The Valley of Instant Death

With the crossing of the Maranon River negotiated via the good ship ‘Not Very Good’ I decided to head off on a circuitous route to the south-east into the Amazonas region.

Crossing The River Maranon

Chachapoyas, the capital of the Amazonas Region is a charming highland town with a lovely central square. There are many tour operators offering to take you to various ruins and natural phenomena (waterfalls and valleys etc) but I opt for spending a day riding the local mini-bus on a white-knuckle ride up to see six Sarcophagi perched on a cliff. After all of this bike riding I am now a very bad passenger.

Sarcophagi on the cliff face
Kuelap ruins

What was supposed to be an easy day of a mere 38km to Tingo and a bus ride up to the ruins at Kuelap somehow turned into a night riding test of endurance. There are two ways up to Kuelap; one is a gentle climb of 1,300m over 35km. The other is a steep walking track of 10km. With no mini-buses to be had I decided to leave the bags in Tingo and do the 35km ride up to the fortress. This was all well and good and the time at the top was successfully spent photographing llama and deepening my appreciation of pre-Incan architecture. The pivotal moment for the day came when I decided to return via the 10km foot-track. Little did I know that this track, with the addition of a little rain-water, would become a quagmire of mud that was more clay like glue than mud. Before very long the bike was completely encased in the goo and the wheels absolutely refused to budge as the glue set hard around them. The afternoon drifted into night and the likelihood of being stranded on the hillside started to become a very real possibility. On this descent I also managed to chalk up my third crash of the trip (Mexico; truck avoidance, Honduras; steamroller avoidance. Peru; face plant in a bush). The major damage was to my legs in terms of fatigue in that lugging a reluctant bike down the steep hillside for 10km pretty well did for the old legs. The next day’s ‘easy’ ride of 48km gently rising along the river valley to Leymebamba therefore became a bit of a test as the legs were utterly toasted.

The valley between Leymebamba and Celendin (AKA ‘The Valley of Instant Death’) is two days of wonderful scenic riding. 29km from the very friendly town of Laymebamba (at 2,200m), the dirt road goes up and over the lip into the valley followed by a long rollicking plummet into the valley was an awe inspiring valley ride. At the pass at  ‘Calla Calla’ (which means ‘Instant Death’ in the local dialect) at 3,600 metres, the rain and cloud are tearing across the road (refer photo and video), so the Cyberman/sun god mask is put to good use (refer photo). Some small kids see the mask and run which is odd given that there must have been Dr Who contact at some point in history as many people here still say, “Good Tardis”. From there it is just stunning scenery down to the river crossing at Chalas (870metres). The ride out of the Valley of Instant Death was truly stunning. Zig zagging for 2,200 metres up the valley slope where you can easily look down on the town below after 43km of riding.

Calla Calla Pass
Top of the Valley of Instant Death
Zig Zag road up the valley
Upper Valley of Death

Southern Ecuador

June 14th Cuenca – Ona (106km) (1,850m)

June 15th Ona – Loja (106km) (2,480m)

June 16th Loja – Villacamba (40km) (612m)

June 17th Villacamba – Palanda (80km) (2,101m)

June 18th Palanda – Zumba (50km) (1,719m)

June 19th Zumba – San Ignacio (73km (2,000m)

Cuenca is a belter of a city with charming hole-in-the-wall bars and eateries and a good smattering of churches and squares. The festival of something-or-other is on while I’m there so the sweet sellers are out in force.

In the little town of Villacamba you can relax in the main square with the hippies, the want-to-be hippies and the traveling refugees, kick it back about three gears and soak in the friendly atmosphere. It’s a lovely place to unwind and the locals are very welcoming. They are supposed to live longer than the rest of us, or this has reportedly been the case in the past though a local says that it is no longer really true.

Onto a winding dirt road cum track and some pretty steep gradients towards the southern border with Peru, emerging in the dusty working city of San Ignacio two days later. Due to some construction land slides the ride into San Ignacio was a very late finish so am arriving in the dark, something I loathe, a bit sore in the legs from the experience so thankful of a day to rest before the higher peaks to come. Therefore I cross the border into Peru and into the higher Andean passes of between 3,000 and 4,000 metres; things to relish in fear in equal measure.

Winding road near the Peruvian border south of Villacamba
Cuenca central cathedral with storm clouds
Not really the best way to cook a pig – with predictable results

There is, of course, at this juncture in the travel south, a decision to be made. One can travel southwards along the spine of the Andes, staying high all the way through Peru to Lake Titicaca and the 4,000metre plateau into Bolivia. Alternatively, on crossing the border into Peru one can soft-core it down towards the coast and Trujillo, then skirt along the coastal route, mincing their way along the effortless flat whilst living the beige life amongst the commuting drones. It would be difficult for a cyclist such as myself to countenance such an abrogation of one’s sworn hard-core duties, (and indeed continue to bear the epithet) therefore one must take the high road, so high it is. It’s a lot of climbing but my thinking is that you probably only get one chance in life to bike the Andes (would one really want another?) so it’s worth doing right.

Yet those neat and trimly dressed on the low coastal road might hold their manhoods cheap not to be in these mountains with Buff3y this day. These perfumed popinjays might take pause from their pamperings and peer skywards towards the mountains to the East and see if they can make out a distant figure high in the mist, proud bearer of the standard of all that is good, just and right in touring cycling. If they do they might glimpse we two, we happy two, (the Co-Motion and I), doing glorious battle with yet another peak.

Largest Corn Cob

Part Thirty Eight – Central Ecuador

6th June Quito – San Miguel Salsedo (104km) 1,144m

7th June San Miguel Salsedo – Riobamba (86km) 1,389m

8th June Riobamba -Alausi (92km) 1,282m

Today was everything good in a bike ride. The beautiful highland meadows of the Ecuadorian Andes. The roadside villagers reaping away merrily as they have done for generations. A helpful following breeze. Some rolling hills but nothing too arduous. Then a nice long roll into the town of Alausi where you can find the PanAmerican Hotel for $10 (with WiFi!) and a pizza place just metres away. If the public thermal Spa had had any water in the Hydro-massage tub then it would have been an absolutely perfect day, but that was just too much to ask for. The town is shrouded in cloud in the late afternoon by the time I get there giving it a very spooky atmosphere.

9th June Aluesi – some house (41km) 2,665m

Today’s ride is a tragic-karmic tale. The early morning was a lovely romp up and down through a gob-smackingly lovely valley south of Alausi. The Pan-American Highway splits and a friend on the biking road, Ian Lacey (Irish cyclist, a week ago listened to the dud advice of the locals and therefore took the longer and more difficult route to the East. Buff3y, fore-warned took the shorter and less arduous route which saved a good hour of pedaling.

It is now a matter of much regret for me that I took some time to take video of the roll down through the valley (see linked video), while lambasting Ian  for listening to the locals (who have less of an understanding of the supreme importance of road topography than your average touring cyclist). I deeply regret this now because I was in the midst of one of these video tirades that I brilliantly managed to miss a particularly important turn-off and ended up a good 10km off course careening down through an adjacent valley. By the time realized the error I was hundreds of metres in elevation down the hill to the West. I pedaled back up to a different turn towards the desired town this time only to then discover that this road became a dirt track snaking up some horrid horrid grades. The whole episode cost me about two hours riding and lots of sweat. I emerged back onto the PanAmerican 20 km further back on the road than should have been the case which just about kicked the stuffing out of the whole day.

The moral to the story is that karma or St Patrick will get you in the end. Had I not been taking the piss out of Ian then I wouldn’t have missed the turn and I wouldn’t have wasted over an hour grinding back up that hill and then wouldn’t have been on that dodgy alternate route that pretty well did me in.

10 June Some house – Cuansa (110km) 2,239m

Street march in Quito
Marvelous pork crackling for $1.50
BBQ Giant Rat
Half Giant Rat Platter with potatoes, butter and corn

I do, of course, appreciate that one of the broadening experiences of travel is, in theory, trying new foods. In southern Ecuador, in one day I got to sample some of the best pork on the planet at a road-side pig spit. I then followed this up later in the afternoon with a plate of giant rat . The trouble is that the giant field rat of southern Ecuador is a pretty active beastie and therefore it doesn’t have a lot on it apart from a lot of tough skin and gristle. Once you’ve hollowed the innards and skewered the poor blighter on a spike there is not a lot left. Despite being particularly brave there is no way this correspondent is going to bite into a charred rat head so as the guy next to me chomped happily through the rat face he gave me dismissive glances as I merely picked away at my rat. A terrible waste really as rat is a bit of a local delicacy and cost $8.

Winding track
Furry Andean llama south of Alausi.
Only one place to stay really in Alausi – The ‘Hotel Panamericano’.
This one is just plain wrong.

Part Thirty Seven – Northern Ecuador

It appears that since I threatened to appear nude on buff3ysbicyclingblog that the click figures have taken another huge spike. There can be no other possible explanation. We now have hundreds of people each day enriching their lives through following the adventures of Buff3y the hardcore solo adventure cyclist.

Soviet-style monument to sharing the love – northern Ecuador

The town of Bolivar (about 70km south of the Colombian border) boasts a fine collection of municipal kitsch sculpture. One is the finest example of an excuse to render bare breasts in the history of misguided public artwork (refer photo). You couldn’t really hope for a sleepier town and the ten or so residents who bother to hang around the central square in the middle of the day all carry similarly bewildered/resigned expressions indicating that they may have mistakenly been beamed in there. The sculpture campaign has been such a resounding success that Bolivar boasts a grand total of zero hotels. Must ride on to find accommodation further down the hill.

A worrying trend in my photography is just standing in front of easily ridiculed public monuments and photographing myself with my bicycle. What the hell- it’s the small things along the road that make it all worth while.

The first exposure of the Inca civilisation to the Cybermen is of course still a subject of sometimes very heated academic debate. Some point to the difficulty in determining time lines in an environment where time lords may screw with the space-time continuum as a reason for there being no consensus to this day on when the exposure occurred. Suffice to say for our purposes, however,  that the visits have left an indelible impression on the artwork of the people up to the modern day, especially the head wear which includes the Raymi sun-god mask (refer Cyberman mask photo).

Anti-pollution street drawing – Quito
Sundays the central part of Quito is closed off to traffic so people can ride their recumbents.
Old Town Quito
Sunday 15km fun-run in central Quito (I did not participate)

The market in Otavalo is a treasure trove of handicrafts (and cyber-man woolen masks). Every Saturday the population of the town swells and the central streets become packed with vendors and bargain hunters. For me it was a good excuse to rest up for a day and take in the sights.

There is a long climb up to 2,850 metres to get into Quito and the setting is a magnificent one for a city of this size. The centro-historico is no place for a wondering tourist at night but during the day its a pleasant enough place to relax and enjoy if you have the breath. Will check it out tomorrow before forging on southwards into more mountains.

Peasant dancing monument – Otavalo
Cyber-Inca/Raymi woolen mark/hat. “You know our ways. You must be destroyed! We have very warm heads!”
Hats in Otavalo
‘Yes, we have many bananas’ – Otavalo
Poor excuse to sculpt tits – Bolivar Ecuador
Vegie Stalls – Otavalo
Stern looking cook but good rice/chicken stuff for $1.50 -Otavalo
Cyber-rider in Otavalo
Otavalo Market
‘Curly Land’ – Leunig would love this monument on Colombia/ Ecuador border
Primordial squiddy looking thing
Hunters attacking saber-toothed tiger – Bolivar
Bolivar Jesus relief

Bolivar Mammoth