
You guys were seriously lucky in that shitty town.. It's marked off my list for sure. Even in a Jeep I don't think it's worth it.
Good luck, enjoy the road :)

Seth Berling said... was without a doubt the high speed chases in Marin that prepared me for this event. Lawrence and Jeff...I dont know what to say other than you guys are awesome. Harmony...we will see you in Arg. Kelli...thank you so much for your kind words. can definitely do the remote crossing via La Balsa. A concrete bridge spans the river. Tell the border lady I say hi.

Ernie Millard said...

Seth and Parker,
I have been following you since last August, when I met you on the Stellako River, In BC. Thanks for all the great details of your trip. By the way, I shared many of your adventures with my students last year, just as I said.

Ernie Millard (Wisconsin)

Anonymous said...

the picture just keep getting better and better. Thanks so much for keeping a man dreaming in technicolor.

Anonymous said...

Amazing! I read all your stories! Inspirational, really...
God bless you...

Naomibybike said...

I'm riding south as well (am much further north - just arrived in San Francisco now). My question is, what route is recommended to avoid Paijan?


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