Monday, 28 October 2013

Into Peru and a trip to Lima

Ecuador on the near side and Peru on the far side of the river 
Day one in the mountains of Peru 
Sun breaking through the cloud
 Lots of people had warned me that the roads deteriorate in Peru compared to Ecuador but I was pleasantly surprised to coast along a paved road once over the river that separates Peru and Ecuador. The inclines seemed to be more gentle than what I had experienced over the previous few days in southern Ecuador.
Near the end of my first day in Peru as I cycled into the main square in San Ignacio, which was the first town of any significance over the border, I met Federico and Brenda again, the Argentinian cycling couple. 

Federico getting some practice on his make shift didgeridoo that he made out of plastic pipe, sounded just like the real thing.
That night the three of us stayed in a room of the Municipalidad/ town hall. As a lone touring cyclist with a packed up bike you get plenty of stares but as a group of three you get even more.  One of my first early impressions of Peruvians compared to their northern neighbors was that they really like to stare. Over the course of the afternoon the word “Gringo” had been shouted at me more times than in the previous three months in Colombia and Ecuador. This wasn’t totally new however as I had heard it all too often in Central America. For the most part I think it is simply a friendly greeting and the people are just interested to see somebody different pass by.  I was amused to hear that Federico and Brenda also got called Gringos and that people would often say “Hello” to them instead of “Hola” even though they are Argentinian. The following morning the three gringo cyclists headed off together for Jaen. It was enjoyable to be cycling with other bikers even if it was only going to be for one day. I knew that once I got to Jaen that I needed to find somewhere safe to leave my bike and most of my gear as I had a return bus trip down to Lima planned.
As we cycled into Jaen after dark, Federico cycled up alongside a moto-taxi (Tuk-tuk) to enquire about somewhere cheap to eat and we got directed to a restaurant on a side street where the evening meal consisting of soup, main course (rice, bit of chicken & salad) and a drink set us back the grand sum of 3 Peruvian Sol which is the equivalent of EUR 0.77 (Unfortunately this has been the only time to date where I have found a full dinner for that price!) That night, after a bit of negotiation, we slept in our tents in the secure car park at the back of the main police station. The police had initially suggested we sleep in the street in our tents outside the station. They weren’t as receptive as other police and firestations where I’d stayed which was frustrating as this was the one time where I really wanted somewhere that I felt safe to leave my bike and most of the gear for my bus trip to Lima.

Federico and Brenda
I was glad to have made it to Jaen with still enough time to hop on a bus to the capital to try and catch my friends Dina and Ciaran who were over from Dublin on a two week holiday. I bid farewell to my cycling buddies in the morning, they had decided they were going to cycle down via the coast of Peru to save time. As I sat on a shaded bench in the car park wondering to myself where on earth I was going to leave my bike and most of my belongings for the bus trip along walked a detective who started to talk to me, interested to hear about my cycle. After a few minutes I popped the question…  Will you mind most of my worldly possessions for the week?! Unfortunately the answer was no. Not because he wasn’t keen to help me but because he was going on holidays a few days later and wouldn’t be around when I made it back to Jaen. All was not lost however as he put a call in to his cousin who lived locally and thankfully Sara agreed to mind my stuff for the week. It happened to be Sara’s birthday that day so not only was she agreeing to mind the bike and bags of a complete stranger but she also invited me over to the birthday lunch.  After my shower, I was made to feel very welcome as we had a lovely relaxed lunch. As I sat there eating a generous portion of birthday cake I thought to myself how lucky I have been on this trip to be shown such a generous welcome in so many places. Then off I rushed to catch my overnight bus to Lima.

Sara's birthday lunch
I felt like an excited school kid complete with packed lunch as I waited to catch my bus. It was far from a luxury bus but I was still excited to be getting a different form of transport, see some of coastal Peru that I would otherwise have missed and of course excited to be meeting my pals. I didn’t get much sleep that night squashed into my tight seat attempting to keep one eye on my valuables. I also got a taste for what lay ahead of me, checking out some huge climbs that seemed to go on forever, even on the bus, and also a taste of the insane driving that prevails, especially by bus drivers, speeding around blind corners on the wrong side of the road. Many of the buses have religious names and pictures of Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary on them, possibly hoping that this will protect them whilst driving like a lunatic? The following morning we drove for hours along the coast line which was mostly arid desert. An hour or so of it was enough to do me and I was happy that I had decided that my bike route through Peru would be via the Andes. Late in the afternoon, 21 hours after we left Jaen I staggered off the bus in central Lima, more of a grumpy exhausted school kid at this stage. As I expected, Lima was a large city. It had taken at least an hour to get into the centre passing some very basic looking shanty towns on the outskirts.

Plaza Mayor, Central Lima
The following evening, having caught up on some sleep, I met Dina and Ciaran in Miraflores, Lima. Despite having been lucky enough to meet up with different friends along my route south, Dina and Ciaran were the first friends I had seen in over a year who still live in Dublin. It was a great catch up and they very generously treated me to dinner.. thanks guys! They forced me to have my first Pisco Sour since getting to Peru! Despite having raw egg as one of it’s ingredients it makes for a tasty drink and is pretty much the national cocktail of Peru.

Ciaran, Billy and Dina, in case you wouldn't have figured that out.
Parroquia del Sagrario on Plaza Mayor... and Ciaran
Plaza San Martin - did I mention I am doing my cycle in aid of Trocaire?
Sponsor now at
The following day after coffees in Miraflores we headed for the centro historico. Strolling around one of the impressive central plazzas we bumped into Jan and Evit, the Slovakian cyclists I had met in Medellin. They were passing through Lima for the day, before catching a bus that evening to Cusco. Later in the afternoon, we headed back to Miraflores for a quick visit to the beach to see the Pacific Coast before Dina and Ciaran had to catch their flight home to Dublin. It had been a relatively quick meet up but I was glad to have bused down to Lima to catch up with them.

It's tiring work walking around a big city getting quizzed by Billy all day
I was glad to see the Pacific Ocean again not having seen it since Panama. It was tricky to get to the beach having to cross a busy highway but we made it!
Dina and Ciaran were not the only ones I had arranged to meet in Lima. The following morning I was met by Fr. John O’Leary who was a family friend that first came out to Peru working as a catholic priest in the 1970’s. He was based in one of the poorer suburbs called Via El Salvador about an hour’s drive from the city centre. Although I had never met him before we quickly hit it off as I spent the day with him exploring the local neighborhood together.   

Street in Via El Salvador
Another street in Via El Salvador
View over part of Via El Salvador. It gets a lot of fog coming in from the ocean... not to mention the dust.

Map of Via El Salvador
Unlike many of the poorer neighbourhoods that surround Lima, which were initially settled by squatting the land, Via El Salvador was a mostly planned neighbourhood John explained but that it had changed immeasurably since he had first come to live there. Most of the main roads were now paved but lots of the side roads were still sand trails. We had lunch with two of his colleagues, one an English priest and another Irish priest from Donegal in his 80’s who was still well able to get around. Later in the afternoon I met some of John’s local parishioners who were all very friendly.

Fr. John with some of his parishioners.
I spent another day or so in the city mainly around the two touristy and affluent coastal neighbourhoods of Miraflores and Barranco but I was certainly glad to have visited what was probably a far more accurate representation of how the majority of Lima’s resident’s live out in Via El Salvador. Thanks John for welcoming me to your adopted home in Via El Salvador!

Street art in Barranco, Lima
Street sign in Barranco, Lima
Some of the fancier pads along the coastline in the affluent suburb of Miraflores
Meal on the bus back up to Jaen. (Shielsie, you'd love it)
I got one of the fancier and supposedly safer buses back up to Jaen because the same day that I had bussed down to Lima there was a bus crash in southern Peru killing 51 people after it plunged 200 metres into a ravine. (
I stayed with Sara’s family once I got back to Jaen before packing up and hitting the road the following morning for what I expected to be the most challenging country of the trip as I would be sticking almost soley in the Andes on my way through Peru.

Climbing all day
Hola Woofy! The dogs in Peru were unfortunately as mad as their Ecuadorean neighbours. I have been chased by hundreds of dogs on this trip and usually a shout or a stone will get rid of them eventually but I was glad to see this rothweiler tied up. No Woofy, you can't chew my leg. 

The kind policia of Cochabamba put me up one night. I even had my own room.
As always it was great to be back on the road. It didn’t take long for the proper climbing to kick in. Jaen was at a relatively low altitude and being closer to the jungle meant that it was quite humid but over the following days as I climbed my way higher into the Andes the air became less humid. By the end of my second full day on the bike I was despairing after only cycling 35 km that day which had been almost entirely uphill. It didn’t take long to come to the conclusion that if I was going to actually stick in the Andes I was not going to be getting anywhere too fast. Martin, the Argentinian cyclist who I had met back in the Casa de Ciclista near Quito, had told me that if I made it through the mountain ranges of Peru in my target of two months that he would give me a round of applause! …I was starting to understand what he was talking about. Another thing that I had been warned about by other touring cyclists familiar with Peru was the incessant horn honking. It didn’t take long for this to start to really get on my nerves. Every second vehicle that passed would honk you out of it. Being the friendly guy that I am I like to wave at cars and people as I pass but there seemed to be less waving in this part of the world than other places. I also started to become more reluctant to even make eye contact or look at an oncoming vehicle let alone wave at it as the invariable response, if there was one, would be a prolonged deafening horn honk.
The future of Peruvian football is in good hands.
Extra homework tonight
Only joking, no homework!
One evening after another challenging day of climbing on poor quality roads and passing through lots of road works I was looking for a place to stay. After asking around a lovely guy came through for me. He said that I could stay in his almost finished house where his family had yet to move into. Despite having walls and a roof I still erected my tent as it was still quite cold and draughty. He came back later in the evening to invite me for dinner with his family in their home about 300 m down the hill. As I sat at the table in the dark room with no windows and blackened walls from the fire they used for cooking I thought to myself that I might be as well be sitting in a hut back in 1840’s Ireland. It was literally a small fire made of wood in the corner with a large pot over it. There were no chickens running around on the mud floor but they did have about 10 guinnea pigs in the corner that they would eat at some stage. I also thought to myself that no matter what had happened to date on my bicycle travels or no matter what happens for the remainder of my journey that the entire project was worth it if for no other reason than to be sitting here in this dark mud hut sharing a meal with this very generous, welcoming and clearly very poor family. It was a touching experience, it was also a tasty potato soup with a  few mint leaves added that must grow locally. The following morning they invited me down for breakfast. They were intrigued to know about my country, what is the food like and would I get a boat back to Ireland. We took some photos before I bid farewell, fully energized after another delicious hearty bowl of potato soup. I was happy to see that potatoes seemed to feature more commonly in Peru than in previous countries. It made a change from the ubiquitous rice.

Thanks for the delicious soup and for putting me up
A house with walls made from dried out mud. Common in Peru.
 Over the next few days I got to know what other bike tours had meant when they said that the roads really deteriorate in Peru. I also struggled quite a lot with following directions that people would give which I don’t think was entirely down to my limited Spanish.

These two guys ran after me to give me a free bottle of water. Muchas gracias amigos, first time since Alaska!
Make a change from the usual Virgin Mary statue found in many of the town squares
Your money or your life. After some hard barganing they agreed to let me pass.
National route
Goldfields gold mine
Bluer than blue run off from the mine. Lots of communities have had their local water supplies destroyed by pollution from the mines in this part of Peru
Local poster protesting against the mine
Mine slowly chipping away at a mountain
Big trucks working in the mine, wouldn't like to meet one of them on the open road
Swiss couple I met outside Cajamarca who are cycling north from Ushuia. They warned me about the strong winds in Patagonia.
I arrived into Cajamarca late one afternoon soaked and freezing after an extended fast downhill in the rain. Thankfully I had decided to take a few days off here as it is a picturesque colonial town with a lot of history.  The Battle of Cajamarca was where the Spanish Conquistadors completed the defeat of the Inca empire and where they captured, ransomed and eventually killed the Incan Emperor Atahualpa. There are also the famous “Banos del Inca” on the outskirts of town which are well known hot springs I visited one afternoon.

San Francisco church

Painting depicting Incan Emperor Atahualpa promising a room full of gold to his captors if they released him.

Sunday, 6 October 2013


I spotted my first Llama in Ecuador

Having crossed into Ecuador at dusk during the Ecuador Colombia World Cup qualifier my first night in the country was spent in an interesting location. A motel. That might not seem that interesting on first appearance compared to lots of the various places I’ve laid my head on this trip but motels in this part of the world are somewhat more colourful than what many of you may picture. They would more accurately be described as Sex Motels. Aaaaghooou! Alas it was just me and the bike. I wish I had kept a photo gallery of all the amusing names of the various motels that I have been passing since Central America with names ranging from Cupids, Motel Amor to Ruta 69 and the likes. The motels are all about privacy and anonymity and usually consist of a line of garage doors where people drive (or cycle) straight in and the garage door closes immediately behind them. Despite the mirrors on the wall and roof and the poster with the top 20 sex positions I’m not sure how suited the place was for an amorous night as it was absolutely freezing.
Mirror on the roof
Laminated television controls, nice.
My first full days cycling in Ecuador being a Saturday there were plenty of cyclists out for their weekend spin and I got talking to plenty of them throughout the day. They seemed to be a pretty even split between Ecuadorians and Colombian’s who had crossed over the border for the day.

The start of the Pan American Highway in Ecuador
Out for their morning spin
The following day I passed a major milestone cycling from the northern into the southern hemisphere. Having started my cycle well inside the arctic circle it had “only” taken me just over 13 months to cross into the southern  hemisphere. Late in the afternoon I arrived at the “Mitad del Mundo” monument which marks the dividing line of the equator and got talking to the very friendly Manuel and Josue who look after this tourist attraction. They mentioned that cyclists often camped at their places nearby so I didn’t have to think twice to take them up on their suggestion and actually ended up being offered my very own bedroom that night. We had a game of volleyball with some of their friends which is hugely popular around here and had a great few hours chatting. Thanks guys. Before hitting the road the following morning I shared breakfast with their dad who offered me some milk for my oats fresh from the cow.

Crossing the Equator
Fresh milk for breakfast
Later that evening I made it to Tumbaco on the outskirts of Quito where Santiago and his lovely family have been welcoming cyclists to their home for over 20 years. I was planning a few days off here and wasn’t the only cyclist staying so it was great to exchange stories, do some very necessary bike maintenance and catch up with my Pan American cycling pal Nicolas Provenzani , who had been hanging  out there. Martin and his girlfriend Irene were an Argentinian couple cycling north. Martin hailed from Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego where I hope to end up…. someday! A day later, Kim and his twin six year old sons arrived along on their bike and trailer. Kim and the two boys have been cycling around the world for the last three years and will probably spend another year travelling. Myself and Nic headed into Central Quito one of the days to check out the famous historical centre which is a UNESCO World heritage site due to the well preserved colonial architecture.
Main church in Central Quito
Sculpture at the Casa de Cultura in Quito
Bike scheme Quito
Extended bike family. From left: Nicolas, Micaela, Irene, Martin, Santiago, Muni, Miri, Ana-Lucia, Kim and myself all enjoying ourselves at the Casa in Tumbaco.
After finally leaving Santiago’s lovely oasis I skirted around the edge of Quito headed for Cotopaxi National Park. Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador and one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. Suffice to say that the two days or so cycle up to the national park was challenging involving some steep accents on gravel and I had to hop off the bike to push it occasionally. It was most definitely worth the effort once I got up into the national park where I was greeted by some great views. At about 3,700 m it was the highest point I had made it to date on the trip and I luckily found a small gorge for some shelter for the night to set up my tent protected from the freezing wind. The following afternoon once the sun had come out and I was enjoying the much easier decent I encountered Um Hong Gil, a Korean mountaineer and his support team who were filming an Andes range Expedition. To say that Um was an experienced mountain climber would be an understatement having climbed 16 summits in the Himalayas, but he had only summited Everest three times. We had a good chat and I was interviewed about my trip.

On the road to Cotopaxi
Well wrapped up.. except the guy in the t-shirt.
Rough road up to Cotopaxi National Park 
The entrance into Cotopaxi National Park. Thanks for helping with my camping gear for the trip BaseCamp. ( 

Bike having a breather
That evening I was very grateful to make it to another great Casa de Ciclista in Ambato run by Leo who has a partner Casa run by his brother in Toronto. Upon arriving tired into the casa just after dark after a big day I was thrilled to receive my medal which Leo gives to all cyclist upon arrival and presented by his very cute little daughter. It was a lovely gesture.

Ingapirca - most famous Incan ruins in Ecuador 
Irlanda? Ecuador 
Old woman walking by the side of the road
One of many stunning mountain views
As you are probably aware at this stage I have spent many nights staying in fire stations but the next few days must have set something of a record on my trip as I managed to stay at different stations four nights in a row. Muchas gracias a los bomberos de ecuador! 

Best Bomberos ever, not because they gave me a mattress in my own room or because they let me use the WiFi but because they gave me a delicious meal. These guys are also one of Ecuador's top wooden carting champions! 
Another night in the bomberos
There's nothing I like to do more after a grueling ten hours on the bike than to work out so the room in this bomberos was perfect.... thousand and one, thousand and two..
These days were spent cycling south on the Pan American highway and I was happy to take a break once I made it to Cuenca which is Ecuador’s third largest city. It's a popular tourist destination due to it’s beautiful old town in the centre. I stayed in a hostel a few blocks east of the central square called El Cafecito where I ran into a few other international travellers so it was fun to hang out with them for the few days as we explored the city together.

Catedral de la inmaculada Conception in Cuenca
It was here that I discovered that the Panama hat should more accurately be called the Ecuador hat as that's where they originate from and Cuenca is one of the main centres for these stylish hats.
Parque Abdon Calderon with Cathedral in background in central Cuenca
On the road to Vilcabamba
Once back on the bike I finally turned off the Pan American highway at Loja to take the smaller road directly south to Vilcabamba. This small town is another popular place on the tourist trail and is famous due to the old age that many of it’s residents supposedly reach. Over recent decades this has led to a large influx of foreigners into the small town keen to discover the secret to the healthy living. There’s a relaxed vibe to the place and I was lucky enough to have a pad to stay at my friend Jessa’s who was working as a yoga instructor at a lovely hostel. Izhcayluma was a beautiful hostel about 2 kilometres up the hill from town with what can only be described as a stunning view over the valley. Thanks to Jessa and owner Peter, originally from Bavaria, for sorting me out with a free breakfast every morning overlooking Vilcabamba. It was extremely difficult to leave this idyllic little get away but I was keen to make it into Peru with the border less than 150 km away.

Free chocolate tasting in Vilcabamba to celebrate world coco day. I think it's my new favourite day of the year.
View from the breakfast table at Izhcayhluma
Bumpy road south of Vilcabamba 
.. with plenty of road works
Despite it’s relatively short distance, the cycle to the border made for some of the toughest days in the saddle that I’ve had on the trip. The paved road ran out about 30 km south of Vilcabamba after which there were some heavy road works and the closer I struggled to the border the rougher and steeper the gravel tracks seemed to become. Suffice to say that this is not the main Ecuador Peru border crossing with only a trickle of traffic although there was more than a trickle coming from several of the streams flowing across the road along the way.

Time for a paddle
Somehow I think I might still use my own blow up matress tonight.
My last night in Ecuador was spent in a holding cell of the police station in Zumba. No I hadn’t gone and committed a misdemeanor hoping to escape over the border. With no Bomberos in Zumba it was my last chance to check out the hospitality of la policia in Ecuador and the holding cell, complete with luxurious en-suite toilet, was what they offered me! It was in Zumba that I also ran into Federico and Brenda a lovely Argentinian couple who had been bike touring Ecuador and Peru and were homeward bound.
This kind gentleman brought me downtown on the back of his police motorbike complete with lights flashing to show me somewhere cheap to eat. Everyone knows there's no bigger emergency than a hungry cyclist.
The following hot and sunny afternoon I passed through the most relaxed border crossing I’ve encountered so far and into the 12th country of the trip, Peru.

Taking in the view.