A theft in Ecuador, a stressful aftermath and looking forward

This is going to be a long one. There’s a lot to catch up on. If you make it to the end, thanks for your persistence!

Into Ecuador

Heading north from the small border town of Macara, the road twists up through lush tropical vegetation. The close atmosphere hangs heavy, wetting our shirts with sweat. Thick green tendrils droop from electricity cables overhead: a testament to the verdurous fertility of the place.

lush

lush

It was a far cry from the brown desert dryness we had experienced through much of Peru, and indeed for much of the trip. I hadn’t cycled through such scenery since way back in Brazil and we were excited to be in a new environment.

We were happy to be in richer surroundings and our conversation was positive throughout the day. Even as Sophie was stung by the numerous wasps that landed on her legs (they are attracted to the salt, we’re told), we remained content. Even as we struggled up the 30 odd miles of constant climbing, we were happy. We were sweaty and tired when evening set in, but pleased with a productive day.

the perfect pitstop

the perfect pitstop

A surreal night

We were hoping to reach the town of Celica that night. But we hadn’t taken into account the steepness and length of the hill that climbed up into the mountains. We were over 10 miles short and settled for pitching the tent just off the road, as we had so many times before.

We waited until darkness to set up camp. We pitched by a gate in a small break in the foliage. It ensured we were hidden as best we could be from the road. After checking the bikes were well chained, eating our pasta dinner and climbing into our sleeping bags, we talked about how comfortable we felt in Ecuador. The locals had been warm and friendly all day. Especially in this thinly populated mountainous area, nobody would disturb us in the night.

Even as Sophie sat bolt upright an hour after we’d fallen asleep, saying she thought she heard the pedal on her bike move, we didn’t really think anyone was out there. There are disturbances every night, and if you got up each time you heard one, you’d never get any rest. We fell back into the deep deserving sleep of the exhausted.

Then it was my turn to wake with a start. “Soph, I’m covered in ants. They’re all over me! They’re biting me!” I had jumped up, out of my sleeping bag, and was frantically flicking away at my face, neck, torso. Was I having a nightmare?

“You’re just freaking out Mike, there’s nothing there. Go back to sleep”.

“No, they ARE there! They’re all over me!”

I couldn’t believe it myself. But I grabbed the head torch and turned it on to confirm the horror: thousands, not hundreds, thousands of ants were crawling from my toes, along my body, up onto my chest and onwards across my face and into my hair. Thousands of them. Where my head had been, thousands more swirled together in insect confusion.

“Out the tent! We gotta get everything out of here, find the hole and patch it up!”

We moved quickly, shocked into sudden action. The colony had entered through a few tiny holes in the base of the tent that we hadn’t seen before. We swept them all out, killing as many we could, and patched the holes. They hadn’t found their way into drybag where we were storing the food. I guess they, like the wasps, wanted the salt that was crusted on our skin.

It was after we had tidied and our adrenaline had dimmed that Sophie looked over at the gates where the bikes had been tied.

More horror

“Mike, my bike’s not there”.

“What? Are you serious?”

“My bike’s not there”.

It was so matter of fact. So calm.

We had thought about this moment hundreds of times. What if we woke to find the bikes missing? How would we react?

I grabbed a torch and thick stick, leapt the gate and ran off into the midnight mist. My bike was still there. The thief must be close: he couldn’t manage both bikes so he took Sophie’s first: he’d stash it and return for mine. I ran down the hill, searched through brambles and thick grass. I called out, not angry, but trying to reason with him:

”Esta bici es nuestra vida. Es para la caridad. ¿Por qué tomar lo que no es el suyo?

I could imagine him somewhere in the foliage, concentrating on keeping his excited breathing quiet. He was watching, but there was no way I could find him. I had to return to Sophie. She was still by the tent and I couldn’t leave her alone.  She was in tears now. The realisation of what was happening had hit home. She knew that with her remaining money it wouldn’t be easy to buy a new bike, plus the insurance wouldn’t cover one.

The aftermath

The next few days, sleeping in the local police station as we tried to find the bike, were stressful for both of us. Sophie wouldn’t accept my offers of a new bike. We had been arguing  a lot and she didn’t want to accept my help. She also saw the theft as a sign that she should cut her losses and finish her trip.

sad days at the police station

sad days at the police station

For me, finishing my trip there wasn’t an option. I always wanted, and felt I must, finish what I started by cycling up to California. This was a blip, a challenge that could be overcome. Our differences of opinion, coupled with the stress of the situation, were leading to more arguments, causing a vicious circle that was driving us further apart.

In Quito, we finally agreed on the only option that both of us could accept: Sophie would go home, and I would continue on my own. This too lead to more angst and further rows. But we had to accept the situation.

It was only when we were invited to stay with Sophia – a lady we had met on Warm Showers – that we were inspired and invigorated with the idea of launching a crowdfunding campaign. We set the page up, and within less than 24 hours we had smashed our fundraising target. Thanks to our amazing friends, and even people we’ve never met, we would be continuing the trip together!

over Quito

over Quito

We searched a few bike shops until we found Fulgur Urban Cycles – a small independent bike store in the capital. The owner Fernando showed us a new touring bike that he had built. Amazing luck! Touring bikes are extremely rare in South America. In the countries we had visited, people tend to only ride mountain bikes. Fulgur Bikes had the perfect bike, at a great price!

Soph with the Fulgur team

Soph with the Fulgur team

Moving on

It’s been nearly three weeks now since the bike was stolen, and it’s been a difficult time for us both. Sure, nothing violent has happened to us, but the stress of trying to solve the situation has been real. It’s been tough not knowing whether Sophie would be staying or going, and it’s put a huge strain on our relationship.

Only in the last few days have we begun to pull ourselves out of limbo and feel positive about what we’re doing. We took the bus to Bogota due to Sophie having time pressure to get home. We love what we’ve seen of this city, with it’s open green spaces and excellent cycling routes.

And it’s a shame we haven’t spent more time in Ecuador, with its volcanos, incredible biodiversity and for the most part lovely people. Or Colombia, with its rich cultural heritage, love of cycling and awe-inspiring roads. But we’re back now with full vigour to finish this challenge and cycle the road ahead.

To Central America and beyond!

a perfect match!

a perfect match!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂

Huaraz, Chan Chan and to Ecuador

First stop-off was Huaraz, high in the Cordillera Blanca. The town is a nucleus for international hikers, climbers and skiers, plus anyone else keen to visit the national parks and their stunning scenery.

We spent a day up at the Pastoruri glacier, happy to be in glorious nature once again, though saddened to witness the constant meltwater running off the glacier’s sides. Rising temperatures have caused half of it to disappear over the last twenty years, and may lead to it melting completely within the next decade. It makes a sad symbol for what rising global temperatures are doing to the planet’s ice, and for what we can expect to happen if the trajectory isn’t altered.

Pastoruri

Pastoruri

The following day was a three hour hike through the Huascarán National Park and up to the famous Laguna 69. The trail follows a river along a mossy green valley floor before hitting switchbacks that take you to a plain. Crossing the plain, you climb more switchbacks as the scenery changes with the altitude from green to rocky grey until you top out at 4,600 metres to be rewarded with your first view of the lake. Deep, flawless turquoise shines up like an enchanted mirror, reflecting the ice covered peaks and slopes of scree that hug the sides.

Laguna 69

Laguna 69

It’s a magical place. We stayed long enough to enjoy a slow lunch, take photos and rest deeply, content to let the time pass in such peaceful surroundings. For anyone hoping to visit Peru, I can wholeheartedly recommend the Huascarán National Park and the Laguna 69 hike.

But we couldn’t stay forever. We caught another bus, this time on to Trujillo. We were there to visit the ancient ruins of Chan Chan.

Chan Chan is the largest pre-Columbian city in South America and was the capital of the Chimor Empire from AD900-1450, until the mighty Inca Empire assimilated it. The ruins are particularly impressive in that they are all made from adobe – essentially air-dried mud. It’s remarkable the mighty walls and carved intricate detailings are still standing today. And it was fun to walk along the mazy streets, imagining the bustling scenes that would have been playing out before us in this once powerful city.

a gateway in Chan Chan

a gateway in Chan Chan

and detailed wall carvings

and detailed wall carvings

And finally onto Piura, where we are now, and where we will, in a few hours, finally be getting back onto our bikes. It’s been a big break, these past couple of weeks, and not one that we’d expected. I’m considering it Half Time. After all, I’ve ridden 6,400 miles and, with the detour through Belize on the cards, have a further 6,000 to ride. Now, I’d better get some sleep.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂

Lima and a change of plan

After picking up the new tyres, we made the 60mile hop from Mala into the madness of Lima.

The drivers of Peru are undoubtedly the most crazy we’ve come across: swerving left and right across the lanes, no indication, apparent disregard for cyclists and all the while hammering away at their horns as though the sound itself makes them happy. Cycling through this city of more than 8 million people was one of the more stressful rides on the trip.

But Rita – our host for the week – immediately made us feel welcome and calm with her warm nature and easy smile. We were given a room in the garage of her family home, right next to a bike shop that she runs with a few friends, and were told to make ourselves comfortable.

We were so comfortable that week, with the space and facilities to cook, do our laundry, watch the telly. And we ate Rita’s delicious soul food with her children, husband and friends all together at the table. We were made to feel fully at home: something very special when on the road.

And Rita – a passionate cyclist – introduced us to a few of her many cyclist friends. We took an afternoon to all tour together around the sights of Lima, visiting galleries, museums and churches along the way. Lima is a tough town to ride in, but with us safely visible in a group of 15, the cars and busses were forced to take notice!

the gang

the gang

It was Rita’s suggestion that we change up our plan for the trip. The rest of Peru’s coast, she assured us, was equally as uninspiring as what we had already seen. Much better, she insisted, would be to take a bus back into the mountains and visit some of the stunning scenery there, before bussing up to Ecuador, stopping off to visit the ancient ruins of Chan Chan along the way. The 800 miles we skipped riding could be made up for somewhere more exciting: Belize!

streets of Lima

streets of Lima

We listened to wise Rita’s intelligent words. And decided to bus much of the remaining miles through Peru, so that we can head east through Guatemala and spend time in the Yucatan Peninsular and the Caribbean coast.

It was an easy choice to make.

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂

Grey along the coast, ancient artwork

We were excited when leaving Arequipa. We would be hitting the coast for the first time since Chile and thoughts of warm nights, sea breezes and fresh fish put a renewed vigour in our pedals.

It’s a wonderful feeling, freewheeling for hours at a time on a descent to sea level, and we finally felt we would be smashing the miles along somewhat flat coastal roads up to Lima and beyond to the Ecuador border.

The Pacific mist that barrelled inland at twilight on the day we reached shore did nothing to cloud our optimism. There would surely be bright sunshine come morning. And, being the Tropics, there must be lush tropical scenery: palm trees, exotic birds, bright plumes of foliage.

But as we clambered out the tent the next day, it became clear that the Peruvian coast at the tail end of the winter is as grey as it is monotonous. Hundreds of miles of featureless desert: monochrome brown rock slipping into green grey sea. The birds I was hoping for were somewhere else. Anywhere else. Not even a seagull on that easily forgotten stretch of land.

So when my rear and spare tyres both irreparably ripped on a typically uninteresting patch of uninteresting road, well, I can’t say I was too upset.

I had had two spare tyres (made by Schwalbe – the daddy of bike tour tyres) sent to Mala a few weeks back. There would be no point in me buying fresh tyres now, as Mala was just over 400 miles up the road.

So we hitchhiked. It took us two days to reach Nazca. Not bad for a distance that would have taken a week to ride. We arrived in Nazca safely, ready to take the bus on to Mala.

waiting for a lift

waiting for a lift

DIY sign

DIY sign

on duty

on duty

The Lines

I’d been looking forward to visiting the mysterious Nazca Lines for months. I, like many others, had let my imagination off the leash in wondering about the huge figures that were carved into the desert floor all those centuries ago. Could they be astrological symbols? Images of deities? An elaborate calendar?

And how had ancient man created these wonderful scenes?

Mysteries are so much more exciting than the reality, aren’t they? We saw the lines. I was disappointed. Far from being a mystery, they are simple shallow grooves scraped across a veneer of small red rocks, revealing the whiter rock underneath. The arid climate has helped preserve the artwork.

And to me it is clear: it is simply artwork. Anthropologists have sweated for decades over what the purpose of the lines could be. But surely the answer is obvious – perhaps too obvious to be believable – the Nazca People wanted to create art. And in this case, their canvas happened to be the desert floor. They made images of birds, a spider, a human, a whale and hundreds more simply because they observed the natural world and wanted to recreate it in artwork.

Worth seeing? I wouldn’t go out of my way for them.

On to Lima!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks 🙂

underwhelmed by the lines

underwhelmed by the lines

Highs and lows on the road to Arequipa

The evening of the third day after we left Puno I was in a mood. A bitter wind had come in from the west, whipping the tent viciously as we set about staking it on an empty hillside with little shelter. Normally a little evening wind would be nothing more than a minor challenge, or perhaps something to shout into, to enjoy the exhilaration of bellowing at, or along with, rowdy nature. But this particular day had been a long one.

Up at 4,500 metres on a bike loaded with heavy souvenirs, climbing a gruelling four mile constant hill is particularly tough. I like to think of myself as having decent cardio fitness, but this hill was a challenge too far for me to ride: I had to push up the relentless, unforgiving climb. Little by little, one step at a time, breathing deeply, focussing on that stretch of tarmac five metres ahead. Peruvian road builders appear to get a kick out of placing an incline wherever possible, and to ensure it’s as long as it can be. But on a day when we were heading west, to the coast and off the Altiplano, long climbs weren’t expected.

long climb

long climb

Indeed, by the time we reached the peak of the mountain we were climbing, we were a breezy 700 metres higher than where we’d been on Titicaca.

mirador over lake

mirador over lake

So I was ready for a night of deep sleep by the time we stopped to set up camp. But I knew what would be ahead: long hours with little rest, doing my best to warm up in the tent. You see, the Altiplano gets cold at night. Drinks bottles frozen solid cold. So cold that you can still feel it coming through your bedroll when you’re in your sleeping bag and a thick tracksuit. I knew it would happen, as it had been that way for weeks. I was tired and knew sleep wouldn’t be coming easily that night.

So I was in a mood.

Although we were as high as I’d ever been on land – and almost as high as Europe’s highest point – this evening was a low point for me. Shouting into the wind this time wasn’t an exhilaration but a frustrated release of tension.

low morale at a high point

low morale at a high point

The next morning though came with calm: Herds of sheep and lamas picked their way across the mossy ground, relaxed in their easy search for grass. The wind had settled and the amber morning sun had already begun to thaw through the ice of the night before. And – a refrain Sophie and I have used many times on this journey – what goes up, must come down.

camping down

camping down

And down we went. For most of two full days we freewheeled down sweeping switchbacks off the High Plane, ever lower to the warm and attractive colonial city of Arequipa. Oh Arequipa, where the buildings are beautiful, the food is delicious and the sun shines bright! Oh Arequipa with your smiling residents, tree-lined squares, comfortable hostel beds!

into town - Arequipa

into town – Arequipa

We were through now with the most trying riding of the journey. No more cold. No more 4,000 metre mountains to climb. No more breathlessness from the altitude. Sure, there’ll be the opposite extreme of heat to deal with, and the bugs of the tropics, but we feel we covered the harder half of the journey first. Northwards now, to the sun!

Vida! Saúde! Felicidade!

Mike

As ever, if you’ve enjoyed reading these posts, or if you see value and a challenge in this trip, or if you’d simply like to support a wonderful cause, it would be great if you drop a little sum towards my fundraising goal for the Teenage Cancer Trust. Head over to https://www.justgiving.com/Mike-Edmondstone/ to get involved. Thanks

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