Atraversando fronteras – South America by bicycle

From January to November of 2004, I embarked upon an epic bike trip from the southern extreme of South America, on the shores of the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego, north toward Venezuela´s palm-studded Caribbean coast. Along the way, I traversed 9 countries and experienced a multitude of unforgettable moments, some bad but the majority good.

I am Ryan Parton a Victoria-based writer, photographer and avid adventurer.

Born in Selkirk, Manitoba in 1977, I have made my first trip overseas in 1996, spending six weeks backpacking through Europe. Ever since my return, I have been plagued by the travel bug. After a brief stint at the University of Manitoba I took off once again, this time for southeast Asia, before returning to Canada and settling down for a three-year stint in Montreal. There, I attended journalism school at Concordia University, and graduated with distinction in 2002.

http://rgparton.tripod.com/af.html

Route Map

Started in: Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Finished in: Puerta La Cruz, Venezuela
Kilometres cycled: 8,989

Atravesando Fronteras is Spanish for “Crossing Borders.” Sure, I crossed the ones you see on a map, but the ones I’m really referring to are the borders in our minds that exist subconsciously and limit our own perceived capabilities. They’re the borders that say “You can’t do it,” and so prevent you from even trying. Atravesando Fronteras is about conquering inhibition and blurring the line between dreams and reality.

Hall of Fame

Toughest Stretch:
San Sebastian to Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego (raging headwinds)

Honourable Mentions:
Manaus to Waimiri Atroari Indian Reserve, Brasil (heat & hills)
Chile Chico to Puerto Guadal, Chile (steep hills, rough road)

Easiest Stretch:
Zapala to Bahia Blanca, Argentina

Hardest Climb:
Ocumare to Cuyagua, Venezuela (W of Caracas)

Most Brilliant Descent:
From tunnel pass to Tingo Maria, Peru (ab. 60 km. downhill)

Most Beautiful Rides:
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Carretera Austral, Chile
Gran Sabana, Venezuela

Longest Day:
214.11 km. from San Bernardo to Pepinas, Argentina

Best Road Surface:
Highway through the Gran Sabana, Venezuela

Worst Road Surface:
Agua Castillo to Pulacayo, Bolivia
Honourable Mention:
Cerro Castillo, Chile to El Cerrito, Argentina

Highest Daily Average Speed:
26.7 km/hr over 109 km from Chelforo to near Choele Choel, Argentina

Lowest Daily Average:
9.1 km/hr over 47 km from Chile Chico, Chile along S shore of Lago General Carrera

Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)

A few short days ago I abandoned my cosy little life in Canada for the glacial wilderness of Tierra del Fuego, a windswept hulk of an island whose jagged crags stand sentinel at the bottom of the world.

From here I will embark upon an epic bicycle journey to the Caribbean Sea, some 10,000 kilometres and several million pedal strokes from my starting point in the remote south.

Along hte way, I will traverse nine countries and an eclectic array of landscapes, from the celebrated beaches of southern Brazil to the inhospitible plains of western Paraguay; the frigid highlands of the Bolivian Andes to the lush tropics of the Amazon jungle.

The question that begs to be answered is, “Why?”

Why am I so compelled to leave behind all that is familiar and embark upon such an ambitious and masochistic quest?

One reason, undeniably, is an insatiable thirst for adventure and, conversely, a near-frantic flight form the mundane.

Probably this trip has something to do with a phobia of staying in one place for too long, a case supported by my geographic track record: Four cities and 12 changes of address in the past eight years.

A fear of emotional attachment, as has been suggested by a friend who understands me better than she gives herself credit for, is perhaps another culprit.

Whatever the paramount contributing factor, the energy fueling this trip’s preparations has been a stubborn refusal to believe that I’m not capable of completing it.

In all honesty, I’m not a particularly gifted athlete. I’m not blessed with the chisled legs of Lance Armstrong or the infinitely deep pockets of Bill Gates, and I’ve forsaken a ride in the rain in favour of a movie and a tub of ice cream more often than I’d like to admit.

I’ve never attempted anything on this scale before, and I’m intimidated by the very thought of it. But I know I can do it.

Over the course of this year-long endeavour, as I weave my way through a fascinating and diverse continent, I welcome you to follow my travels in these pages, where I will provide tales of my adventures to all my friends and neighbours back home.

Above all else, I encourage you to cross your own borders and follow your own dreams, whatever they may be, and to never underestimate the power of a determined heart.

Tierra del Fuego & Chile

Travel thoughts: Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego

At the southern tail of the Americas, a mighty wind roars south from the Patagonian steppe, mercilessly buffetting the rugged land known as Tierra del Fuego, the windswept archipelago standing sentinel at the end of the world.

As I labouriously pedalled my fully loaded bike into this formidable force, I wondered how a bike trip against the wind through Tierra del Fuego had ever sounded like fun.

In 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan first navigated the confusing passage that now bears his name, he looked south and saw the many fires of the Yamana people, one of the original Fuegian tribes, and named this unknown land Tierra del Fuego, or “Land of Fire.” Although the name refers to the entire collection of islands stretching south from the Strait of Magellan to Cape Horn, it´s generally used in reference to La Isla Grande, the main Fuegian island and the host of my masochistic cycling adventure. The Yamana, for their part, were eventually all but wiped out by the disease and violence of colonization.

My journey had began in Ushuaia, Argentina, a pretty little city nestled between the glacier-capped mountains of southern Tierra del Fuego and the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel. Touted as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia attracts hordes of adventure-seeking tourists, including most of those continuing south to Antarctica. As a result, the city has a well-developed tourist infrastructure and is an easy spot to ease into Fuegian culture.

Just west of Ushuaia lies the southern terminus of Argentina´s RN-3, the highway that begins 3,242 kilometres away in Buenos Aires, and which would lead me through the Fuegian countryside.

The first 150 kilometres of my journey had had their difficulties, in the form of dusty gravel stretches and a torrential downpour, but the beautiful mountain scenery had kept my spirits high and had offered protection from the full force of the wind.

But at the otherwise amiable town of Tolhuin, the RN-3 turns north towards the Atlantic coast, the mountains and forests dissolve into flat pampas, or plains, and the highway becomes completely exposed to the harsh elements. The landscape became a monotonously flat plain in hues of yellow and green, like an oil painting at a rich aunt´s, or a box of shredded wheat left open in the cupboard for too long. As I tediously chipped away at the kilometres, even the few trees that remained, gnarled and grotesquely twisted by the wind, faded into the vast bareness of the pampas.

Six days into my journey I arrived exhausted at the surprisingly unattractive city of Rio Grande, on the island´s Atlantic coast. Primarily an oil town, Rio Grande was hit hard by Argentina´s recent economic collapse, and you get the impression that it´s never fully recovered. The city, which calls itself “the international trout capital,” is trying hard to build its image as a tourist destination, but as far as I could tell its only remarkable feature is an absurd abundance of shoe stores and grafitti.

Past Rio Grande the RN-3 continues along the island´s northeastern flank, but rarely gets close enough to afford a scenic view. Instead, I could have been cycling through southern Alberta, with slightly rolling grasslands dancing a horizontal lambada with the wind, and a few lonely oil rigs pumping methodically in the distance.

At the tiny border post of San Sebastian I bid farewell to the paved RN-3 and headed west, into the eye of the gale, down a rocky road that stretches some 150 kilometres to Porvenir, the only town of any significance in Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

For two more days the scenery was unimaginably unimaginative; parched grasslands interrupted only infrequently by the wooden gates of roadside estancias, the vast ranches that divide up northern Tierra del Fuego.

From time to time I´d see a lone guanaco, similar to a llama but more lithe, standing stoically on the horizon. Hammered as I was by the wind, however, it would pass with all the speed and enjoyment of a kidney stone.

It was an almost welcome, and certainly rare, adrenaline rush when one of only a handful of passing cars clipped me from behind, fatally wounding my rear wheel but luckily leaving me unscathed. With the wind howling in my ears it had been impossible to hear any traffic sneaking up from behind.

About 40 kilometres from Porvenir the road begins to hug the northern shore of Bahia Inutil, literally “Useless Bay,” whose brilliant blue sheen was a wonderful relief to my pampas-weary eyes. The now undulating road even offered some variety in the form of ups and downs as I limped along on my battered wheel.

After one final hill I was rewarded with an almost unbelievable sight: Porvenir, and not a moment too soon, spread out before me along the edge of its own tranquil bay.

Porvenir was founded as a mining town in the late 19th century, but the local gold rush never lived up to expectations, and I suppose neither did Porvenir. The place has the air of a ghost town, with rusting skeletons of ancient cars gradually being overtaken by nature along its streets and nary a soul wandering its sidewalks. Nonetheless, its colourful tin-sided homes and friendly inhabitants, once found, made it an enjoyable place to spend a few days resting my weary body.

What got me was that, after 11 days and more than 500 kilometres of cycling, the wind seemed to back off just a touch as I arrived in Porvenir, an almost sportsmanlike gesture. It was as if the Fuegian wind itself was nodding its head and saying, “Well done.”

And, just in case my breezy nemesis is out there reading this somewhere, I´d like to mention that in five years of cycling, in six different countries, I´ve never faced a more worthy opponent.

Friday, Jan. 23, 2004 Ushuaia, Argentina

Nearly a week after touching down in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, Atravesando Fronteras is underway. The first several days were spent bumming around the city, which is alot larger and more modern than I´d imagined. I also had to get a repair done to a damaged front rack, which broke en route. Hopefully the new version will hold up under some strain.
I met up with Gwendal Castellan and Damien McCombs, who are embarking on their own cycling expedition called the Antipodes Expedition, and I´ve been hanging out with them ever since. We´ve hiked up to a nearby glacier and gone on a boat tour of the Beagle Canal, which included a stop at a penguin colony. They´re just as cute in real life, and I want one of my very own!
After cycling to Tierra del Fuego National Park, about 12 km west of Ushuaia, we camped for the night and set out the next morning for the start of Argentina´s No. 3 highway (or I suppose it´s the end), which is the official start of the expedition. After ceremonially dipping our bikes in the frigid waters of Lapataia Bay and sharing a bottle of champagne, we set off. Smooth sailing so far, although we´ve only gone about 24 km. back to Ushuaia.
Unfortunately, I didn´t compress any of my digital images and so they´re all too big to put on the site, but I´ll try to get some up sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, Jan. 28 Rio Grande, Argentina

Things are goig fairly well and we´re now in the surprisingly unnatractive city of Rio Grande, partway up the northewast coast of Tierra del Fuego.

The second day after leaving Ushuaia we crossed a tough, switchbacked pass leading towards Lago Nagnano, then fought a headwind and a rocky road towards the town of Tolhuin, where we enjoyed a feast of empanandas in the town bakery, which seemed to be the big hangout for young and old.
We spent the night and a rest day at Estancia Tepi, 20 km or so up the AR-3 from Tolhuin. From Tolhuin the road became thankfully paved. Estancia Tepi was a haven of luxury for three tired cyclists, if a bit over out budget. Whiule there we befriended Cacho and Elina, the two caretakers, and Filipe, their adopted two month year old guanaco.
From Estancia Tepi we were continued north into the winds that this area is famous for. we cycled nearly 50 kilometres, at times only going 6 kilometres per hour into a headwind the likes of which I´ve never experienced. We spent the night at Estancia Punta Maria, about 30 km south of Rio Grande. The estancia used to have a resataurant, and we were teased with signs promising chocolates and tea, but the place has fallen into disrepair, and the only one left was a surly old caretaker who, despite his apparent dislike of communication, allowed us to sleep in his woodshed, and even sold us some of his delicious fresh-baked bread.
We rose early to beat the wind for the home stretch to Rio Grande and were rewarded. It was teh smoothest ride yet, past estancias teeming with cows, sheep and guanacos. The mountains that are so prominant around Ushuaia have completely disappeared, and the trees have almost as well. All that left along the highway are a few gnarled, lichen-draped atrocities that wouldn´t look out of place in one of Tim Burton´s surreal nightmares.
We´ve checked into the Club Nautico here in Rio Grande, where we will sleep in a second floor gym’type room, and will enjoy a fish dinner for 6 pesos (about $3 Canadian).
We´re excited to get moving on north and then west into Chilean Tierra del Fuego, but are terrified about heading into more of the winds we faced two days ago, which we almost surely will. Nonetheless, spirits are presently quite high.

Thursday, Feb. 5 Punta Arenas, Chile

As I´ve mentioned before, this part f the world is famous for its winds, and for several days weve been fighting them nearly every inch of the way.
From Rio Grande, the AR-3 took us north along the coast to San Sebastian, a tiny outpost on the Chilean border. We pedalled into the wind past a landscape that reminded me of southern Alberta, mainly flat and boring, dotted with the occasional oil derek.
From San Sebastian, it´s a 145-kilometre slog to Porvenir, the only town in Chilean Tierra del Fuego of any significance. Into winds gusting 50 to 60 km. per hour (we guessed) we plodded along past barren yellow/greens fields, occasionaly dotted with an estancia or a wandering guanaco. Such scenery may be considerd beautiful in its own minimalist way by a speeding motorist, but under the present circumstances it passed with all the speed and enjoyment of a kidney stone.
The one moment of drama occurred about 30 km ast the Chilean border, when I was hit by one of only about 6 cars to pass us from behind each day. Gwendal and Damien were cycling on the left side of the road, which is where we did much of our riding since for some reason the dirt road seemed to be less rocky there, and I was on the right. With the wind howling in our ears it´s impossible to hear vehicles coming up behind us, and when I heard Damien yell “car” I was just in time to turn around and see one directly behind me, coming with decent enough speed. My first instinct was to swerve right, which unfortunately was also what the driver did, and he clipped my rear pannier. Luckily I escaped completely unscathed, but my rear wheel took a beating and, although it´s still techinically rideable, I´ll have to replace it before we leave Punta Arenas. On the up side, as Damien pointed out, its the first taco weve seen since we´ve been in South America.
As we reached the northern shore of Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay) the water´s bold blue stod in stark contrast with the drab countryside of the past two days, but the wind was just as ruthless so we didn´t really care. We stopped one evening to watch some dolphins frolicking just offshore, and camped near the beach the day before cycling the home stretch to Porvenir.
Porvenir itself is a cute little town with colourful, tin-sided homes and a frustrating dearth of signage. It was established as a base for miners during a brief gold rush in the late 1800s, but the rush never lived up to expectations, and I suppose neither did Porvenir. Nnetheless, it´s a nice lace to chill for a few days, which is what we had to do since we missed the ferry to the mainland on Tuesday and had to wait until this morning.
Now we´re in the “big” city of Punta Arenas, which at first glance seems like a nice city. Were going to spend another few days here taking care of business (new wheels, sewing, emailing, etc…) and then we´ll continue north towards Torres del Paine National Park and the Carretera Austral.

Wednesday, Feb. 11 Puerto Natales, Chile

The ride to Puerto Natales was much easier than we´d expected, and made even easier by a beautifully paved road. We made it in three days after allowing ourselves four.
The wind was only a factor on the second day, as we were forced to bunker down next to a fence with a tarp set up as a shield for about eight hours. No big deal though since we´d started out early (to beat the wind) and got in 50 km. before we stopped. When the wind died down around 8:00 PM we did another 20 km to Morro Chico, a tiny outpost next to a beautiful, massive chunk of rock rising out of the Pampas like Australia´s Ayers Rock. A carabinero (police officer) in town said we could sleep in a shed across from the station, and after stashing our gear we climbed around on the rock for a while before it got too dark.


We did 105 km yesterday, out longest day yet, and arrived in Puerto Natales, a little town teeming with tourists due to its proximity to Torres del Paine National Park, which is where we´ll head tomorrow for four to six days of hiking.

Wednesday, Feb. 18 Puerto Natales, Chile

We´ve just arrived back in Puerto Natales after six days of wonderfu and exhausting hiking in Torres del Paine National Park. We arrived at the park late and hiked a couple hours to our first campsite on the banks of the swift-flowing Rio Grey just before sundown.

On day two we hiked up alongside the river, which eventually widened into Lago Grey, which flows south from the stunning Grey Glacier and is speckled with the icebergs that have calved off this enormous ice sheet. It was a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky, save for a couple that shrouded the mountain tops, making them look like they belonged on teh cover of a fantasy novel. After a refreshing dip in a smaller, warmer lake, we los the trail a bit and had to scramble up the rocky, glacier-scarred shore to get to our second camp, which had the distinction of having the worst toilet I´ve ever seen anywhere).
Over breakfast the next morning we watched the glacier, it´s jagged seracs shimmering in the sunlight and it freshly calved bergs a shade of blue I´d thought impossible in nature, the colour of 7-11´s Brainfreeze Slurpees.

We continued hiking to our next camp, whose toilet facilities were actually worse since there were none, and the place was littered with discarded toilet paper in various degrees of filth. At night though we were entertained with one of the most starry night skies I´ve ever seen, traversed by the lazy wisps of the Milky Way, and we slept to the occasional roar of the nearby Glacier de Frances calving and falling like thunder onto the scree slope below.

We cut the next day a bit short and hung out at another campsite drinking wine and playing dice for push-ups. We´ve been trying to incorporate push-ups into our non-cycling days since we figure our upper bodies are in need of a bit of a workout.

The next day we hiked under our first sprikling of rain and a mighty wind to our final campsite, which generally serves as the base camp for day hikes to the magnificant Torres del Paine, the three giant spires that reach for the sky like a granite Empire State Building, and which are the park´s namesake. We awoke at 4:45 the next morning to witness sunrise on the torres, famous for producing a brilliant red hue on their surfaces. The light show was a bit underwhelming, only throwing a splash of orange onto the central spire a couple of times, but the towers themselves were impressive in their own right, and we braved the frigid wind and drizzle for an hour or so in awe of these granite goliaths. After returning to camp we had a brief siesta before hiking the rest of the way down and out of the park.
Now we´re back in Puerto Natales and plan to head out by bike tomorrow back into the park, where we´ll pick up some food we stashed, and north towards El Calafate, Argentina. We´ve heard mixed reports about the pass between the park and Calafate, and are anxious to hear from a couple American cyclist we´ve met who were about to attempt it as we began our hike. If all goes well, we´ll be in Calafate for Carnival!

Sunday, Feb. 29 El Calafate, Argentina

We left Puerto Natales bright and early at about 6 PM and headed north towards the Cueva del Milodon, a giant cave etched into conglomorate rock about 25 km. north of town. After camping for the night nearly in the shadow of a huge rock known as “La Silla del DIablo” (the Devil’s Chair) we hiked in ho explore the cave, which is cool in the sense that all caves are pretty cool, but a bit underwhelming all the same.
n the way up, Gwendal and Damien had a catastrophic breakdown, when their rear cogset actually sheared in two. While they returned humbled to Puerto Natales I pressed on solo fr El Calafate.

The three days that followed were the best of times and the worst of times. I crossed back into Argentina on a crappy road with the wind at my back before hitting a beautifully paved section where I could go 33 km/hr without even trying. It’s amazing how beautiful teh pampas can be with a tailwind, a huge blue/grey sky with lenticular clouds hanging like UFOs over the golden grasslands below. The pavement unfortunately lasted only 15 km. or so, and then I had to turn off onto the worst road I’d seen yet this trip. It began with consistent washboard (ribbed for my displeasure), which devolved into a rocky mess for the rest of the 50 km. or so to the highway. After my longest day of riding EVER, 121 km, I spent the night with a crazy lonely guy named Lazo at some sort of truck stop place.
The following day I rode another 98 km. into El Calafate, against the wind the whole way, and mostly uphill save for a great 10-km downhill stretch which would have been better without the wind slowing me down.
After a couple days in El Calafate I reunited with Damien and Gwendal, who had more bike troubles along the rocky road, and we biked out to the Moreno Glaciar. The glacieris massive and entertaining to watch in that it’s constantly groaning and calving off chunks of ice into the lake, but it’s very touristy and silent moments are hard to find. We all preferred the smaller Grey Glacier for its serenity.

El Calafate itself is a well-maintained tourist town with a pretty main avenue. I strayed four blocks off this main drag, however, and discovered a dingy playground surrounded by barbed wire, with a severed horse leg lying in front of the jungle gym. A tale of Two Cities indeed! We’ll soon be off for El Chaltan, where we’d like to do some more hiking around Mt. Fitz Roy.

Monday, Mar. 15, 2004 Perito Moreno, Argentina

We just barely made it from El Calafate to El Chalten, along a terrible stretch where it seemed the road conditions and the weather conspired to see which could slow us down the most. We had to spend a few hours huddled under a tarp near a detour in the rocky road at one point because it was impossible to continue in the wind and rain. Fun times! It ended up taking four days to do what we we expected to take three days max, and so on our last day we had to ride about 40 km into the wind with only a few cookies and crackers to eat. But we made it, and then gorged ourselves on pizza and empanandas. Mmmm, empanadas….
El Chalten is a super cool little climbing town, super laid back, and everyone is so fit looking. As luck would have it, our first full day in town was their annual “Fiesta del Trekking” and there were all sorts of events going on. We somehow ended up entered in a mountain bike race through town, and surprised ourselves by finishing second and third behind a fellow cycle tourist from Barcelona. Bike tourers rule!
We celebrated that evening at a rocking party with way too many people crowded into the tiny favourite local watering hole, El Puesto. Well, we got pretty puestoed ourselves, and danced until the wee hours to a cool local ska band.
El Chalten lies in the shadow of Fitz Roy and some stellar mountain scenery, so we did a three-day hike through the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, in which the town lies, and got awesome weather, apparently somewhat of an anomoly for the area.
After another peaceful rest day at our free camp site nestled between a swift river and one of the massive rock walls that envelope the town, we headed off to Lago del Desierto, where we were to catch a ferry that would take us to another ferry that would take us to the Carretera Austral in Chile. Unfortunately, trying to figure out Chilean ferry schedules is like trying to find a full set of teeth at a Dwight Yoakam concert. Long story short, the second ferry was broken and not running. We retreated back to El Chalten, and endured the worst luck on the road back. I got something like four flats, and Gwendal and Damien got one and then busted their trailer, and then their front rack. All told, it took 8.5 hours to do 35 km, which must be some sort of record. In hindsight, we had committed a mild blasphemy by posing for a photo next to a wooden Jesus at a roadside alter, and so we figured we were being smitten.
Not liking the idea of battling the headwinds through another 700 km of pampas, which would have been our detour to the Carretera, we hopped onto a bus and suffered instead through 13 hours of stuffy backpacker travel. Now we´re in Perito Moreno, a fairly unremarkable town, and tomorrow we´ll head to the border and connect with the Carretera from the town of Chile Chico.
Gwendal and Damien were both sick for a bit, I think from some fancy cheese they ate, but they´re doing well now and I seem to have avoided it…for now.

Travel thoughts: Hurry Up and Slow Down

Perhaps the hardest part about cycling thorugh southern Patagonia is that it’s impossible to get anywhere quickly. Not only are the distances vast, measured in days rather than kilometres, but there are just too many amazing things to see and do along the way.

After successfully fighting our way against the raging winds of Tierra del Fuego, my two Vancouver-bred cycling mates and I headed north from the pleasant city of Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, to the seaside town of Puerto Natales, in slightly less southern Chile.

While Puerto Natales is not an entirely unattractive town in itself, the real reason it’s on any tourist’s radar is its close proximity to the crown jewel of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine National Park.

The park is a backpacker’s Mecca, 450,000 acres of shimmering glaciers, impossibly aquamarine lakes and a nearly unrivalled concentration of natural beauty.

We spent six days hiking in the park before reloading our bikes and continuing northward, back toward Argentina. Only a few hours later, however, we couldn’t resist a detour to the Cueva del Milodon, a huge cavern of conglomorate rock where, in 1895, the discovery of the bones and skin of a mylodon prompted a search for living specimens of the prehistoric beast, although none was ever found.

It was around the Cueva del Milodon that my friends suffered their first of a series of breakdowns to their custom-built tandem touring bike. While they returned to Puerto Natales to replace a sheared cogset, I continued solo toard the Argentine border, where I was made the subject of several photographs by the passengers of a waiting tour bus. I was now back in the flat pampas with which I’d ebcome intimately familiar in the wilds of Tierra del Fuego, but what a difference a tailwind can make in your impression of a place! The same landscape that I’d found boring and monotonous while fighting the Fuegian wind was suddenly beautiful; the bright blue-grey sky, with lenticular clouds hovering like UFOs over the grasslands below, reminded me of myManitoba home.

I made it to El Calafate, on the shores of Lago Argentina, in three days and waited for my friends to arrive and complain of more breakdowns en route. Hearing of my trials made me thankful that my Trek 4300, a solid entry-level mountain bike, has thus far performed without a hitch.

El Calafate seems a town on its way to becoming an Argentine Banff, a base for exploration of the nearby glaciers and lakes, and with a well-kept main avenue crowded with shops catering to the tourists who arrive by the busload. The town has a way to go, however, for I needed only to stray four blocks off the main drag to find a decrepid playground surrounded by barbed wire, a severed horse leg lying at the foot of the jungle gym.

Equine appendages notwithstanding, the highlight of a visit to El Calafate is the nearby Moreno Glacier, a stunning, 60-metre high river of ice that creaks, groans and calves massive icebergs into the lake below. The glacier is part of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, which stretches some 500 kilometres northward and constitutes the world’s third-largest reserve of frozed fresh water.

We enjoyed a week of comfort in and around El Calafate before leaving to endure four days of grueling cycling, during which the weather and roads conspired to see which could slow us down the most.

We arrived tired and hungry in the tiny, laid-back town of El Chalten, a climber’s paradise that lies in the shadows of Mount Fitz Roy and is surrounded by towering rock walls.

On our first full day in El Chalten we somehow found ourselves entered in a mountain bike race around town, and surprised ourselves by finishing second and third, behind a fellow bike tourist form Barcelona. We rewarded ourselves with a night of dancing at the favourite local watering hole, followed by three days of hiking amidst the beautiful mountain scenery of Los Glaciares National Park, in which El Chalten is located.

In the past 29 days we’ve cycled little more than 750 kilometres, well below our projected average of 50 kilometres per day, but none of us has any regrets. Over the past months we’ve had some amazing experiences in some of the most breathtaking spots in the world, and we figure it will only get better as we continue our journey through this wonderfully diverse continent.

Chile Chico to Buenos Aires

Travel thoughts: Chugging Through Chile

Cowering like frightened kittens, we huddled shoulder to shoulder in the five- by eight-foot wooden hovel that was our only safe haven from the deluge that was still pouring down all around us. Bundled in whatever dry clothes we still had, and shivering against the cold, we were three hapless Canucks in a cold, wet corner of Chile.

I´d guessed beforehand that our northward slog along Chile´s nearly legendary Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, would be one of the most challenging portions of my bicycle journey through South America, but it easily surpassed my expectations.

Damien, Gwendal and I had had our difficulties from the start, when we couldn´t cross a remote section of the Chilean/Argentine border because the ferry we needed to take was either finished sailing for the season, not sailing for another two weeks, or broken. We were never quite sure, and looking for reliable information was like trying to find a full set of teeth at a Merle Haggard concert.

Thus we found ourselves a week later grinding our way along what was surely the brainchild of some nefariously mad engineer, a giant washboard of a road strewn with fist-sized rocks, which ascended grades so steep they should be outlawed before plunging precipitously back down, like a slow motion roller coaster ride at an amusement park for the damned.

We´d crossed into Chile several hundred kilometres further north, near the quiet border town of Chile Chico. Now, to get to the Carretera Austral, we were cycling west along the shore of Lago General Carrera, the deepest in South America, whose picturesque waters shimmered aquamarine between a smattering of islands and promontories. Beyond the lake, the rugged hills were tinted green with copper, of which Chile is the world´s leading producer.

One of the perks of bicycle travel is that it allows you to experience places that most tourists would never end up in, or would complain loudly to their tour operators if they ever did. One such place is Puerto Guadal, where we arrived after two grueling days along the lakeshore. Puerto Guadal may once have been considered a one horse town, but it looks like that horse up and left, leaving the village´s dusty streets to a handful of friendly inhabitants and the occasional conga line of waddling geese.

After four nights of eating like kings and recovering from colds in Puerto Guadal, time constraints forced us to board a mini bus to the small city of Coyhaique, midway up the Carretera Austral. Among the faded suitcases and legs of lamb piled in the back of this tiny bus, I was surprised to see a large canvas sack stamped with a familiar logo that read: “Canada Post.” I thought of asking the duffel´s owner how he had acquired such a rare item, but decided instead to cling to my fantasy that among its contents was a care package I had expected a month earlier, and which was now adrift somewhere in mail limbo between Manitoba and Argentina.

Finally we were set to cycle the Carretera Austral, a route as renowned for its beauty as it is notorious for its brutality, a winding ribbon of rock and gravel that snakes its way through some of Chile´s most beautiful countryside.

It didn´t take long for our quality of life to drop.

Two nights out of Coyhaique, just as I was sleeping soundly in a warm bed with my girlfriend slumbering peacefully at my side, I made the mistake of opening my eyes. Immediately I was back on the Carretera Austral or, more precisely, under it, wrapped tightly in my sleeping bag under a bridge that was protecting me from a cold, misty rain. To my right I found not my girlfriend, but my two cycling mates, huddled together like two pigs in a blanket, Damien´s face buried deep in his bag as protection against a rat that had earlier scurried across his head.

The morning offered us a brief respite from the rain as we cycled through a lush landscape that looked like a set from Jurassic Park. When the rain began again, and perhaps because of it, our surroundings bgan to remind me less of a tropical jungle and more of the hilly rainforests of Vancouver Island, like where I used to go mountain biking around Cumberland.

Another wet night in my not quite waterproof tent gave way to our first sunny day, which nonetheless began with a hantavirus scare when we had to chase a mouse out of our luggage. A brilliant day of riding culminated with a stunning, if exhausting, seven-kilometre climb through Queulat National Park, an Eden of temperate rainforest streaked with waterfalls nearly everywhere we looked.

Then it rained. Not the drizzly rain we´d grown accustomed to, but the kind of rain that falls straight down from the sky in heavy globules, the kind that soaks you more thoroughly than any spring shower ever could. As our spirits sunk to the depths of our saturated bodies, our bikes likewise began to crumble beneath us. The wet grit from the road first attacked my chain and gears, but before long it had chewed through my brake pads as well. My bike was still rideable, but Gwendal´s tandem fared much worse, and was badly in need of major repairs.

Once, while stopped for some roadside repairs, I had to raise my arms toward the weeping heavens, tilt my head back and scream. I screamed, but I wanted to cry. Then a pickup truck sped by and splashed us with muddy water.

As we limped along, the already gloomy sky darkened into twilight and forced a retreat to our cramped refuge, which we were immeasurably grateful to have found at the side of the road. It was an inopportune time to discover the inadequacies of my rain covers, and it was undoubtedly our darkest hour.

In the morning we were able to half push, half ride our bikes to the next lilliputian village, another blip far below the average tourist´s radar which to us was more comfortable than all the five star hotels in Paris and New York.

The following two weeks were like a vacation from our vacation as we leisurely leapfrogged our way north by bus and by boat toward Bariloche, Argentina, a mountain resort that to us meant stocked bike shops and spare parts from home. Along the way we were able to appreciate some of southern Chile´s more therapeutic locales, such as the thermal hot springs near the laid-back town of Chaiten, the sleepy lakeside retreat of Puerto Varas and the refreshingly modern coffee shops of Puerto Montt, a port city of 110,000 at the northern terminus of the Carretera Austral.

Although the Carretera Austral had shaken me, soaked me and refused to let me cycle its entire length, I emerged rested, invigorated and eager to push on.

Tuesday, Mar. 22 Coyhaique, Chile

After spending a night in the nice border town of Chile Chico, Chile, we headed west along what´s been the worst road we´ve faced yet, on our way to the Carretera Austral. The road was terrible ripio, and it climbed up and down the hills crowding up against the south shore of Lago General Carrera, the deepest and second-largest in South America.
to make a rough road worse, I ahven´t been feeling well, just a bit of a cold I guess, and the two days it took us to get to the one-horse town of Puerto Guadal were not my two favourites, although the scenery was beautiful.
In Puerto Guadal we stayed three nights at La Lomita, an old lady´s place that was part grandma´s house and part funhouse. The ceilings in our room were less than six feet high, but we had a door elading to a second-floor balcony, except that there was actually no balcony, only a two-story drop. The lady was super nice though, alhtough we couldn´t understand a word she said, and every night she cooked us a wicked dinner that we could barely finish. In the end, I paid 12,000 pesos for three nights and three dinners, which is about $25 Canadian. Not a bad deal.
We decided to bus it to the city of Coyhaique, partly because neither Damien nor I are feeling 100%, and partly because we have to get to Bariloche by April 9 to meet Gwendal´s girlfriend. It was a rainy day anyways, and the countryside, while nice, would have been much more attractive under the sun. Plus our bus driver was a real character!
Now we´re in Coyhiaque, a smallish city that seems downright cosmopolitan after what we´ve been through. We´re just finishing up our city stuff, then we´re cycling north, finally on the Carretera Austral, towards El Chaiten, then to the island of Chiloe. I´m still not feeling so hot, but I´m hoping I will get better once I´m on my bike.
Another point of bad news is taht I´ve discovered my tent has much to be desired in teh way of water resistency, and I woke up this morning after the most uncomfortable night yet with a pool at my feet after it rained all night. Stupid ultralight, half fly tent!

Monday, Mar. 29 Chaiten, Chile

WARNING: The following may sound like verbal diarrheah, since a lot has happened in the past few days, and I’m quite hungry and lightheaded right now. Read at your own risk.
Man, we’ve had a rough go of it these past few days on the Carretera Austral in Chile.
It started out well enough a few days ago as we climbed out of Coyhaique and spent the night about 10 km out of town, sharing a beer at the funky home of a German ex-pat before camping in his yard.
The next day we cycled on under a slight drizzle over and around the hills that stretched in all directions, some of them grazed by cows and sheep, quite the pastoral setting. Although the ripio (unsurfaced road) wasn’t too bad, it was like heaven when we re-emerged on pavement and cruised to the village of Villa Manhueles. I hit my highest top speed for the trip, 66 km/hr! North of town we did our first stint of bridge camping, sleeping like trolls under bridges where it’s dry, which actually turned out to be a luxury we would seek out every night on the Carretera. Celebrating the discovery of peanut butter (found in a grocery store in Coyhaique), Damien whipped up a wicked satay sauce for our linguine before setting down to a sound sleep. Another plus was that I was finally completely over the cold that had been dogging me since Perito Moreno. I call it my health by necesity program, just keep working your body until it realizes it has no option but to get better.
At this point it was like we’d entered a new climate, which I guess we had. It was now like Jurassic Park, as Gwendal remarked, temperate rain forest with green-draped mountains shrouded with mist all around. Very beautiful, but this was also the start of the rain that would be our undoing. It started lightly, just enough to chill us and make it a bit uncomfortable, then disappeared so we could enjoy one of our best cycling days yet, through the lush green rainforest of Queulat National Park.
Unfortunately, this great day was followed by hands down the most miserable of the trip. It was raining when we clambered out from under our cosy bridge, and it just got harder as the day progressed, never letting up for a second. It was the sort of rain that wasn’t accompanied by any wind, just huge drops falling straight from the sky, which seems to soak you so much more thouroughly. We discovered flaws in most of our waterproofing, and our rain gear couldn’t possibly keep up with the steady onslaught, so it wasn’t long before we were soaked. Then the grit from the wet ripio started taking its toll on our bikes. Before long I discovered I had no rear brake, and try as I may to jimmy it up, there was nothing to be done but limp along with only a front one (disc brakes). Then I broke a spoke and Gwendal and Damien began a series of minor breakdowns that were intensified by the rain. While stopped at the side of the road for some repairs, some yahoo in a pickup truck sped by and splashed us with muddy water. I lifted my head to the sky and screamed, but I wanted to cry. That night we cowered inside a roughly 5 foot by eight foot shelter at the side of the road, wearing whatever we could that wasn’t wet. The shelter looks big in the picture, but half of it was locked up and inaccesible to us.
We tried hitching a ride the next day, but as there was no traffic, we had to make our bikes rideable (Gwendal and Damien have a problem with their rear wheel and so also have no brakes) and push on, mainly walking up and down the hills. We made it 16 km to the village of Vanguardia, where we found a lady who rented us out a cabin for $8 CAD each, and so we had a comfy place to string up our wet gear, assess the damages, and drown our sorrows with beer and chocolate. My bike needs a complete overhaul, and most of my paper things are covered in mildew, but most of the important stuff seems to have survived. The biggest casualty, though, was our confidence.
We bussed it to Chaiten, the next town of any significance, this morning, and will take the ferry to Puerto Montt, where we may be able to find a bike shop that will have what we need. We´re not holding our breathe though, and we feel we may have to fast track all the way to Bariloche, just over the border in Argentina, to fully make our bikes road worthy once again. But then, we say, it’s all smooth sailing to Buenos Aires. Knock on wood.
The plan is to spend tomorrow (my 27th birthday) soaking in some nearby thermal springs and forgetting about everything for a day before heading north. All in all our spirits are still pretty high now that we’re dry again. We’re taking more lifts than we’d hoped, but the way I see it, the purpose of the journey is to enjoy yourself, and if that entails fast tracking some portions then so be it. We’ve still cycled over 2,000 kilometres and have many more happy kilometres in front of us. Knock on wood.

Saturday, Apr. 10 San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina

The past several days has been like a vacation from our vacation, lots of down time without even thinking about our bikes.
From Chaiten we took an overnight ferry to Puerto Montt, which is a decent-sized port city and a regional hub. Boarding the ferry was like something out of a James Bond movie, floodlights dimly illuminating the boat in the middle of the night, men with guns speaking foreign languages…very cool. The ferry itself was nothing special though.
We spent a few nights in Puerto Montt, and it felt so nice to be back in a city again. On my first day there I´d found a Spanish copy of a book I wanted to read, Edgar Allen Poe´s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” so I spent several hours reading and sipping coffee in mall coffe shops downtown. The malls could have been in any Canadian city, and it was definitley my comfort zone. Any of you who know me will know that I´m rarely happier than when I have a hot cup of coffee in my hand.


We also went to the movies to see “The Passion of Christ”, and I was impressed that I was able to follow the Spanish subtitles almost perfectly. Of course, it probably didn´t hurt that I more or less knew the story to begin with. Beng a port city, Puerto Montt has it´s share of seedy clubs, and I accidentally walked into one with scantily clad girls lining the booths along one wall, eying me with coy looks and ruby red lips. I´d been to Thailand so I knew what this place was all about, but my curiosity got the better of me and I stayed for a beer. The girl sitting next to me licking her lips and discussing her appreciation of the male gringo´s anatomy made me a bit uncomfortable though, and after I´d made her friend, a Brzilian brunette in a fishnet bodysuit, cry by pressing her for answers as to why she can never return to her beloved homeland, I felt it was time to leave.
We did a sie trip to nearby Puerto Varas, on the shore of Lago LLanquihue, and spent a restful day there, topped off with a night of drinking with some new friends I´d met at our hostel. (An American, an Austrian and a Spaniard walk into a bar….)
From Puerto Montt, we bussed it to Bariloche, which is a total resort town, a rich kid´s playground. It´s pretty much the Whistler of Argentina. Although there´s lots of natural beauty and hiking all around, allI really felt like doing was wandering the streets and getting the odds and ends in order that I need to fix up my bike.
Yesterday was teh big day we´ve all been waiting for, Gwendal´s girlfriend Tania flew in, bearing gifts for all of us. I got new more film, new bike parts from Mike´s Bikes, and some toasted coconut marshmallows (yum) from my Mom, and went to work changing my brake pads and cables. Damien also got his own bike, which he´s pretty excited about.When we got bored of that we went out for dinner, and then came back to the hostel with a vfew litres of Quilmes (Argentine beer, about $1 CDN a litre). Today I have a bit more work to do on my bike, but I think we may be able to roll out of town tomorrow.
The other big news is that we finally shaved down to the “Argentine stashe” in honour of Tania´s visit and of being back in Argentina, which we know and love. When we were in Ushuaia we noticed so many guys with bad facial hair, so that´s tohe motivation behind it. Gwendal´s is subtle, and he looks much the same as he did before, while mine makes me look like a high school dropout from Iowa who´s working at the Super Value so he can raise enough money to work on the Thunderbird that´s up on bolcks in his backyard. Damien´s handlebar puts up to shame though. It even curls up at the ends, and we´ve taken to calling him Jacques, becasue it just seems right. Check out the pictures.

Sunday, April 18, Junin de los Andes, Argentina

Back in Bariloche last week we were joined by Tania Lo, Gwendal´s girlfriend, who would be riding with us for a few days before heading back to Canada. It was nice to have a new face among us, especially since she brought with her all sorts of treats from friends and family back home, such as new bike parts and toasted coconut marshmallows (Yum). She also surprised us with an Easter egg hunt in our hostel on Easter Sunday, and we all ended up with a nice chocolate buzz and an acute frustration putting together our Kinder surprise toys.
After getting our bikes back into rideable shape in Bariloche, we left town under a light rain and found a nice bridge to sleep under a few kilometres out. The next morning was a total tease, the sun rising into a clear sky, and we were all stoked for a great day of riding. Eight kilometres later, though, we came to an intersection. Ahead of us, north, were blue skies and sunshine, while the west was dark and forboding. Unfortunately, west was the way to Villa La Angostura and the 7 Lagos (7 Lakes) region, where we were heading.
Almost as soon as we hit this road the rain began, lightly at first, then harder and unrelenting. The sun was so cocky, hitting the back of my neck from the cloudless sky behind me, even as I was being doused with rain. So we plodded onward, soaking wet and frozen to the bone, plastic bags over our socks and warm gloves on our hands. For what it was worth, however, the road was beautiful, passing alongside Lago Nahuel Huappi, with mist-shrouded mountains lingering beyond.
We arrived in Villa La Angostura, 100 km from Bariloche, and went immediately to a hostel that had been recommended to us. There, I made the mistake of jumping into a hot hot shower before my feet had thawed out, and burned the tops of them quite nicely. Lesson learned. That night we had a nice big dinner at the hostel, which we had to ourselves, and Tania tried to teach me some breakdancing moves, without much success (maybe due to my burned feet? Probably not.).
The next two days were spent cycling north towards San Martin de los Andes along the 7 Lagos route, a breathtaking road, partly paved, partly not, that winds through some beautiful forest and reveals a stunning lake vista at nearly every corner. We had some rain during these days, but not enough to bother us, and the second day was one of my favourite days of riding since we began three months ago. That night, however, it rained persistently,and I awoke in my tent with a swimming pool at my feet. Not much fun.
The last 15 kilometres to San Martin are paved and downhill, and we coasted easily, loving life. That was, however, until about 3 km. out of town, when I rounded a corner and saw Gwendal and Tania´s tandem wiped out in the middle of the road, with Tania kneeling over Gwendal, who was huddled motionless on the pavement. I found out they´d blown their rear tire and lost control, and although Gwendal had hit his head pretty hard and Tania had scraped her arm, they weren´t hurt too badly, although they were very shaken up. It would have been much worse had Gwendal not been wearing his helmet, which now has a chunk knocked out of it (message to the kids out there: Always wear your helmet!)
After that we decided to hang out in San Martin, a nice little tourist town kissing the banks of a pristine blue lake, until Tania had to go. The highlight of our stay was yesterday, when we rented a tiny little car and headed north along a crazy little muddy road, with steep sides dropping down into the lake along many corners, to some nearby hot springs, which will shall forever be referred to as “The worst hot springs ever” (it´s funnier if you say it in the voice of the comic store guy from the Simpsons). There was a tank of nearly boiling water coated in green slime next to another smaller, slighly less scalding tank of water that poured out and trickled through the mud into a small “mudbath” that stunk of sulpher. Alongside all this was a small building, which I at first mistook as solely a change room, until we discovered that it held five small rooms with dingy bathtubs, only two of which worked. Making the best out of a lousy situation, Damien and I decided to flood our tub and make a steam room, which turned out to be a hilarious enterprise, which I´m sure you would have had to have been there to appreciate. I´ll just say that I hadn´t laughed that hard for a long time.
This morning Gwendal left with Tania to get her back to the airport in Bariloche, while Damien and I headed east to the small town of Junin de los Andes. It was only 44 kilometres, but what a great day of riding! The sun was shining, and the wind was behind us nearly the whole way. At one point we stopped pedalling and just coasted while the wind actually pushed us up a hill. It was like “Magnetic Hill” for cyclists! We´re super excited to be finally heading towards the coast, even if there are almost 1,000 km of pampas between here and there. What´s going to keep me going over this next stretch is the amazing news I got today, that my girlfriend will be coming down to Rio de Janeiro in June! Very exciting.
Healthwise, I´m just getting over another little bug that´s been giving me the coughs, but psychologically I´m stoked to be heading away from the cold and the rain of the mountains (knock on wood).

Wednesday, April 28, Bahia Blanca, Argentina

We´re here! Well, here isn´t really anywhere as far as most of you will be concerned, but the thing is we´ve made it back to the Atlantic! Of course, we haven´t really seen the Atlantic yet besides a bit of a glimpse cycling in, but we know it´s there. Somewhere.
We´ve just arrived in the city of Bahia Blanca, about 700 kilometres southwest of Buenos Aires, after cycling about a thousand kilomtres in ten days. Damien and I rested one day in Neuquen, a city in the middle of the pampas, before meeting back up with Gwendal and riding more than 500 kilometres in five days to get here.
Crossing Argentina was a lot like crossing the Canadian prairies, very flat and quite monotonous. West of Neuquen was oil country, which we knew from the dozen or so oil dereks we saw, and by the countless tanker trucks roaring by our left shoulders. Neuquen lies in a fertile valley, and so east of town the road is lined with orchards. Then we crossed a 170-kilometre section of nothing, just drab scrub, before getting to the town of Rio Colorado, where we camped for free on a nice riverbank. Unfortunately, this also marked our first encounter with mosquitoes, and surely not our last. I´m covered in bites. From Rio Colorado we did something I hope to never again repeat, cycle 134 kilometres without lunch. Our plan had been to pick up something en route, but all the towns were way off the highway, and when we finally did take a detour to check one out everything was closed for the siesta.
Today, before reaching town, we stopped at a rather run down, roadside zoo, which smelled more strongly like feces than anywhere I´ve been, but which was run by a rather entertaining zookeeper and offered a chance to get quite close to some ferocious-looking lions and tigers. No bears.
Cylcing across the country gave us lots of time to think about the idiosycrisies of Argentina. This is a place where we´ve come to expect the inexplicable, especially when it comes to restaurants. We´ve come to expect the fact that if we spend ten minutes deciding what we´re going to eat off a restaurant´s menu, chances are they won´t have what we order. Nor our second choice. In fact, they´ll probably only have one or two items, and although they could have made things much easier by just telling us that before giving us the menus, they prefer to watch us sweat it out with our pocket dictionaries figuring out our “choices.” Once we walked into a little restaurant advertising pizzas and empanadas (tasty pastries we crave regularly). Damien, instead of asking for a menu, scanned the bare shelves and the surly looking proprietor and asked, “Do you have…food?” “Food, no,” was the quick reply, and no further information was proffered. None was needed. We were in Argentina. Argentina´s eateries havn´t caught on to the notion of separate bills either. You can imagine our surprise when, after asking for the check at a bar in Neuquen, our waitress returned with three bills. Wow! On further inspection, however, we realized that one had our food, another our drinks, and another had just a single drink. It made no sense at all, which made perfect sense when you remember one thing: We´re in Argentina.
All in all, however, I really like this country. I love, and have tried to adopt, the way they talk, and I love the friendliness of the people we´ve met, and the way they´re all so eager to find out how much we love their country, especially their beautiful women.
Speaking of women, another very common occurance in Argentina is for a flock of schoolgirls to walk by us whispering and giggling, and then when they´re a safe distance away one of them will yell “hello,” which prompts more giggling. Then, if they´re really bold, or they´re real cunning linguists (insert dirty joke here) she´ll chirp up again, “I love you,” followed once again by the customary giggling. Pretty cute.
We´ve also obtained the strangest souvenir I´ve ever received, or seen, or heard of. At a tiny town between Neuquen and Bahia Blanca we were invited for lunch at the home of a police officer we´d met the previous night in an even smaller town. Before lunch I was shown around by his young son, who gifted me a tiny pencil sharperer. Strange, but it gets stranger (Remember, we´re in Argentina). Before lunch grace is said, and while we eat one of them inserts a tape recording of a preacher. Unexpected, but not strange yet, considering Argentina is a very religious country. After lunch though, they begin giving us all sorts of gifts, like little wooden carvings and brochures from their Evangelical church. They also show us their pet bird, like a budgie of something, who liked to sit on your shoulder and lick your lips. Strange enough, but when I saw the son totally sucking face with it, that was Weird. Capital W. Anyways, the strange souvenir….
So after lunch, one of the men leaves and returns with a large, inflated rubber butt cushion, like one would use after a hernia, or when suffering from bad hemmorhoids. Printed on its side was the name of the town, the name of their church and pastor, and something like “God bless us”. Next to all that, in bold black magic marker, were the words “YO SOY JESUS” (I am Jesus). This was our gift from the budgie-frenching Argentine Evangelists, Jesus as an ass cushion. Now we´re carrying this thing around not really knowing what to do with it, because we feel blasphemous using it for its intended purpose (And I don´t mean relieving mankind of its sins). Likely we´ll inflate it and leave it as an offering at one of the roadside alters that line the highways here, and perhaps we´ll be able to help some weary trucker find salvation in a most utilitarian way.
Sorry this has been so long-winded. You´ll hopefully be glad to know however that I´m doing well, and I hope you enjoyed this little taste of Argentina, in handy, odourless, email form.

Wednesday, May 5, Miramar, Argentina

So our eastward plod continues through the bread basket of Argentina. We’ve finally made it to the beach (for real this time), in the small city of Miramar, close to the larger,touristy city of Mar del Plata. Unfortunately, the weather is still a bit chilly, and many of the businesses in town are closed down for the winter, so the place isn’t as happening as it could be.
That’s all right, because what we really need to do is rest. Since Neuquen, we’ve cycled more than 1,000 kilometres in 11 days. It’s been predominantly flat, but since Bahia Blanca, where we rested five days ago, we’ve generally been pedalling against the wind. Last night I felt totally ill, which could have just been my body telling me to take a freaking break. After a feverish sleep, I feel much better today.
The hospitality we’ve been shown up here (as opposed to further down south in Argentina) has been phenomenal. I already mentioned the family of evangelists and their Jesus hernia cushion (which we lost somewhere by the way, but now some distraught trucker can look on the side of the road and find God), and in the tiny town of Copetonas we had a similar experience. When we pulled into town we were immediately surrounded by a group of boys about 12 to 14 years old, and they never really left our side. When the only hotel was closed for siesta, one led us to his place, where his father offered his lawn to camp on.

Later, we played soccer with them until dark (we were bigger and faster, but their footwork was amazing), and then they arranged dinner for us. I´m not sure how it happened, but the kids were like our intermediaries who set us up with some adults, with whom we ended up eating, and drinking, to our hearts´ content.
During this dinner we got some ill-fated advice. Our drunken host, who was getting harder and harder to understand as he slurred on in progressively less understandible Spanish, told us of a “shortcut,” riding south about 15 km to the beach, and then riding along the beach at low tide for about 20 km. The next day we tried it out. After a long ride against the wind, we pushed our bikes over a large sand dune onto the beach, which was being pounded by wind-whipped surf and sprinkled with rain. We couldn’t even get our bikes to move in the sand, let along go 20 km in it. So we retreated, and eventually got lost amidst a tangle of labrynthine farm roads trying to get to the next town. At one point we passed a sign saying the next town was 24 km away, then 10 km later another sign that said it was 31 km away. Only in Argentina does this make sense. It was this day that we began our trend of cycling well past dark. The up side to the day was that we were allowed to camp at the home of the mayor the next day (at least we think he was the mayor). He has a brother who works in Saskatoon and was so happy to host Canadians. When we left he showered us with small gifts.
Hmm, what came next…more farmland…more headwinds….
On our last day of riding we were determined to make it to the town of Miramar, on the beach, despite the fact that we were all feeling a bit under par. As the day wore on I was fighting all sorts of ailments, from gastrointestinal issues to general aches and chills. When darkness fell we had the pleasure of cycling under a lunar eclipse, but nonetheless it was all I could do to get my aching body the final 20 km in the dark to Miramar. In town we were approached by two men and a woman, who chatted with Gwendal and Damien for a bit (I was far too feverish to have any desire to join the conversation), and then proceeded to find us a place to stay,in a tiny room attached to the local Evangelical church. Jorge, the guy with the warm smile who had actually found the place for us, then brought us some hot empanadas and some pop, and apparently we’re invited for dinner with them tonight. Southern hospitality at its best!
I´m feeling much better today,and I´m looking forward to the next few days of rest here and in Mar del Plata. We met some cyclists from Mar del Plata on the road in the 7 Lakes region who have invited us for an asado (barbecue) there, and we plan on trying to do some surfing as well.
We wanted to rent boards here, but the only place in town that rents gear doesn´t open until 5:00, and it gets dark around 6:00. Only in Argentina!

Saturday, May 8, Mar del Plata, Argentina

What a great few days it´s been! In Miramar we had an asado (barbecue) with the locals we´d met when we arrived in town, and they´re kindness continues to amaze me. They continue to try to hook us up with friends and family they know along our route.
After a couple nights in Miramar we cycled 20 km east along the beautiful Atlantic coastline, lined with sandy cliffs, to Chapadmalal, where a young man named Steve runs a surfboard-shaping company called Conosur. There, we stayed at Steve´s surf camp and rented boards and wet suits and hit the waves for a couple days, at a beach called Playa Luna Roja (“Red Moon Beach,” and that night we watched rise a fiery red harvest moon over the Atlantic). The waves were smallish, only three feet or so, but good enough size for us, and they were nice and clean. It was so nice to be back out on a durfboard again! It made me wonder why I´d decided to do a bike trip when I could have jusu done a surfing safari up and down the coast. Stupid, stupid, stupid….
Grudgingly, we left and cycled another 20 km or so to Mar del Plata, a large beach resort that is apparently overrun with portenos (Agentines from Buenos Aires) in the summer, but which now is much more relaxed. Nonetheless, it´s the biggest place we´ve been thus far, and we´re looking forward to exploring it with some locals that we met a few weeks ago in the Seven Lakes region.
The highlight so far is the all-you-can-eat buffet we went to last night. It had all the regular buffet-type items, but it also included a full-on barbecue, where a guy was roasting meat over hot coals (typical Argentina asado-style), and also preparing flambeed crepes with apples and rum for dessert. Good gravy, it was good. And the kicker was that it only cost us seven pesos each, less than $3.50 Canadian! I never want to leave Argentina, even if it is ass-backwards!

Friday, May 14, La Plata, Argentina

Man, I thought we made good time blazing west to east across Argentina a few weeks ago, but that was nothing compared to what we´ve done in the past few days.
After a few nights hanging out and sharing good times with some local friends in Mar del Plata, we grudgingly got back on our bikes and headed north. Along the coast are a string of little beach towns that are apparently teeming with drunken youngsters during the summer months, but which were all but deserted, apartment windows gated shut, when we passed through them. We passed thorugh the first few with the hopes of finding a place to rent surf gear, but soon learned that if such a place did exist it would only be open during the summer or on weekends, so we adopted the plan to just freakin´ go.
After a couple days of cycling 80 to 100 km, the road steered us inland a bit before shooting back north toward the capital. On this day we ate an early lunch after having cycled 45 km or so, then cooked an early dinner outside a gas station at about 100 km. We planned to cycle another 20 or 30 km before sun down, but with a fierce wind at our backs, we decided to try to break our single day distance record, 143 km. We did this just after dark, and since energy levels were still high we decided to beat Damien´s personal single day record, 187 km. Once that was accomplished, we figured we´d might as well do 200 just for the sake of it, and Damien figured it would be best to surpass it handily. At the end of the day, as we pulled into the tiny town of Pipinas, we´d done 212 kilometres. We rewarded ourselves with a second dinner, then slept in our sleeping bags on the sidewalk beside a rusting old car. (We were soon visited by Herman, the local on-duty cop, but he simply took our passport info and wished us a good night.)
The next day was a 120-km push, with the wind at our backs, to La Plata, a suburb of Buenos Aires with about a million inhabitants, many of them university students. For lunch along the way we stopped at a roadside eatery, where an obese Italian man in grey sweat pants explained that the meat he was serving us was from a tiny local bird that often comes to the side of the highway to eat grain that has fallen off passing trucks. This made me a bit wary, wondering just how this tiny bird had met its fate, but I think we were all a bit relieved when I started spitting bits of buckshot out onto my plate.
We were all impressed with how rural the countryside seemed even as we neared the La Plata. There was very little traffic, and little more than farmland to be seen, until we turned down a 10-km side road off the highway and into the city. La Plata is a beautiful, well-organized city, with a large cathedral that reminded me of the towering one in Strasbourg, France, and a large park area at the north end of town.
Tomorrow we´ll head to Buenos Aires, either by train or by bike. It´s been four months now that we´ve been cycling through mostly wilderness, passing thorugh places so small they´re not even on local maps, and it´s hard to believe that tomorrow we´ll be in the urban jungle. Lately we´ve passed thorugh some more urban areas, but I sort of wonder if I´m really ready for big bad Buenos Aires which, with a population of about seven million, will be the largest city I´ve ever been in.

Thursday, May 20, Buenos Aires, Argentina

I had expected a bit of a shock upon arrival in Argentina´s capital, a city of about 10 million people if you include it´s many suburbs, but it came in a completely unexpected way. What shocked me the most was actually being treated like a tourist.
We got a ride into the capital with a new friend, an Argentine named Ulyses who lived in Canada when he was young and who´s biked around much of Argentina. He found my web site and wanted to help us out however he could. In Buenos Aires we dropped off our stuff at the apartment of Daniel, a dentist we´d met in El Calafate, and we all went together to La Boca, a colourful area on the outskirts of Buenos Aires proper that was once an enclave of working class immigrants.
La Boca is now a tourist hotspot, with artists selling their bright paintings on a narrow alley called El Caminito, and tango dancers dancing in the streets (for a modest donation, of course).

I was immediately taken aback by the boys handing out flyers urging us to eat at their cafe, often addressing us in English, a sure sign that you´re in a tourist spot. I made the mistake a few days later of sitting down at a cafe in La Boca and ordering a beer while watching a “free” tango show. The waiter came up to me at one point and asked if I´d like to eat something. “no, I´m not hungry,” “Oh, but you have to try this,” he said, and returned with a plate of empanadas, the Argentine staple snack. I asked if I had to pay for them, and he said that if I eat them, yes, so I repeated that I didn´t want them. “Oh, but you have to try empanadas!” This guy was obviously used to dealing with tourists fresh off their flight from Miami. I had to explain to him that I´m quite familiar with empanadas, empanadas from all over Argentina, and assured him that I didn´t want these ones. He grudgingly left, and trid to pawn them off on another table of tourists.
I ended up tipping the tango ancers 5 pesos when they came around with a hat, and when I asked for my bill the waiter told me it was 10 pesos, about $5 CDN. This is unbelievable. Normally a beer would be maybe 2 pesos, or 3 or 4 for a litre. The waiter wrote out a “bill” on a piece of paper, 8 pesos for the beer and 2 for service to the table. I told him that was ridiculous, but I was an abvious tourist and there was nothing I could do.
Sorry, had to vent.
Buenos Aires is really nice to look at, lots of old architecture and large spacious plazas. It lacks something though that I can´t quite put my finger on. In the smaller cities of Bahia Blanca and La Plata, I thought I could really see myself spending some time there, but Buenos Aires doesn´t draw me as much. Maybe it´s because all the horror stories I´d been told about the capital from Argentines further south are always in the back of my mind and I´m always preoccupied with watching my stuff. Or maybe it´s the ever-present cartoneros, poor people who sift through the garbage bins looking for anything recyclable, that give the city a less hospitable look. Either way, I should say that I haven´t yet felt in any real danger.
We saw a tango show last night, a must do in Buenos Aires, the capital of tango. Daniel had shown us a couple simple steps beforehand, but it looks much more complicated. I´m looking forward to trying out some lessons though.

Next Tuesday is Argentine Independence Day so we may end up sticking around until then before taking the ferry to Uruguay, where we´ll cycle up the coast towards Brazil. We´ll stay for the weekend anyways though, just to see what kind of trouble we can get ourselves into.

Travel thoughts: Argentina a Lot Like Canada

When Argentines inevitably ask me what I think of their country, I can rarely help but compare it to my own. Argentines, like Canadians, have been blessed with an infinite array of natural beauty, and a population small enough to allow plenty of room to move about and enjoy the land.

Never were the physical similarities more apparent to me than during our 2,300-kilometre traverse of central Argentina, from the rugged Andean foothills to the traffic-choked avenues of Buenos Aires.

Along with Damien and Gwendal, my two cycling mates, I´d cycled north from Tierra del Fuego, through the southern tail of the Andes, until bike problems forced us to bus back across the cordillera to Argentina.

The next part of our journey began in Argentina´s Seven Lakes route, an unabatedly photogenic network of mostly unpaved roads weaving through a wild mountainous countryside sprinkled liberally with dazzling lakes, a region starkly reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies. The route culminates with a fast, winding descent into San Martín de los Andes, nestled snugly between two mountains and the tranquil blue waters of Lago Láca. Eagerly expecting to unwind from our ride through the Seven Lakes region at the nearby Termas de Lahuen-Co, we instead found ourselves crammed into individual dirty bathtubs, at what we immediately dubbed “The Worst Hot Springs in the World.”

Perhaps the best therapy for our muscles, though, was the long, paved descent that marked our exit from the mountains and the start of the pampas, the vast plains that stretch all the way to the Atlantic. With the wind at our backs, we raced through an Argentine Alberta, oil dereks gyrating in slow motion in the otherwise barren fields, the steady hum of our tires interrupted far too frequently by the roar of tanker trucks thundering past our left shoulders.

Two days of easy, if generally uninteresting, cycling brought us to the city of Neuquen, an island of urbanity rising defiantly from a sea of pampas. Although Neuquen sits near the head of a fertile fruit-producing valley, it nonetheless conjures images of Regina and Winnipeg, prairie cities that seem to exist where they are only as a break in the monotony.

It´s in the most unlikely places that you often meet the most interesting people. A day´s ride out of Neuquen, in the 52-person hamlet of Chelforó, we were invited to join Carlos, the lone police officer on duty, for lunch at his home in the nearby, equally insignificant town of Colonel Belisle.

After introducing us to his pet budgie, which had a disturbing fetish for licking your lips if you got close enough, Carlos informed us that his was “a house of God,” and we listened to a tape-recorded sermon as we ate. None of this was particularly unusual, the French-kissing budgie notwithstanding, but what came next was completely unexpected.

After lunch Carlos´ brother left and subsequently returned with the strangest gift I´ve ever received. In his hand was an inflated rubber cushion, the sort you´d sit on if you were recovering from a hernia, or perhaps suffering from the itch and irritation of hemorrhoids. Emblazoned on its side, in bold black ink, were the words, “YO SOY JESÚS” (“I am Jesus”). Not entirely sure how to respond to being given a butt cushion that claims to be the Son of man, we thanked them profusely and bid them farewell. On the way out I tried not to notice Carlos´ young son sucking face with the dirty birdie.

We rode three more days to the port city of Bahia Blanca, whose ugly high rise apartments contrasted sharply with the ornate architecture of the colonial-era buildings between them, happy in knowing that we carried instant salvation, for both our souls and our saddle sores, bungeed snugly to Gwendal´s rear rack.

As I sipped an espresso at a sidewalk café, lazily watching the endless stream of impeccably dressed locals flow past my table, I realized that Bahia Blanca is without a doubt the Montreal of Argentina, a city so fashionable that you feel hip just for being there.

East of Bahia Blanca we left the highway and became lost amidst a labyrinthine tangle of farm roads before emerging in the aptly named town of El Perdido (“The Lost One”). Later, on the advice of a drunken cook, we tried unsuccessfully to ride our fully loaded bikes along the beach before retreating to another confusing maze of farm roads. Five days, a couple of wrong turns and an evening ride under a lunar eclipse later, we arrived in the seaside resort city of Mar del Plata.

In the summer, Mar del Plata´s population more than doubles to nearly 1.5 million, when droves of sun seekers flock south from Buenos Aires to lay on its sandy beaches and to partake in the hedonistic debauchery of its myriad nightclubs. In the off-season, however, Mar del Plata takes on the air of a crumbled empire, rows of concrete apartment blocks staring down at deserted beaches through gated windows, locked down for the winter by their fair-weather occupants.

Aided by a friendly wind from the south, we chewed up the kilometres past Mar del Plata at a record pace, through a string of quiet beach towns whose residents assured us repeatedly that we should have been there in January, and through another stretch of farmland further north. One day we cycled 212 kilometres before eating a second dinner and falling asleep on the sidewalk in a lazy little town called Pepinas.

Like Canada, whose population is concentrated in a thin band along the US border, especially in southern Ontario, a full third of Argentina´s 29 million inhabitants live in Buenos Aires province, which covers less than 10 per cent of Argentina´s territory. Nonetheless, the farmland continued to stretch north until it butted right up against the neatly arranged streets of La Plata, a satellite of Buenos Aires and a nice place to visit in its own right. Keeping with our comparison, La Plata could be Argentina´s Halifax, a youthful city swarming with university students, a city whose coolness far exceeds its modest size.

We´d heard conflicting reports on the safety, or lack thereof, of cycling the 60 kilometres from La Plata to the capital, through several neighbourhoods of questionable repute. Luckily, a fellow cyclist from Buenos Aires had read about our journey on the Internet and offered to drive us, our bikes and our mountain of gear into the city in his tiny Volkswagen.

Thus is the joy of bicycle travel. Everywhere we go, people want to talk to us, to ask what we were doing, to tell us how much they´d like to do the same and to offer a place to stay, a warm shower or simply advice on the road ahead. We spent the following nine days in relative luxury at the apartment of another new friend we´d met nearly three months earlier in Patagonia.

Buenos Aires, home to more than 10 million people, is often called “the Paris of the south,” but to me it was all Toronto: big, impersonal and all business, an urban gateway to a beckoning hinterland.

To me, Buenos Aires was also a milestone, marking the completion of the first stage of my South American journey. It was a place to bid farewell to a country that had almost felt like home, and to new friends who I hope to someday meet again, before venturing onward, to the adventures awaiting me in Uruguay and beyond.

Uruguay & Rio

Travel thoughts: South America’s Hidden Gem

It´s funny how a traveller can become so emotionally attached to a place that was previously nothing more than another obscure dot on a map of obscure dots. It´s not uncommon to hear someone rave about how Paris stole their heart, or how a visit to exotic India changed their life. I´m the only one I know, however, who´s fallen in love with Uruguay.

When I arrived in Uruguay, the third country of my trans-South American bike trip, I had no idea what to expect. South America´s second-smallest nation, humble Uruguay is wedged snugly between Argentina and Brazil, the continent´s two largest economies and, as I now know, is the region´s best-kept secret.

Although most of Uruguay´s two million yearly tourists, mainly South American neighbours, flock in droves to the crowded beaches of Punta del Este, the endless action of South America´s most glamourous resort stands in glaring contrast to the rest of Uruguay´s tranquil countryside, and the chronically laid-back disposition of the Uruguayan people.

A more “Uruguayan” oceanside ambassador would be tiny Cabo Polonio, only a couple hundred kilometres up the coast from the capital, Montevideo, and surely one of the most peaceful places on earth. Home to about 20 families and accessible only by horse-drawn cart or special four-by-four vehicles, Cabo Polonio sits at the tip of a narrow spit of land flanked on both sides by quiet, sun-kissed beaches and is isolated from the rest of the world by a vast expanse of desert-like sand dunes.

Although tourism has now replaced fishing as Cabo Polonio´s most important industry, a handful of fishing boats still operate from the community´s sandy shores, and Cabo Polonio has all the while managed to retain its old-fashioned charm. With few exceptions, Cabo Polonio remains without electricity or indoor plumbing, and you won´t find any cars or, not surprisingly, streets. What you will find, especially outside of the peak months of January and February, is a peace so profound that you´ll wonder if you could ever be relaxed enough to fully appreciate it.

Between doing as little as possible in Cabo Polonio and taking a side trip to Rio de Janeiro to spend two weeks with my girlfriend, my bike trip sort of got put on standby in Uruguay. (Rio, for its part, is possibly the most beautiful city I´ve ever seen, and yet hardly worth the constant insecurity you feel as a tourist. We were mugged while strolling along Copacabana Beach, and we met a young German backpacker who had been robbed three times in four days.)

After my return from Rio I finally dusted off my bike and cycled nearly 400 kilometres north from Montevideo, a modern yet friendly city that´s home to more than a third of Uruguay´s 3.3 million residents. However, it turns out that cycling nearly 400 kilometres in four days after a month of down time isn´t the best idea, and I ended up with an injured knee that would need at least a couple more weeks of rest. Far from being a nuisance, my injury was instead a perfect excuse for me to get a taste of Uruguayan campo life at the estancia, or ranch, of the family with whom I´d been lodging in the capital.

Every Uruguayan knows that the heart and soul of their country lies in the campo, the vast rolling countryside where the gaucho, sort of an Uruguayan cowboy, is king and time moves only as fast as you allow it.

When I wasn´t sprawled out on a soft couch in front of a roaring fire, I did my best to help out Eduardo, the estancia´s resident gaucho, with some of the chores. My first duty was to help keep the herd in line during a five-hour cattle drive that began at daybreak and culminated with a lunch of Uruguay´s world-class beef grilled on a spit over an open fire, an Uruguayan (and Argentine) tradition known as an asado.

Although I looked sharp in my borrowed gaucho garb, I´m not sure I was very effective at driving the cattle. More than once Eduardo had to chase the herd back into formation while I was preoccupied with a raging power struggle with my horse, a stubborn old brute named Setenta. Naturally, Setenta won, and I earned a nickname that stuck with me throughout my time in the campo: Gaucho Gringo.

Despite my inadequacies, I was nonetheless invited a few days later to help castrate some young sheep, although thankfully my participation was limited primarily to taking pictures. My friend María, a veterinary student armed with what appeared to be an ordinary kitchen knife, assured me that at a clinic in the city they´d use anesthetic and the whole bit, but “out here we do it the gaucho way.” I couldn´t help but feel a bit queasy watching María cut open about 30 sheep scrotums and yank out twice as many testicles one by one with her bare hands.

“Of course,” she said, “this is the hard way. The easy way is to bite them out with your teeth, two at a time.” Pretty funny joke on the gringo, I thought, until I watched Eduardo do just that. And he kisses his wife with that mouth?

I guess they thought I did all right with the sheep because the next day I was recruited to help wrestle down some calves so that they could be likewise neutered. That was all right, but when it came time to brand the larger cows, and my job was to cling tightly to their tails to keep their back ends steady, that the fun really started. You know that smell that you get when you hold a piece of hair over a butane lighter? Multiply that by a kajillion, throw in a bunch of cow´s tails covered in mud, thorns and feces, and you start to get the idea.

Despite some of its unpleasantries, life on the Uruguayan campo secured a place in my heart for this tiny, virtually unheard of country, and strengthened the bonds between myself and my Uruguayan “family.” Although my travels will continuously lead me further away from Uruguay, I have little doubt that someday I will return.

My bike trip was a bit behind schedule after my extended Uruguayan sabbatical and so I caught a lift with a trucker to northeastern Argentina´s Misiones province. Besides walking in on my driver with a prostitute whose age I don´t even want to know (underage prostitution is a large problem in Misiones), it was a fairly uneventful drive.

I´m excited that my expedition is back underway, and that my next stop is Iguazú Falls which, as one of the seven wonders of the natural world, supposedly makes Niagara look like a leaky faucet. Can´t wait.

Sidebar: Yerba Mate 101 Anyone who spends any time in Uruguay will become intimately familiar with yerba mate (or simply mate), the slightly bitter tea that is the epitomy of all things Uruguayan.
Introduced to European settlers in the 1600s by the indigenous Guarani Indians of Paraguay and northern Agentina, mate (pronounced ma-tay) is renowned as a healthy elixir with a wide array of touted benefits, from boosting immunity to aiding weight loss. Today, mate is drinken widely throughout Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil, but it´s Uruguayans who drink more per capita than anyone else. Walking around with a mate and bombilla, a thermos of hot water under your arm, is as common to Uruguayans as take-out coffee is to Canadians.
To drink mate, loose tea, or yerba, is placed in a hollowed-out gourd called a mate to which hot water is added. The infusion is then sipped through a straw-like pipe called a bombilla.
Drinking mate is a very social experience, as the gourd is passed around among friends, and an opportunity to share one with a local shouldn´t be missed. However, there are some simple rules of etiquite that should be observed before you do:

Never hand back the mate without completely sipping all of the tea. Once drained, the mate is refilled with hot water and passed to the next person.
Never stir the mate with the bombilla. Although a bombilla sort of looks like a spoon, it´s not, and your Uruguayan host could take offence if you use it as such.
Don´t say thank-you when you´re handed a mate, nor when you return it if you plan to have more. This is the hardest one for us obsessively polite Canadians. Say thank-you only upon returning the mate to signal that you´ve had enough.

Friday, May 28, Montevideo, Uruguay

Finally we´re in our third country of the trip, and are we ever excited! We took the ferry from Buenos Aires to the history-rich city of Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay, three days ago. Colonia was founded in the 17th century by the Portuguese and was a key smuggling port before Spain captured it. It´s old quarter is all cobblestone streets, historical buldings, and tourists. I couldn´t imagine being there in the high season.
The two-day ride from Colonia to Montevideo was entirely paved, but the ceaseless roller coaster of hills was a bit of a shock to our legs, which had become accustomed to the flat pampas of Argentina. The highlight of the journey was finding a tenedor libre (all-you-can-eat buffet) for lunch on our second day, and we ate more than our money´s worth, baerely managing to get back on our bikes for the final 20 km to the capital.
Montevideo is a nice-looking city, although to get into town we had to cycle past El Cerro, a squalid slum of makeshift homes strewn together from a variety of materials, from corrugated steel to scrap plywood. Next to the ghetto is a filthy river with garbage floating all over it, for beside it is a garbage dump that veritably flows into the river itself. Clothes were drying on lines surrounded by piles of garbage and recyclables, possibly the only way several of its residents earn an income. The slum smelled of cooking fires and burning garbage.
On the other side of the city, in a posh neighbourhood called Carrasco, we´re staying with the children of a couple we met near El Chalten a couple of months ago. We´re seeing how the other half lives, with a maid that cooks and cleans up after us, and a large swimming pool in their walled backyard (although it´s too cold to swim). The parents are away on business but we{re being entertained by María, Margarita, Cecilia and Alfonso, and it sounds like we´re going to have a great time in and around Montevideo.
So far on tap we have a soccer game (Uruguay vs Peru in a World Cup qualifier), a theatre performance that takes place on board a bus, and possibly a few road trips to the country, or to go surfing in Punta del Este, professed to be the most swank resort in South America.

Friday, June 4, Montevideo, Uruguay

I´ve just got to say, I love Uruguay! This past week has been great, hanging out and partying with our new friends, the Gallinals, who we´re staying with here. In the past week we´ve had beers in a variety of pubs and clubs, wandered the streets of the old city, had lunch in the historic mercado del puerto (port market), visited a country that doesn´t exist, and chilled out in possibly the most tranquil place on earth.
Hmmm, I guess some explanations are in order….
A few nights ago we were invited to the graduation party of one of the Gallinals´ cousins, which was held at a private clubhouse they´d rented. As we entered the compound it was explained that the clubhouse belongs to a men´s organization that believes they are an independent country. Really neat place, with its own flag, pictures of its government all over the walls, and its national anthem on a plaque above the stage in the room we were in. Outside the building is a network of walking paths, each with its own “street” name. Weird. We ate their food, drank their beer, and stole one of their “royal” plates.
The chilled-out spot was Cabo Polonio, where we´d gone on the advice of a couple of cycling Americans we´d met in Tierra del Fuego (Thanks Micah & Tyler!). Cabo Polonio is a tiny spit of land surrounded on three sides by the ocean and separated from the rest of the country by a vast stretch of sand dunes. You have to get there by a 4 x 4 vehicle, but once you´re there you immediately feel the stress ooze from your body. I don´t think you could ever be relaxed enough for Cabo Polonio. We rented a tiny cabin on the beach for $2.50 CDN each per night, and spent three days sandboarding in the dunes, trying to surf the nonexistent waves, and eating fried fish at the only restaurant in town. Apparently the place gets pretty busy with tourists in the summer (Jan-Feb) so I can´t speak for the place then, but I´d recommend it highly in the off season for anyone looking for some decompression time.
Other news bites: I bought a ticket to Rio e Janeiro for Monday, so I´ll be off to the sun to spend two weeks with my girlfriendm, which I´m stupid excited about. Funny thing hapened when I bought my ticket though – I may have gotten a job!
The woman who sold me my ticket told me that she also produces magazines and is launching a new Uruguayan men´s magazine. Since I´m doing a cool trip, she said, and since I´m a journalist, she offered me a regular column about my journey in the magazine. She´d even translate it into Spanish for me! I´m trying to not get too excited about it since the magazine doesn´even exist yet, but it´s something to think about.

On a sadder note, while Damien and I returned from Cabo Polonio by bus, Gwendal continued by bike up the Uruguayan coast toward Brazil, so the trio has disbanded. Damien will likely set off on his own this weekend, and I will be alone after my two weeks in Rio. It was strange watching Gwendal cycling alone, but I know it will be much harder when it´s actually my turn to go it alone. Nonetheless, it´s part of the journey.
Not really sure what´s on tap for the weekend, but I´m sure it will be entertaining. My advice for the day? COME TO URUGUAY!!

June 21, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

So here I am in the bus terminal in Rio, waiting for my bus to Curitiba, where I´l catch a flight back to Uruguay to continue my bike trip. My girlfriend, Jess, and I have spent most of the past two weeks laying on Ipanema beach doing as little as possible, but there were some other highlights as well:
We spent one full day shopping at two big malls, one of which is supposedly “the largest in Latin America.” On the way back we hopped on the wrong bus and ended up downtown after dark, a pretty spooky place. Luckily, a nice couple we met on the bus helped us find our way to where we could catch another bus back to Ipanema.
Of course one day we went to see the famous statue of Christ the Redentor which towers over the city from high atop Corcovado mountain. What an amazing view from the feet of Christ! In such a beautiful location, from such a beautiful vantage, it´s hard to believe that the streets of Rio far below are crawling with all sorts of ugly dangers.But more on that later.
Another day we took the cable car up to the top of Sugar Loaf, another famous mountain that´s ubiquitous in postcards of Rio, but it was a cloudy day and we couldn´t see a thing from the summit.
But about those ugly dangers….
One evening Jess and I were walking along Copacabana Beach at around 6:30, just after dark, when a man approached us and said something in Portugues while rubbing his stomach strangely. I thought he wanted a light, so I told him in Spanish that I didn´t have one and started to turn away. It was then that he said, in English, “Your money.

Give me your money mother fucker,” and I realized that he was holding tight his t-shirt to reveal the outline of a gun concealed beneath. I gave him the 35 reals (about $10 US) from my shorts pocket and he reached into Jess´ pocket but found nothing, then he fled across the street. I had most of my money in another pocket, so losing the bit of cash wasn´t a big deal. What we really lost was our feeling of security after dark. After that we spent the best part of the evenings in our hotel room, and we very nervous whenever we ventured out.
It´s really too bad, Rio is such a beautiful place, and Ipanma and Copacabana beaches are the nicest ones I´ve ever seen, but I can´t enjoy a place that I don´t feel secure in. We met an American girl at our hotel who was robbed on the beach in the middle of the day, and another young European guy who´d been robed three times in four days. Although it was hard to say good-bye to Jess, I´m more than happy to be leaving Rio.

Wednesday, July 14, Paysandú, Uruguay

I left Montevideo by bike on July 1, heading north towards the farm of the family I´ve been staying with, about 350-375 kilometres north. The route was full of small rolling hills which were nonetheless tough after not being on my bike for more than a month. Highlights along the way were a lunch stop at the home of an old man who stopped me on the side of the road to offer me mate (a bitter tea that everyone drinks down here and which I now love), and a night in which I slept in a truckstop shower (much more comfortable than it sounds).
My left knee started hurting a bit on day two, and by the time I arrived at the farm on day four it was in full scale pain. I tried to cycle too far too fast after too much time off, and the price I had to pay was another week and a half of rest. The same thing happened on my first attempted bike trip, from Toronto to Montreal several years ago, and the doctor said I had to be off my bike for two weeks.
There could have been worse places to be holed up. I was in complete luxury at the country house, sitting in front of the fire all day reading, or playing cards with my new Uruguayan “sisters.” (The Gallinals are really starting to feel like my family here)Unfortunately, the farm has no electricity and so I was unable to send any emails for the whole time I was there, thus my long leave of absence. While at the farm I also got a taste of the “real Uruguay,” the life of the gaucho (farm workers, the Uruguayan equivalent of a cowboy).
My third day there I went along on a “tropa,” when they drive a herd of cattle to another farm, on horseback of course. It was my first time on a horse, but once I got used to it it was pretty fun, although often my horse did whatever it pleased. Although the tropa lasted two days, Maria and I only went along until lunch, about five or six hours of riding, before heading back. Believe me, that long on a horse your first time is plenty. Lunch was great though. Eduardo, one of the gauchos that work for them, made a fire and roasted some meat on skewers, which we then carved chunks off with our knives and ate with our hands. Very messy and very tasty.
Another day I had the pleasure of watching while Eduardo and Maria castrated a bunch of young sheep. They told me that if you go to a veterinary clinic they´d use anesthetic and the whole bit, but “out here we do it the gaucho way.” First they hole-punched their ears (like branding a cow) and cut off their tails, which shot a jet of blood over Maria´s coveralls. The castration was done with a little knife like you might find in your kitchen, slicing open the scrotum and then pulling the testicles out by hand, which didn´t look easy judging by how hard Maria was pulling. Apparently that was the hard way, and the easy way is to get your head right in there and pull the testicles out with your teeth. “Ha ha,” I said, until I saw Eduardo do just that. And he kisses his mother with that mouth?
Another day I got to help wrestle down about 35 calves while they were castrated as well, and then I had to hold tight the tails of several larger cows while Eduardo branded them, not as easy as it might sound. You know that bad smell you get when you burn a piece of hair with a butane lighter? Multiply that by a kajllion and then throw in a tail covered in mud, thorns, and feces that you have to cling to while the cow bucks and rears violently. A good time had by all.
Somewhere along the line I was given a nickname: “Gaucho Gringo.”
After so much time at the farm I´m really anxious about moving on, especially since I have to be in La Paz, Bolivia on Aug 22 to meet my friend Kris, who is coming down to cycle a bit with me. This means that I´ll have to travel a much larger chunk than I´d hoped by bus or truck, which I´m quite disappointed about, but I can´t risk hurting my knee again by pushing too hard.
And so here I am in Paysandú, a small Uruguayan city on the border with Argentina, where I was driven this morning and where I´ll spend the night with relatives of my Uruguayan family (I guess they´re my relatives then too) before crossing into Argentina by bike and trying to hitch a ride with a truck up towards Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina. The father of the family I´m with tonight owns a trucking company so they´ve really helped me out.
And so the journey continues, more or less, and alhtough I´m nervous about how my knee will hold up when I get back on my bike, I´m excited about the road ahead.

Misiones to La Paz

Wed, July 28: Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

Besides walking in on my driver with an underage hooker, my ride with a trucker up to Argentina’s Misiones province was pretty uneventful.
Started riding again slowly, and although the roads through Misiones are crazy hilly, my knees seem to be holding up fine. Along the way I stopped by two sites of Jesuit ruins, which were pretty cool but surely would have been more interesting had I actually known anything about the Jesuits and their work with the Guaraní people.
One day during a lunch break I met a friendly couple, Carlos and Frena, who invited me to stay at their place in Ruiz de Montoya, a small town that was originally founded by Swiss immigrants and therefore has a lot of Swiss influence. Carlos was keen to show me around town, where he seems to be quite popular with the locals, the highlight of which was an impromptu tour of the local yerba mate processing plant. (Yerba mate is a tea that’s drinken thorughout Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and southern brazil.) The place was straight out of the industrialrevolution, with all sorts of loud machinery with belts turning big wheels moving conveyer belts of yerba up and down and around, being dried, cut, sorted, dried again, cut again, all the way until it’s ready to be packaged and shipped to a supermarket near you. I went into the room where the mate has to be dried at more than 100 degrees for two hours, which has to be cleaned out manually by some guy every half hour. I had no idea how many people had to suffer for me to enjoy my mate!
Misiones is quite beautiful, lots of thick green forest contrasting nicely with the deep terracotta coloured earth that the region is famous for. Eventually I made it up to Puerto Iguazu, where I was reunited with Gwendal, and where I got to visit the awesome Iguazu Falls.
Usually when a place is hyped up over and over it can’t possibly live up to expectations, but Iguazu delivered. It’s possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. The park is well-developed with lots of trails and catwalks cutting through the jungle around the falls, and just when you think you’ve seen them all you turn a corner and there’s another spectacular fall right ahead of you. Words can’t possibly describe the place, and most pictures (especially mine!) don’t do it justice either. This morning I crossed the border to the Brazil and checked out the Brazilian side of the falls, which offers more of a panorama of Iguazu, just as spectacular, if not more.
Since arriving, we’ve since hooked up with a Brazilian cyclist named Christian who’s cycled from Florianapolis, Brazil to here, and he’s going to ride with us to Asunción. It’s going to be nice to have a couple partners for a while, although he generally speaks in Portuguese and I rarely understand anything. It will be interesting to say the least.

Tues, Aug. 3: Asunción, Paraguay

After crossing a congested bridge from Brazil to Ciudad del Este, a chaotic town renowned for its bargain deals and underworld-run dangers, we entered Paraguay, the fifth country of my trip. I´d been warned profusely about Paraguay, that it should be avoided at all costs, that my life would have to value to the soul-less crooks of this country. I´m glad I decided to stick to my guns, because all the Paraguayans we´ve met have been nothing but friendly, and the countryside has been much more tranquilo than I´d expected.
One annoying thing about the country though, is that they like their cumbia and they like it loud. Throughout Argentina, and especially Uruguay, I´ve grown to despise cumbia, and I cringe every time I hear the dreaded triple beat that makes every cumbia song sound the same and resonate in my head like a jackhammer. In Paraguay, every time we pass through a village, we´re assaulted with cumbia, blasted as loud as possible from seemingly every home, shop and passing pickup truck. Aggghhh!!
There´s a noticeable upgrade of security in Paraguay as well, as every bank is surrounded by at least two soldiers or police officers armed to the teeth with guns half as big as the soldiers themselves, and likely older by the look of them. I asked one soldier if there were many problems and he said no. “But you´re here just in case, eh?” I asked. He just grinned.
One evening as we were cycling we were flagged down by a passing pickup truck, which turned out to be piloted by a friendly Paraguayan named Daniel who owns a bike shop in San Lorenzo, a suburb of Asunción. Daniel arranged for a friend of his to meet us in the next city (who led us to the local fire hall where we had a restless night´s sleep because everyone was partying, celebrating “Friendship Day”), and several days later hosted us at his humble home behind a sprawling roadside market for dinner.
Several months ago I met a guy from Asuncion named Lorenzo, who is letting us crash at his apartment while we´re in town. It was when I called him from just outside the city that I learned the tragic news. The day that we arrived in Asunción, a horrific supermarket fire had already claimed the lives of more than 300 people, and the death toll was rising. What´s even more horrific is that, according to several surviors, the manager ordered the building´s doors closed to prevent theft, thus sealing the fate of many of the hundreds of shoppers inside.
All around Asunción flags are at half mast, grisly photos of charred corpses stare back at us from the city´s newsstands, and there´s a palpable sense of grief in the air. The tragedy hit a bit closer to home when Lorenzo told me about his friend who´d lost both his parents and his only sibling in the blaze. I couldn´t even imagine the chaos and carnage that went one inside that supermarket. Another friend of Lorenzo´s who was inside but managed to escape commented that he won´t be able to eat meat for at least a year.
Although I was considering leaving Asunción tomorrow morning by boat with Gwendal, I´ve decided instead to take a bus through the Paraguayn Chaco, the vast desert-like region in the northern part of the country, to Bolivia, where I´ll continue cycling toward La Paz.

Tues, Aug. 10: Potosí, Bolivia

Because of time constraints (and because it sounded like more fun to cycle down the Andes rather than up them) I took a series of four buses from Asunción, Paraguay to Potosí, Bolivia via Argentina. The lowlight was the trip from the Bolivian border to Potosí, on a bus that rattled like it would fall apart at any second, in a seat that was permanently reclined and tilted. Although there is a paved road that I thought we were going to follow, we instead took 12 hours of rough roads barely more than trails at times. Twice we had to stop for repairs, and the journey was a great reminder of why I choose to travel by bike. The scenery was great however, rocky mountainous terrain the colour of sand in all directions. I couldn´t imagine anything growing in such a place, but the whole region is studded with cacti, some quite large.
Potosí is a beautiful little city with narrow, congested streets that sits at a lofty altitude of 4000 metres. I need some time to acclimatize, as even climbing a single flight of stairs leaves me breathless, and each morning I awake with a headache. Checked out the Iglesia de San Fransisco which offers a wicked aerial view of the city´s clay tiled rooves from its top, and today I went on a mine tour, probably Potosí´s biggest tourist draw.
Potosí was once the wealthiest city in South America, due to the massive deposits of silver in nearby Cerro Rico, a nearly perfectly conical mountian towering over the city. When the silver production started to lag, mining of tin saved the city from desolation. Today, about 500 independent mines operate in Cerro Rico, mostly for silver, tin and lead.
The mine itself was cramped, dark and stuffy. I was feeling claustrophobic after only two hours down below, but somehow these miners are in there for at least eight hours a day, six days a week, many starting as young as 11 years old. I met one 16 year old miner who looked at least 25. I guess the hard work has a way of making you look beyond your years. Indeed, everyone in Bolivia seems to look much older than they are. After a long day of dark, hard work, most of the miners earn only about three to six dollars (Canadian) per day.
I also tried chewing coca leaves for the first time today. The plant from which cocaine is derived is chewed regularly by Bolivians, especially the miners, who can have a wad of up to 50 leaves in their cheek at any given time. It is supposed to help you adjust to the altitude, probably by increasing your breathing rate, and it also increases energy and acts as an appetite suppresant, among other things. All I noticed was a numb mouth and throat, and a nasty taste from the catalyst that you mix with the leaves, which I think is a concentration of vegetable ashes that burned my gums and made me want to retch. The coca leaves themselves weren´t so bad, but bitter.
My plan is to leave Potosí by bike tomorrow and head towad Uyuni, gateway to the largest and highest salt flat in the world, which I want to cross by bike. The bad news is the weather forecast, which predicts rain for the next three days. As well as making the rough road ahead, already scary enough with its steep hills and stupid high altitude, even scarier, if the salt flat is wet when I get there I may not be able to cross it by bike.

Sun, Aug. 15: Uyuni, Bolivia

Four days of tough riding have brought me to Uyuni, on the doorstep of the world´s largest (and highest) salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, which I´m keen to cycle across.
I left Potosí under a clear blue sky and cycled through some absolutely stunning scenery. All around was rock, with mountains rising in all directions. A couple of climbs on that first day just about killed me, and I had to stop several times to rest. I could feel my heart pounding in my throat and I felt like I couldn´t ever fill my lungs with air. Thus is the joy of cycling at over 4,000 metres.
Made it to the tiny mining town of Agua Castillo, where I slept in an elementary school classroom and was the entertainment of several young children who keenly watched my every move. Day two was generally flatter, and saw me cycle through the tinier town of Chaquilla, which I figure must be a great place to do laundry since it´s surrounded by miles of washboard.

I´m referring to the road of course, which at times wasn´t much fun. Cycled through a sort of plain, with small streams, some greenery, and herds of llamas, sheep and the occasional cow. Camped for the night near the top of a high pass, in the middle of an S-curve in the road. Unfortunately my camp stove stopped working after ten minutes or so, hopefully due to a lack of fuel rather than an inability to work at altitude, and I had to eat crunchy pasta with a semi-satisfying, luke warm satay sauce.
Day three started with a long descent to the town of Tica Tica, where three creepy children chased after me yelling, almost in unison, “Gringo, Plata, Gringo, Plata…” (“Gringo, Money”). The road was flat nearly the whole day, but unfortunately it was the worst road surface I´ve cycled yet. The road was covered in the two most efficient momentum-suckers known to cyclists, washboard and sand.

Nonetheless, I managed to ride more than 70 km, and finished the day with a gruelling climb to Pulacayo, situated beautifully amidst green mountains (due to a covering of small, hardy shrubs) and bare, rust coloured rock.
In its hayday, Pulacayo was home to about 50,000 people. It was home to Bolivia´s first mine, first trains, and several other firsts that it´s residents are happy to tell you about. In the late 1800s however, the town nearly died, I think due to the closure of the government-run mine. Today, only about 800 people remain, although the town retains the old buildings that once housed many more, and so the town has an eerie, deserted feel. It´s front plaza is filled with the rusting engines of Bolivia´s first trains, including one that was held up by the infamous Butch Cassidy in 1908. Mining for silver, lead and zinc is still done around Pulacayo.
Today was an easy descent into Uyuni, which sits right on the edge of the Salar. Strange coming down from a mountain and seeing an endless plain of dirty white stretching toward the horizon in front of you. The road into Uyuni is strewn with garbage, and the better part of the town itself resembles a deserted dust bowl. It´s not until you get to the far end of town that you find the pretty plaza, lined with restaurants and tour agencies, and full of gringos soaking in the strong Andean sun.
Tomorrow I begin my adventure through the salar itself.

Wed, Aug. 25: La Paz, Bolivia

From Uyuni I cycled north about 20 km to the village of Colchani, where about 2,000 kilos of salt are harvested each year from the Salar de Uyuni for consumption across Bolivia and elsewhere. I guess the salt business isn`t as lucrative as it once was, for Colchani`s dusty streets are dominated by crumbling ruins of abandoned homes, earning Colchani the title of the ugliest town I`ve ever seen.
I was so excited to enter the Salar, as for a couple of days I`d seen it beckoning on the horizon. I passed the “montañas de sal” just outside of Colchani, small conical mounds of salt that have been scraped off the Salar to be collected later for refinement. From there it was about 15 km across the salt to the Salt Hotel (I stayed at a similar salt hotel right in Colchani, a fraction of the price with the same chilly ambience.) The Salar de Uyuni is certainly one of the most unique places I`ve ever seen. The largest and, at 3,650 metres, highest salt flat in the world, the Salar is 12,000 square km. of blindingly white salt naturally arangd into roughly hexagonal shapes. It truly looks like another world. It was easy to follow the track s made by the myriad 4 x 4 vehicles as well, and smooth like pavement. The downside was that cycling across such an unchanging landscape, the purple mountains hovering in the distance not moving an inch, became a bit boring. Luckily, in the middle of the Salar I was flagged down by a group of overlanders, mostly Brits, who shared with me their lunch and, more importantly, their company. Very nice.
I camped for the night on the cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi, which means home of the Inca, an “island” formed by lava rock that rises defiantly from the sea of white. Absolutely surreal. I spent the night with a super friendly German couple (okay, Michael was Dutch) who have been travelling by truck all through Canada, the Us and Central and South America. Very interesting couple, and very good company (they`re pesto pasta was great too!)
Cycled the following day to the tiny village of Jirira, through an even more deserted section of the Salar, free from vehicles, where I felt truly alone, adrift on a sea of white. Very cool experience, but my lower lip got severly sunburned, which I`m still recovering from.
I tried cycling to the next village, but the road was all rocks and sand (apparently I took the old one rather than the better new road) and so I turned back to Jirira. Good thing too, because there I stayed with a super friendly Bolivian family, some of who accompanied me three days later by bus to Oruro, where I stayed at the home of their children. What a bus ride though! First, we were supposed to leave at 5:00 am, but when the bus didn`t sho, Carlos, the fatehr of the family I was with, had to go bang on the sleepy bus driver`s window to wake him up. Eventually he rolled up, laying on his horn, which seems to be the Bolivian bus signal, and my first clue that this vehicle may not have been the most reliable vessel should have been that the driver was already wearing mechanic`s coveralls. We broke down four times in all, and what I thought would take 3 or 4 hours to the town of Challapata took 10. What`s more, the bus had seats for 28 people, but after everyone was loaded on from their respective villages, we carried 37, plus several dead and skinned pigs (thankfully on the roof) a dog and a baby lamb in a llama wool sweater. Bags of seeds were covering every inch of floor space, and a tape deck mounted below the rear view mirror pumped out god awful cumbia, which slowed down and sped up, making it all the more unbearable.
From Challapata, my next two bus rides to Oruro and La Paz were much more comfortable. (I had to take busses to meet my friend Kris in La Paz on the 22nd.)
In La Paz, I met Kris at the Radisson, where he`s reserved two nights. Wow, what luxury! I`m usually happy if there`s hot water, but here we had hot water, coconut scented body lotion and a bath robe to put on afterward. Plus cable TV, a wicked buffet breakfast included, and a great view from our 11th floor suite.
Now we`r staying in a more modest, but still comfortable hostel. We`ve explored a bit of the city, mainly just the touristy part with the witchcraftmarket and several other touristy shops. The witchcraft market was a bit underwhelming, mainly just a regular market, although with llama fetuses, bloated frogs and the like, and many figuringes to bring luck with various aspects of your life. Nonetheless, we had a good time shopping around.
We were going to leave today, but decided to spend another day chilling, and the plan is to cycle out tomorrow towards Lago Titicaca and beyond to Peru. I`m excited to have a new cycling partner.

Wed, Sept. 1: Copacabana, Bolivia

After catching a ride to El Alto, which is 500 metres above La Paz, Kris and I cycled west despite several roadblocks that were put up by truck and bus drivers to protest rising ghas prices. We crossed four small roadblocks our first day out, just a line of rocks places across the road manned by a few bored-looking guys who didn´t mind a couple cyclists passing through. We thought that one of them might pose a problem though. As we approached, a trucker approached from the other side, wanting to pass through. We watched him stop and get out, shake hands with one of the guys manning the roadblock, and then he was surrounded by about 12 guys, picked up so that he was being held in mid-air, horizontally and face-down. Then one of the men pulled out a long rubber whip and began to whip him in the ass while everyone lese cheered him on. Kris said later that he´d seen on the news that this was the standard fare for passing a roadblock. When I approached, while the mob was still all over the road, I did my best to yell my encouragement at the protesters, and instead of getting whipped I instead got a bunch of high-fives, and Kris as well when he crossed behind me. Whew!
We ended up riding too far on Kris´first day out, and he hurt his knee and had to rest for a couple days. We found a comfortable, if a bit expensive, hotel called Hotel Titikaka on the lake near the village of Hurani and spent two nights there playing cards, playing fooseball and hanging out in the sauna. Nice.
nother short day took us to the next village, Huatajata, where we stayed at a hostel owned by an interesting man named Maximo who builds traditioal totora reed boats, and was even invited to Chicago eight years ago to build one at a museum there and sail it in lake Michigan.
The road was reasonably flat to Huatajata, but started to undulate a bit as we approached the Strait of Tiquina, which we crossed and spent the night in a hostel owned by a confused fat woman. Our last day to Copacabana began with a steep climb which gradually lessened in grade, and culminated with a screaming dscent in to town.

Copacabana looked great from the descent, perched on the edge of the massive Lake Titicaca. This day also marked my first bona fide pucture flat in over 6,000 km, when a tiny sliver of metal pierced my front tire. I swear by my Michelin City Slick tires, alhtough rumour has it they´re being discontinued. If you can find a pair though, there the best thing going for touring in my humble opinion.
After a night in Copacabana, a real touristy town lined with stalls selling all sorts of touristy stuff, we hopped on a boat and crossed to the Isla del Sol, which is like the top of a mountain range rising out of the deep blue lake. The island is terraces all over, a legacy of the Incas who grooved its steep sides for their crops. We spent a night there, and did some short hikes to check out some rather underwhelming Inca ruins, then returned to Copacabana, where we´ll sleep tonight before setting out for Peru.

Travel thoughts: the Bolivian Paradox

I leaned heavily on my handlebars, gasping uncontrollably in spasmic bursts as my lungs tried frantically to fill themselves with the thin Andean air. As my my heart jackhemmered up in my throat, all I could think of were the three ominous words that had greeted me from a colourful billboard a few short days before: “Welcome to Bolivia.”

Bolivia, the sixth country of my trans-South American bike trip, offers everything the bicycle tourist craves: Wide open spaces, beautiful mountain scenery and plenty of opportunities to get well off the beaten path. The paradox, however, is that Bolivia is also rife with all the things the bicycle tourist loathes, from gruelling climbs at oxygen-starved altitudes, to roads so rough you wonder why you didn´t just stay at home and beat yourself in the ass with a paddle, and save yourself the dust shower.

My love/hate relationship with Bolivia began in the pretty little city of Potosí which, at an altitude of more than 4,000 metres, is the highest city of its size in the world. Although my plan was to spend three days of rest acclimatising to the thin mountain air, I instead spent my time exploring the city’s crowded narrow streets and, more interestingly, the abysmal working conditions of the nearby mines, the real reason Potosí exists at all.

The miners of Cerro Rico, the nearly perfect, rust-coloured cone that looms over Potosí, begin working in the dark, cramped shafts as young as 11 years old. Temperatures in the mines range from below freezing to up to 45 degrees, and yet the miners stay underground for up to 12 hours a day, tapping the ore for tin, lead and the famous silver that once made Potosí the largest and wealthiest city in the new world. For his troubles, the average miner earns two to three dollars a day, and generally dies within 15 years of initially entering the mine, according to one guidebook.

Perhaps it was because I spent my acclimatisation time stooping around in dank mine shafts that I found myself in the aforementioned state of near collapse halfway up my first Bolivian hill, about 20 minutes out of Potosí. When my hyperventilations finally eased and I was able to regain some semblance of composure, I scanned the stark beauty of the Andean landscape through which I was slowly passing. In all directions the horizon rose and fell with the erratic contours of jagged peaks, framed under a sky so blue you’d swear it had been digitally enhanced. Energised by the powerful serenity of the scene, I stubbornly pushed on.

At the end of my first day out of Potosí I arrived at the tiny mining town of Agua Castillo, where I was constantly surrounded by a swarm of curious children, some asking about my trip, others asking for money or sweets and several more just staring dumbly at the rare, lycra-clad specimen that had just rolled into their midst. The following morning I packed up as quickly as I could, eager to escape the silent yet intrusive stares of the small crowd that had gathered in the elementary school classroom in which I´d spent the night.

Excited to be out again on my own, I was even more excited to discover that the road generally wound its way downhill, precariously hugging the edge of a blood-red canyon that reminded me of the one into which Wile E. Coyote repeatedly plummeted in the old roadrunner cartoons. A great day of riding culminated with another arduous climb to the top of a high pass, where I camped for the night under a fickle sky that alternately showed me stunning starscapes and flurries of light, driving snow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so alone as I did that evening, sitting on the rocks eating a home-made satay pasta, and yet with the mountains as my silent companions, I was never lonely.

I continued on the next morning, down a long winding descent to the village of Tica Tica, where I was chased by grubby children yelling “Gringo, plata, gringo plata!,” and onwards following a dry river bed flanked by pastured where grazed llamas, a few sheep and the occasional cow. Although I was thankful for the relatively flat terrain, the road, already littered with fist-sized rocks, took a dramatic turn for the worse once I past tica Tica. It was the worst road surface I’ve ever cycled, covered with the two most efficient momentum-suckers known to cyclists: Sand and washboard. With my hands aching from the constant jolts, and cursing loudly at whoever wasn’t around to listen, I managed to make it more than 70 kilometres along this ugly road, and up another steep hill that nearly killed me, to the semi-abandoned mining town of Pulacayo.

Beautifully perched atop an outcrop of red rock speckled with hardy tufts of green alpine grass, I found Pulacayo to be a pleasant, very interesting town. In the late 17th century, Pulacayo was the site of Bolivia´s first mine, and the rusting engines of the country´s first trains, imported form England and the United States to haul the ore, are still on distplay in the town´s front plaza. In its heyday, Pulacayo was home to upwards of 50,000 people, but its population has since eroded to only a few hundred. Nonetheless, the town retains most of its buildings that were used to house the previous masses, giving the town an eerie, deserted feel.

After a night in an abandoned hotel in Pulacayo, I finally arrived early the next day in Uyuni, a bit of a dustbowl of a town surrounded by brown fields littered with tattered plastic bags and heaps of rusting scrap metal. Uyuni´s main draw is the nearby Salar de Uyuni, the largest and, at 3,650 metres, highest salt flat in the world. As I intended to cross the Salar by bicycle, I ignored the myriad touts promoting 4 x 4 excursions and, after a night of rest and well-deserved pizza, set out toward the great white expanse beckoning on the horizon.

The first stop before actually entering the Salar is the village of Colchani, about 20 kilometres north of Uyuni and home to about 150 people. Here, about 2,000 kilograms of salt per day is harvested from the Salar, first scraped into small conical mounds and then collected, refined and shipped throughout Bolivia, and even internationally, ready for human consumption. Apparently the salt business isn’t as illustrious as it once was, however, for Colchani´s nearly deserted streets are dominated by the crumbling ruins of abandoned homes and littered with forgotten trash, earning Colchani the unfortunate honour of being the ugliest town I’ve ever seen.

In contrast, the Salar de Uyuni is surely one of the most amazing and unique places on the globe. The result of repeated evaporating and re-flooding of a massive ancient lake, the Salar de Uyuni is 12,000 square kilometres of flat, blindingly white salt, an estimated 10 billion tons of it, naturally arranged into roughly hexagonal blocks that lend it a fascinating, entirely otherworldly appearance.

In the centre of the Salar the impressive, cactus-studded Isla Incahuasi rises defiantly from the silent white sea. Camping under the stars and the towering cacti on the “shores” of Incahuasi is an experience I won’t soon forget.

Forty kilometres north of Isla Incahuasi, on the edge of the great white void, sits the minuscule village of Jirira, where I spent three nights after my crossing of the Salar in the company of the first overtly friendly Bolivians I’ve met. Due to heavy rains which made the sandy roads nearly impassable, I travelled on a rickety bus along with my new Bolivian friends, several dead and skinned pigs, a small dog and a baby lamb in a llama-wool sweater to the city of Oruro. From here I will travel north to the Bolivian capital of La Paz to meet a new cycling partner, a friend flying down from Canada, with whom I´ll traverse the Peruvian Andes and eventually descend into the steamy Amazon basin, where awaits a whole new climate and a whole new adventure.

Peru

Travel thoughts: Pushing Through Peru

Before embarking on what should have been a three-day journey down Peru´s Ucayali River, and not knowing exactly what to expect, I´d written in my journal that I´d simply hope for the best and expect the worst. Less that 24 hours later, however, it became painfully clear not only that my hopes had gone unanswered, but that “the worst” was much less bearable that I could have expected.

A month of cycling through Peru had brought Kris and I to the hot, dusty city of Pucallpa, on the western edge of the Amazon Basin. Pucallpa sits on the muddy banks of the Ucayali River, which we intended to follow some 800 kilometres north to the isolated jungle city of Iquitos, where its murky waters merge with those of the mighty Amazon itself.

I suppose our adventure began on Tuesday, the day we cycled down to Pucallpa´s dirty port, swarming with dark-skinned porters hauling nyon sacks on their sweaty shoulders, to board the “Mily,” scheduled to leave for Iquitos that evening. In four weeks of cycling through rural Peru, however, where things seem to operate with a frustrating sort of non-logic that makes George Bush´s peppery rhetoric seem downright enlightened, we´d failed to learn that a Peruvian schedule means little at best. The Mily wouldn´t be leaving until Wednesday.

The next day we once again set out for the port under the scorching mid-day sun, only this time we were allowed to board, by means of a network of narrow planks linking the Mily with the other boats between it and the shore.

A combination passenger/cargo ship called a “lancha,” the Mily was like most of the other boats docked in Pucallpa, although perhaps a touch smaller than most. Nonetheless, there was no way we could have known that it was the worst boat we could have boarded that day.

Our trip didn´t start off bad. We pulled out of Pucallpa at dusk, just as a briliant harvest moon was beginning to peek over the horizon, changing from orange to yellow to white as it climbed the evening sky. A cool breeze fanned our faces as we stood on the Mily´s top deck, watching the moonlight dance off the dark river and the distant shore slide silently by.

By morning, everything had changed.

We were greeted Thursday morning with the almost unbelievable news that we´d run aground during the night and were now mired in the muddy riverbed about 30 metres from shore. Nobody knew how or when we´d get ourselves unstuck, and nobody really seemed to care. Had this happened in Canada, people would have been complaining and demanding refunds, but here in Peru, where delays and mishaps are par for the course, our fellow travellers remained idling in their hammocks on the congested passenger deck, as if nothing were awry.

Our captain, a friendly man named Eleodoro who I´d more or less trusted up until then, told us that another boat would be by shortly to tow us out of our predicament. An hour passed, then two, and still we were alone. As we sat down for lunch, a gastronomic nightmare of chicken, rice and a plaintain cooked in river water, a large freighter finally appeared around the bend up ahead. Our spirits soared as it approached, like a lumbering steel angel of mercy, and then once again plummetted as we watched it sail right by.

Stranded on a boat in the middle of the jungle with far too many people wtih no concept of personal space, I fled to the top deck to reflect on this latest development. As I sulked, I was mocked by the incessant squacking of parakeets in the treetops less than 100 metres away, laughing at our misfortune. Tormented by sandflies, and the oppressive afternoon heat, all I could do was wait.

At around 4:00 a group of passengers, myself and Kris included, took matters into our own hands and began hauling 50-kilogram sacks of sugar from the back of the cargo hold to the front deck, hoping to lighten the Mily´s stern and help free us from the Ucayali´s muddy grasp. Having moved about 7,500 kilograms of sugar, we jumped into the shallow river and began pushing from the side as Eleodoro revved the giant diesel engine. The cappuccino-coloured water lapped at our chins as our feet slid deeper into the gooey muck beneath the Ucayali, but our efforts were rewarded as the Mily´s stern slowly inched free. After 15 hours stuck in the mud, we were once again on the move.

We enjoyed a full day of smooth sailing, during which I lazily watched pink dolphins slice throgh the water from the Mily´s front deck, before we were once again fingered by fate. Our engine died sometime during the night, and we drifted at the mercy of the strong current until finally running aground once again.

Although Captain Eleodoro again assured us that a boat was on its way to rescue us, Kris and I decided it was time to take charge of our own destiny. Donning our swim trunks, we leapt overboard and swam to a nearby sandbar, where we convinced a local fisherman to take us to the nearest village in his “peca peca,” a small wooden boat with a tiny outboard motor. The sense of relief was overwhelming as we fled the Mily, watching our stranded compatriots, still lounging complacently in their hammocks, fade into the distance.

The nearest village was San Cristóbal, little more than a handful of thatch-rooved huts amidst a cloud of sandflies, where we learned that the ship our captain had assured us was on its way was still docked in Pucallpa. Our only option for getting Kris to Lima in time for his Monday evening flight home was to board another lancha heading back to Pucallpa that afternoon.

For two more days we sailed upriver, arriving in Pucallpa early Monday morning. We then spent a hectic morning buying plane tickets and preparing for our flights, Kris´ to Lima and mine to Iquitos, from where I´d continue east into Brazil.

Before the clouds obscured my view as I gained altitude out of Pucallpa, I watched the once-large Ucayali snake through the endless forest below, like a microscopic image of some amoebic worm squiggling its way over a head of brocolli. Fifty-five minutes later, I´d accomplished what I couldn´t in five days: I´d made it to Iquitos.

Sat, Sept. 4: Puno, Peru

The ride from Copacabana across in to Peru was much les painful than we`s expected, only a couple of short climbs, and the rest was more or less flat. At the Peruvian border we met Chris, a friendly French guy who`s spent the last two years cycling all over the world. Real interesting guy, and lots of fun too (visit his web site, French only). We ended up teaming up with him all the way to Puno.
The road to the town of Juli continued alongside the lake, which was covered along its shores with a dense layer of emerald green algae. All along the road were Peruvians tending donkeys, sheep and a few llamas, all of which made the scenery very pleasant.
Juli itself is a nice little town with as many as five large stone churches and a well-manicured central plaza. The three of us had such a good night just hanging out, eating cake and playing cards. It was like we were all drunk on the Peruvian air, and I don`t think I`ve laughed that much since the “worst hot springs ever” in the Argentine Seven Lakes region.
Unfortunately, something Chris ate in Juli didn`t agree with him, for the next day he was a hurting unit, and we only got about 7 km out of town before we had to turn around to catch a bus instead. We think he had a bit of giardia, which was causing him to explode dramatically from both ends, and riding would have been next to impossible. Kris and I decided to accompany him to Puno. The bus ride itself was horrible, but not uninteresting. As soon as we got on, a woman asked us to sit on a couple new winter jackets and tell the customs agents that they were ours (there are several checkpoints near Puno). I said no way, and she got quite upset. We were 16 passengers crammed into a little van, with seats obviously designed for short Peruvians and not long-legged Canadian cyclists. Anyways, at the border the girl sitting on the other woman`s new jackets denied they were hers, and amidst some angry words the first woman, (the illegal jacket smuggler?) was escorted off the bus. s we drove away I watched her in a tugging match with another young woman over one of her precious jackets. Weird.
In Puno, we loaded our bikes surrounded by about 20 overly curious men and rode off to find a hostel.
Kris and I were in a bit of a silly mood last night, so when we saw a pet store across from our hostel we decided to buy Chris a get-well fish. Chris (the French one) was quite surprised, and he`d never received a gift quite like it. His new friend was named “Red Wine,” fr reasons not entirely clear to any of us, and he lives alternately between a water bottle and a one-litre ice cream pail that Kris nd I emptied in a shameless binge earlier that day.
Puno is a very touristy town, and it hasn`t left a good impression on any of us. When you spend so much time travelling in places that see very little tourists you get used to being treated like a human being, and not seen as a walking dollar sign, as in places like Puno, or Copacabana. Nonetheless, Kris and I decided to sign up for Puno`s standard tourist tour, to the nearby floating “Uros” islands. The islands are made of layers of totora reeds, which are constantly replaced as they are worn through from the bottom. Originally inhabited by the native Uro people, the islands are now home to mainly Quechua that supposedly work to maintain the Uro traditions of fishing and reed gathering, although they really survive off the boatloads of tourists that arrive every day. Kris and I weren`t expecting much form the islands, and they lived up to expectations.
Tomorrow Kris and I are going to set out down the road toward Cuzco. Our French friend is going to stay behind to spend some time with a freind here in Puno, and we`re sad to have to split up. Although we`ve spent only two days together, it feels like we`ve known each other much longer.

Fri, Sept. 18: Cusco, Peru

Although we´d expected a tough ride form Puno to Cusco, the road was one of the best yet, beautifully paved with wide clean shoulders for the most part, and downhill the majority of the way. We kept saying stuff like, “Tomorrow we´re going to pay for all this downhill,” but tomorrow was always just as easy. One tough pass, and then a gradual uphill into Cusco itself, and that´s it. The scenery was some of the nicest I´ve seen down here, as we followed a narrow valley through that gradually got greener and greener the closer we got to the city.
A couple highlights from the journey: Stopped for the night in the village of Santa Rosa, we went out to search for dinner when we heard a brass band playing. We followed the sound to a small courtyard, where a party was getting into swing, and where we were invited to share a meal and several beers with a crowd of locals celebrating the annual fiesta for their patron saint, Santa Rosa.

There, we did our best attempts at the local dances and we met Father Paul, the local priest from Illinois, who chatted with us, introduced us to some nuns (and nuns in training) and shared some wine. A good night out.
Our next stop were some hot springs we´d heard about. Nothing to write home about, just a nondescript building (and for something to be referred to as nondescript in Peru it has to be exceptionally bland!) with four rooms and deep square tubs. Nonetheless, they were nice and hot, and after a good soak we realized there was no way we could get back on our bikes. Luckily, we were allowed to camp right there next to the tub, and the whole deal, hot springs and accomodation, cost us each two soles (about 80 cents Canadian).
Two days later ew were in Cusco, a nice enough city, but crawling with tourists and therefore all sorts of street hawkers targeting tourists.

A bit annoying at times, but what can you do? It´s always an unpleasant experience coming from the friendly villages of the countryside to the big tourist centres, where you´re basically treated like a walking dollar sign. I prefer to be seen as a person rather than a gringo, but whatever. I chose this moment to become quite sickv for a few days, having contracted sometihng I now refer to as the Inca Stinka, but as Buddy would say, I´m feeling much better now.
Kris and I have now recently returned from the classic four-day Inca Trail hike. I wasn´t going to do it, but when Kris offered to front me the outrageous fee, I accepted, and am not disappointed for having done so. The hike took us through mountains cloaked in brilliant rain forest, and up through the misty clouds to several high passes. What made the trek though was the group we were with, a veritable crowd of 14 tourists, accompanied by 20 staff members (mostly porters) and two guides.

What sounds like it could have been a mess was a great time, as we all got along great. The unbelievable food didn´t hurt either. The trek, of course, culminated with a visit to Macchu Picchu, possibly the most famous archeological site in the world, which couldn´t possible live up to its reputation. Although the stories of the Incas themselves are fascinating, up close Macchu Picchu is just a bunch of old walls. It´s breathtaking to look down on it from above though, when you can see it laid out precariously on the top of a steep mountain, surrounded by more peaks all shrouded in deep green forest.
Now back in Cusco, we´ve done our best to knock a few items off our Christmas list in the myriad tourist stalls, and are now mentally preparing ourselves for a long, possibly 30-hour, bus ride to Huánuco, from where we´ll begin our final days of mountain cycling before descending into the Amazon. The reason for the bus ride is that Kris would really like to visit the Amazon with me, and I´d also like his company, but there´s no way we could cycle all the way there in the limited time he has. Plus, the road sounds like one of the foulest there is, which meant I needed very little convincing to fast track this next section.

Wed,Sept. 22: Tingo Maria, Peru

A 25-hour bus ride from Cusco, which wasn`t too too bad despite the fact that all the movies were dubbed in Spanish (it`s a tough life, I know) brought us to Lima, the Peruvian capital, where we had pretty much the whole day to explore before catching another bus at 10:00 that night. Eschewing the regular touristy things to do,like visiting churches or seeing the ocean, we instead indulged in satisfying our yearnings for North American culture. First stop was McDonald`s, where we each had two or three burgers and a McFlurry before finally dragging ourselves out of the hard plastic chairs. Next up, we found a movie theatre and sat down for “The Village,” which I`d never heard of but was quite good. Having nothing better to do after the film, we wandered back and forth down the pedestrian street between the two main plazas,Plaza de Armas and Plaza San Martin, before deciding we`d waited long enough and could finally go for dinner. Luckily, KFC was just up the block, so we again did the North American thing and gorged ourselves on greasy chicken. Afterwards we went and saw another movie,”The Punisher,” again much betterthanI expected,and madeour way to our bus.
Although Kris was kept up with cold sweats, the lingering effects of his illness, I slept the whole way and was in Huànuco before I knew it. Spent the day more or less hanging out in our hotel room off the main plaza (Even watching NFL football on TV!). Nice town though, and not another tourist in sight, which I found very nice after too much time on the gringo trail. Huànuco was also the first place I`ve seen pineapple for sale in large amounts, a sure sign we were getting closer to the jungle.
Glad to be back on our bikes, we cycled out of town the next day (yesterday) under perfect conditions, only slightly cloudy skies and 23 degrees. After descending for 10 km. or so, we began the long climb up from less than 2,000 metres to 2,770 metres. At the top of the pass was a long dark tunnel in which we thankfully didn`t meet any traffic, and then the fun really began. From the top of the pass, it`s about 65 km. and more than 2,000 metres downhill to Tingo Maria, on the edge of the Amazon jungle. As we descended, always fast but rarely fill-your-spandex fast, the temperature warmed, the green foliage became more and more dense and the air more humid. All along the road were colourful, aromatic flowers, and each breath was filled with that lively jungle scent that I just love, like the tropical house at the zoo, only this is the real McCoy. “I don`t mean to shock you,” I said to Kris as we flew past a small waterfall tumbling from the rock wall beside us, “But we`re cycling into the Amazon.” “I know,” he replied, “From the Andes!” Very cool. Possibly the best day of cycling yet. As we descended we met several trucks chugging uphill the other direction, with boys on home-made wooden wagons holding on to the back, hitching a ride up the mountain. Very impressive. By the time we finished descneding, the temperature was 33 degrees.
We arrived just before dusk in Tingo Marìa, a town much larger than I expected, full of three-wheel motorcycle taxis, like the tuk-tuks of Bangkok, and alive with an energy I felt was missing from some of the Andean towns. Or maybe it`s just that I was in such a good mood after the great day. I`M IN THE AMAZON!!!
Kris and I are taking a day off today, obstensibly to explore some of the nearby caves, but in reality sitting out the rain that`s been falling steadily all day. Tomorrow we`ll set out east even further into the jungle, over a supposedly breathtaking pass towards the town of Pucallpa.

Mon, Sept. 27: Pucallpa, Peru

After spending a full day in Tingo María, checking out a nearby cave that was full of screeching birds and downright creepy in the darkness, we set off east towards Pucallpa. At first the road was a bit fickle, alternating between pavement and rough, rocky sections, before finally making up its mind and deteriorating into a rocky mess just in time for possibly the toughest climb I´ve faced yet. We grinded our way uphill for about 30 kilometres, the road was rough and the heat and humidity were debilitating. Several hours later however, we crested the pass and began an equally long descent, a nice break for our legs but our hands were soon aching from riding our brakes, as the road was no better yet.
This whole stretch is currently being paved, although I think they´ve been working at it for some time now. Either way, past the pass the road is closed, only open to traffic for certain, very limited times of the day. Unfortunately for us, three in the afternoon wasn´t one of them. After pleading with the woman manning the barricade, flashing my best puppy dog eyes, she agreed to let us pass, as long as we went slowly and carefully, as if the road conditions gave us any other choice. Happily, we left behind the string of trucks waiting to pass and set out onto the road ahead.
As we cycled past the construction workers, all very friendly and cheering us on (some even making kissing noises at us which was a bit unsettling), the road gradually became nicer and nicer, until finally it was beautiful, pristine, pavement, still smelling slightly of tar. What a ride this will be when the whole thing is paved! Now that we could look around instead of watching for rocks in front of us, we saw that we were descending alongside a deep limestone gorge, a little river flowing quickly below. The hills were covered in deep green growth, broken only by the waterfalls that occasionally tumbled just beside the road. Stellar!
We arrived just before dark to the village of El Boqueron, which was unfortunately celebrating its 6th birthday so we wouldn´t get much sleep due to marching bands, costumed dancers, and revellers in the room next to mine playing bad music on a crappy radio.
In the morning we decided to just go 15 kilometres to the larger town of Agauytia, where we were interviewed by a local radio journalist, ate the best fried chicken I´ve found yet in Peru and where Kris got ill once again with the Inca Stinka´s estranged Amazonian cousin.
The blissful pavement ends just across the bridge past Aguaytia, and we soon found ourselves again on a hellish road under the scorching tropical sun. And don´t even get me started on the humidity. Although I managed to keep my spirits high, Kris didn´t do so well, and there was no end to the colourful adjectives he was coming up with to describe the rough road. There was not even any nice scenery to raise his spirits, just trees right up against the roadside, all covered in a thick orange dust. Making things even better, we crested a small hill and suddenly noticed the sky ahead was completely dark. Five minutes later we were in our first Amazonian deluge, which we luckily were able to sit out under the corrugated steel roof of some locals who were hanging out in hammocks with nothing better to do. The rain lightened up in about an hour and a half, and we were able to ride the remaining couple of kilometres to the village of San Alejandro.
Since we´ve been in Peru, the shouts of “Gringo!,” although still around from time to time, have more or less been replaced with cries of “Mister!” as we pass. I´ve come to find this almost as annoying as Gringo. I´m not sure why, if it´s the way they yell it, more like “Meester,” or it´s just the fact that they have nothing else to say after that, or maybe because I know that when they yell it they´re assuming I´m an American. What´s more, I wonder how everyone in Peru has somehow managed to learn this one word and have figured that “Mister!” is what they should be yelling whenever they see a white guy, instead of “Hello,” “Good Day” or even a simple “Sir.” On the other hand, why are they yelling at all? We´ve noticed that Peruvians love to yell. In fact, I think they love noise in general. All day and all night, in every village across the country, people are shouting, horns are honking for apparently no reason, mangy dogs are barking and roosters are cock-a-doodle-dooing. Agggghhhhh!!!
But I digress.
Although I was keen to attempt to cycle the remaining 111 kilometres to Pucallpa, Kris had no intention of revisiting that road, and nor was it very likely we´d be able to get to Pucallpa in one day, which was the time frame we´d given ourselves in order to guarantee that Kris would have time to catch his flight home from Iquitos. Therefore, we took a taxi this morning, which was an adventure in itself as we careened around corners covered in loose gravel, blindly passed swerving tanker trucks and generally put our lives on the line as our friendly, if suicidal, driver pretended he was piloting a rally car.
Safely in Pucallpa, we´ve found a boat leaving for Iquitos tomorrow evening and are relaxing until then at a cheap yet surprisingly comfortable hotel. Cable TV, swimming pool, even a ceiling fan! You have no idea how luxurious this is to us! We don´t really know what to expect from the boat, but we´re preparing for the worst and hoping for the best. Three days of cockroach infested, mosquito plagued, swelteringly hot hell on water, here we come!

Oct. 4: Iquitos, Peru

I`d expected our 800-km river boat ride up the Ucayali River from Pucallpa to Iquitos to be tough, but I had no idea just what an adventure we were in for.
I suppose the story really starts on Tuesday, when we showed up at the shabby Pucallpa port, crawling with sweaty workers carrying large sacks on their backs, to board our boat, which was scheduled to leave at 5:00 that afternoon. Unfortunately, schedules in Peru rarely mean anything. The boat wouldn`t be leaving until Wednesday at 3:00.
At 3:00 on Wednesday we showed up again and were glad to actually board the boat, but not so happy that it didn`t actually set sail until after 7:00. Now, before you go picturing some luxury, or even comfortable river cruise, I should describe this boat a bit. A combination passenger/cargo ship (called a “lancha”), the “Mily,” as it was christened, was like most other boats plying the Ucayali, although perhaps a bit smaller and slower than many. As we learned later, there couldn`t have been a worse boat to get on that afternoon. After boarding the by means of narrow wooden planks stretched over the other boats between it and the shore, we arrived on the Mily`s front deck, loaded with cargo such as oil tanks, fridges, a truck and (later) several angry cows. Directly ahead was the dark cargo hold, loaded with everything else you could imagine. Up about seven stairs was the passenger deck, completely filled with hammocks, each replete with a sweaty Peruvian lounging about waiting for departure. Luckily, we had a cabin, just off the side of the passenger deck, which was dirty and stuffy, but provided us with a place to lock up our gear and a frequent refuge from the kids whose favourite game seems to be “Follow and Stare at the White Guys.” In the back of the passenger deck was a dingy kitchen and a row of five tiny, foul-smelling, toilets, with a pipe above your head that works as a shower. Stairs led up to the top deck, which held more cargo and provided a nice place to take in some sun.
Well then. We were so happy to be underway. As we set out an amazing harvest moon was rising over the horizon, gradually changing from orange to yellow to white as it rose. Our happiness didn`t last long, however. When we awoke the next morning it didn`t feel like the ship was going anywhere. Assuming we were at a port, Kris said, “I`m not getting out of bed until we get moving.” Good thing he broke that rule, because it turns out that somehow in the night we`d been piloted into a mud bank under the shallow water and were run aground. Nobody knew how long we`d be there, and nobody seemed too concerned. In Peru, these things happen. We were told a boat would come by soon to help push us out, and when it never came we were told another boat was coming. We were elated to see it round the bend at 3:00 or so, but our hopes plummetted as we watched it sail on by. It was apparent we`d have to take matters into our own hands.
A bunch of us guys descended to the cargo hold and began hauling 50-kg sacks of sugar on our backs from the back of the boat to the front in order to help lighten the part that seemed to be mired the worst (I`m not sure how that happened to be the back, but it was). Having moved about 150 sacks, we jumped into the water and began pushing the Mily from the side as our capitan revved the engine. You can imagine our elation when we saw the boat begin to move, so very slightly at first, and eventually enough to free it from the river`s muddy grip. After 15 hours mired in the mud, we were once again moving. The capitan rewarded us with three crates of beer that we were transporting (some of which would later be destroyed by the vicious kicks of the aforementioned angry cow). We enjoyed an amazing night of celebration and comraderie, but our excitement was to be short lived.
After an uneventful day of smooth sailing, watching pink dolphins cut through the water and eyeing the far-away banks for any sign of terrestrial wildlife, I awoke early Friday morning to the frantic sounds of people running around looking for life jackets. Dreading what I might find, I left the cabin to investigate. Turns out the engine had died and we were drifting at the mercy of the river`s swift current. People were worried we might drift into something we shouldn`t have and sink. I went back to bed, too frustrated to deal with it. When I got up again an hour or so later, I discovered that we`d (luckily?) run aground once again. Again, a boat was supposed to come by to tow us to a nearby port, and when it didn`t show up another was supposed to come that evening. We`d heard this story before and decided we were going to take charge of our own destiny. Kris was becoming increasingly worried that he`d miss his Monday flight out of Lima, especially since we were still a two-day sail from Iquitos, and staying aboard the Mily would mean two extra days waiting on shore for another boat which may or may not be coming anytime soon.
Seeing some fishermen on a nearby sandbar, we donned our trunks, jumped into the murky water and swam to shore. The fishermen were very friendly and agreed to take us and our gear to the nearby village of San Cristobal, where we could hopefully board another boat to Iquitos. In San Cristobal, little more than a collection of wood and thatch huts, we learned that the boat that was supposedly coming that evening to rescue the Mily was still at port in Pucallpa, a two-day sail away. Our captain, much like many Peruvians before him, had blatantly lied to us. There was, however, a boat coming that afternoon heading back to Pucallpa. For Kris, this was the only real option for getting back to “civilization” by Monday. For me, although disappointed to turn around and not see the adventure through to Iquitos, it was a chance to avoid several more agonizing days on the Mily, or in some sandfly-infested riverside village.
Our second boat, the “Henry 2,” was much larger and faster, less crowded and the passengers seemed generally weller-off. We pitched my tent among the hammocks to ward off mosquitoes, and sailed back to Pucallpa, arriving at 2:00 am Monday morning.
A stressful, rushed day followed as we got flights organized out of Pucallpa and all our things ready to board a plane, Kris to Lima and myself to Iquitos. Long story short, we both made our flights. As I gained altitude, I could see the once-large Ucayali snaking below me through the endless forest, like a microscopic image of some sort of amoebic worm slithering over a head of broccoli. In 50 minutes I`d accomplished what I couldn`t in five days: I arrived in Iquitos. I`m not sure how I`m going to proceed from here, whether I`ll fly to the Brazilian border and then on to Manuas, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, or whether I`ll try my luck with another river boat. Right now, I`m leaning toward flying.

Brazil

Travel thoughts: Jungle Journey a Drag

The Amazon. Few places on earth inspire the same sense of awe, invoke the same vivid images of savage wilderness, with the mere drop of a name. Its numbers alone are staggering: The Amazon Basin covers nearly 5 million square kilometres, is home to a quarter of all plant life found on earth and contains more fresh water than all the rivers in Europe combined, and yet the simple fact that I was able to ride my bike through its midst is symptomatic of its steady decline.

The BR-174 is one of several highways carved into the Brazilian Amazon like garish asphalt scars. Although it stretches nearly 1,000 kilometres through the heart of northern Amazonia, what I saw while cycling its length was a far cry from the romantic images of untamed jungle that I`d naively envisioned.

My journey began in Manaus, a modern city of 1.5 million people in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon. Once free of Manaus´ extensive urban sprawl, the BR-174 begins its trajectory north toward the Venezuelan border, the forest looming closely on either side. A rolling ribbon of asphalt slicing through the jungle, the BR-174 seemed the perfect harmony of nature and modernization, or so I tried to believe, until a huge, flattened snake at the side of the road reminded me of the impact that this highway has had on its environment.

Although the BR-174 is lined with all sorts of exotic roadkill, the Amazon´s animals weren`t the only ones adversely affected by the advent of a busy highway passing through their midst. A 125-kilometre stretch of the BR-174 cuts through the vast territory of Brazil`s Waimiri Atroari Indians, who were none to pleased with the encroachment. More than 200 Brazilian soldiers were killed with poisoned arrows during the highway`s construction in the 1970s, but the conflict turned out to be much more devastating to the Indians themselves. From a population numbering in the thousands, the Waimiri Atroari were reduced to a mere 374 souls by 1987.

Unfortunately, however, the plight of the Waimiri Atroari isn`t unique in the Brazilian Amazon, where more than 75 indigenous tribes have gone extinct in the 20th century alone, most killed off by exposure to new diseases against which they had no natural defenses. Many of these diseases were introduced via more than 10,000 kilometres of new roads built over a 15-year period in the mid-1900s, part of an aggressive campaign by the Brazilian government to colonize the Amazon.

Today, the Waimiri Atroari territory is a protected indigenous reserve, through which passage is strictly regulated. As such, it is forbidden to enter by bicycle, and so I caught a lift with a friendly Brazilian trucker to a small hotel north of the reserve. Back on my bike, I was disappointed to see that the landscape along the BR-174 had lost all semblance of the mighty rainforest which it must once have been. North of the reserve, the highway is flanked with ugly tracts of cleared land, speckled with lonely palm trees in a weak sort of tribute to the forest´s former glory. Where once jaguars prowled and monkeys swung through the canopy were now herds upon herds of the new kings of the jungle: Cattle.

In the last 15 years, the number of cattle in the Amazon has more than doubled to nearly 60 million, more than in Canada and Australia combined. According to some estimates, as many as 20,000 square kilometres of tropical rainforest are cleared every year to create grazing land, making cattle ranching the leading cause of rainforest destruction.

The destruction of the rainforest, while expediting the buildup of harmful greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, is far from simply an environmental issue. At least a quarter of prescription drugs in North America are derived from plants, yet less than five per cent of the world`s tropical plant species have been analyzed for their therapeutic potential. In the Amazon, where one hectare of forest can contain more than 1,000 species of plants, and where species tend to develop especially potent toxins to survive in such a competitive ecosystem, the estimated 15 per cent of Amazonian rainforest already destroyed represents the permanent loss of thousands of potential life-saving medicines.

Despite the disheartening view from the BR-174, it`s not all bad news for the Amazon. Numerous conservation groups are working to promote sustainable economic activities, such as fruit and nut cultivation, as viable alternatives to cattle ranching, and the Brazilian government has taken steps in the right direction by creating new protected areas within the rainforest. Likewise, by the beginning of this year, the population of the Waimiri Atroari had bounced back to 1,018, thanks in part to increased availability of medical services and vigilant protection of their territorial boundaries.

The wild, romantic version of the Amazon that I´d so keenly envisioned does exist, deep in the jungle beyond the destructive reach of industrialization. With any luck it will continue to exist, and you´ll never be able to get there by bicycle.

To learn more about conservation efforts in the Amazon, visit www.amazonconservation.org

Wednesday, Oct. 13: Manaus, Brazil

After my disaterous attempt to reach Iquitos by boat, I opted for a speedboat to the Brazilian border instead of another lancha, the big, slow passenger/cargo ships. Got there in 10 hours.
I entered Brazil in the small city of Tabatinga, which lies at what they call the Tri-frontera, the triple border. Across the river, obviously, is Peru, and as you walk through Tabatinga you suddenly end up in the city of Leticia, Colombia. No border formalities, nothing. You´re walking down the street, look up and suddenly the signs are in Spanish instead of Portuguese. I liked the idea of strolling into Colombia for a cup of good coffee, but it was just too darn hot, so I had a coke instead…the soft drink, not the famous Colombian kind.
From Tabatinga, against my better judgement, I took another large boat down the Amazon River to Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian Amazon. Man, this boat was so much better than the Mily! My cabin was air conditioned, the bathroom was at least semi-clean and up top was a bar with a musician almost always playing live music on a keyboard, which lent the journey a bit of a fiesta air. Still, I had a scare on day two or three when I woke up to discover that we had run aground, in the middle of the Amazon (much more romantic sounding), but somehow we got moving again after only five hours.
After four days on the river we arrived in Manaus, a thriving city of 2 million people in the middle of the jungle. Nice place, but the heat is oppressive. I´ve resigned myself to the fact that for the rest of my trip I´m going to be covered in sweat every minute of the day. It´s embarrassing though trying to interact with the locals with sweat running down your nose and splashing on the sidewalk.
One of the major features in Manaus is the beautifuly ornate opera house, built during the height of the rubber boom at the turn of the 20th century. Although all the wood used in the construction is local, the majority of the rest of the building, ie the ornate steel staircase railings, crystal chandeliers, and all the marble, was imported from Europe. It´s a very impressive building.
The language is another thing I just can´t get used to. To read Portuguese, it seems very similar to Spanish, but the Brazilian pronunciation is just so wacky. I´ve learned a couple one liners, although as soon as I let one fly, I have to stand there bewildered as the recipient rambles on in freaky-deaky Portuguese, assuming I can understand. But I digress.
I hope to see all the things I want to in Manaus, and do the things I have to, tomorrow, and be on the road toward Venezuela by Friday. I´ve been really anxious to get home lately, really missing my friends, family and just the comforts of home. I know, however, that I have to finish my journey to the coast, and so the quest continues….

Friday, Oct. 22: Boa Vista, Brazil

I enjoyed my final day in Manaus visiting the Bosque da Cienca, a huge zoo-like park that houses a collection of animals native to the Amazon. Very neat, much more natura~-feeling than a zoo. No jaguars though. Guess I´ll have to find those out in the wild!
My fun city time over, it was time to continue my journey north. I left early, around 6:30 or so, in order to beat the sweltering heat, and the heightened late morning traffic of Manaus. Nonetheless, it was at times a hair-raising experience navigating the busy streets and complicated merges on the street out of town. It took about 25 km of riding before I was actually out of the city. I inteneded to take it fairly easy my first day back on the bike, and only do 50 km or so. However, I rarely listen to my own common sense when I´m feeling good, and I was, so I kept going. Then it got hot. Really hot. I´d thought my thermometer was broken because it had always been at 31 degrees in my hotel rooms, but now it hovered up around 37. All along the road was dense forest, and I really felt like I was riding through the jungle, which I guess I was. Just north of Manaus I saw a huge dead snake at the side of the road, maybe six feet long and four inches thick. After that, my fear of snakes transformed every branch, wire and shredded tire on the road into a viper waiting to punce on me. Although I saw several more dead snakes, none nearly as large, I thankfully saw no alive ones. I knew the grasses at the side of the road were crawling with small green lizards though, because I could hear them scampering for cover as I approached, and I could see their fallen brethren squashed on the pavement.
120 km or so later, I arrived exhausted in Presidente Figueiredo, a nice, larger-than-you´d-expect town on the BR-174, the highway stretching form Manuas to the Venezuelan border. After such a tough day I took a day off, during which I soaked in the cool river in the nearby Parque Urubuí, where a series of small waterfalls create many cool sinkholes and nice swimming spots.
The next day I once again began punishing my body. Although I´d leave as early as the sun was up, I´d only get a few hours of comfortable riding in before the temperatures soared, as high as 38 degrees in the afternoon. Nonetheless I stubbornly pushed on, burned by the sun and on the verge of heat stroke I´m sure. I´m just so darned eager to get to the Caribbean coast though! I did several 100-km plus days, as well as one “rest day” of only 40 km or so, staying in small roadside towns at times little more than a gas station, hotel and restaurant.
About 100 km north of Presidente Figueiredo is the huge Wairani-Itriri (spelling?!) Indian Reserve, through which it´s prohibited to travel by bike. Too dangerous they say, too many wild animals and restless natives with bows and poisoned arrows. Instead, I hitched a ride with a couple of truckers who at times I thought were going to rob me or worse. They´d stop for apparently no reason in the middle of the darkness of the reserve, and ask me to get out of the truck with them. One kept asking me to take photos, so I assumed he wanted my camera. However, all the oddities aside, they turned out to be nice enough guys, and dropped me off at a hotel north of the reserve without incident.
The countryside beyond the reserve showed more evidence of the deforesetaion that´s plaguing the Amazon, as the Brazilian government tries to encourage settlement in its remote jungle states. Lots of farms with scrawny cattle, lots of flooded flat land, and lots of palm trees, although nothing like the forests south of the reserve. The final 140 km to Boa Vista, a decent-sized city near the Venezuelan, and Guyanan, border, I meant to do in two days, but once again I ignored my better judgment and did it in one. Arrived absolutely knackered, sun-weary and dehydrated. But in civilization!
My mission in Boa Vista, besides recovering, was to somehow get money. Since arriving in Brazil I haven´t been able to take money out at ATMs with my bank card, and I´d used up all my emergency resources, ie my traveller´s cheques and most of my US dollars. Again I was denied access to the ATMs, but after a three-hour process at the Banco do Brazil I was able to take cash out on my Visa card.

Ahead of me lies some 230 km or so to the Venezuelan border, and I don´t know exactly what to expect as far as places to get food and/or water, and to spend the night. A highway cop assurred me that it´s a safe road though, that if I were assaulted I´d be the first, so I suppose I can camp along the way if need be. I´m feeling better after a day off the saddle, and I´m super excited to be in Venezuela in three days, or two if I ignore my better judgment, as I surely will do. That Caribbean coast is getting closer and closer!

Monday, Oct. 25: Santa Elena, Venezuela

Despite the heat, I was able to compact my three-day ride to Venezuela into two. This was done more out of not having adequate places to stay and/or eat along the way rather than it just being an exceptionally easy ride. In fact, however, the route was much flatter than I´d expected. For 150 km out of Boa Vista, in fact, I cycled through the same flat plain, flooded in a sort of marshland on either said of the road. I begin my days quite early to get as much riding done before the heat gets unbearable, and there´s some great light that reflects off this water in the early daylight hours, and lots of stunning white herons or storks standing stoically, eyeing me as I pass.
Although there was a hotel 100 km out of town, it was quite expensive, and by then I realized I was going to make the border in two days, so I figured I should cut down as many km as I could on day one. I continued to a roadside restaurant 35 km away, where I was harassed by a drunken Brazilian, who slurred on incomprehensibly, and seemed to get upset with me when I repeatedly told him that I didn´t understand. Nonetheless, he wouldn´t let me leave until he was done eating, which took quite a while since half of every forkfull was dropped back on his plate, his arm or the table. I spent the night covered in sweat as I camped in their back field, the first time I used my tent since, gee, since Bolivia I think. Nonetheless, the brilliant sunrise in the mornign was worth it.
On day two the hills began innocently enough, and I was beginning to think that this climb to the border wasn´t going to be such a big deal. However, the 13 km before the border just about killed me. It was right in the thick of the afternoon heat, and it seemed like the grade got steeper around every corner. Soaked in sweat, I arrived ecstatic though exhausted, had a quick late lunch, and continued into the final country of my trip.
Border was a bit confusing though. At first I rode right past the Brazilian Federal Police post, where I had to get my exit stamp, because no one came out to stop me. I had to come back and go in myself. At the Venezuelan side, a border guard was just sitting there not looking too concerned aobut me, so I asked if I had to stop there. “no,” he said, “There´s another building further up.” So I rode on, and on, and on, until finally I came to the small city of Santa Elena, 15 km away. Worried about being considered an illegal, I went directly to the police station and asked aobut where I have to get my passport stamped, and they directed me to an out-of-the-way office up a narrow street. There, a nonchalant sort of fellow stamped my passport and went back to watching TV. I just wonder how on earth they expect people to instinctively know to go to this divey little office. Anyways, I´m here, I´m feeling good, and I´ve only got 875 km or so to go until the coast!

Venezuela

Nov. 1, 2004: Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela

The ride through the Gran Sabana in southern Venezuela was amazing. The whole region is so big and empty, with only the vast rolling hills keeping me company for most of the way. The region is dotted with impressive waterfalls, the most noteworthy of which is Angel Falls, the tallest in the world, which unfortunately is far to remote and expensive to visit for my budget. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the Quebrada de Jaspe, which is a fairly small waterfall but one that flows over an amazing bed of jasper rock that`s tinted spectacularly in red and black. Very cool, and just off the highway. Unfortunately, while I visited the fall some stupid opportunist stole my gloves off the handlebars of my bike, which I`d locked up in the parking lot. My sweaty, stinky gloves that had logged almost 8,000 km. Whatever dude.

Also along the highway, which had one of the nicest riding surfaces I´ve seen in South America by the way, is the 50-metre tall Kamà Falls, where I actually spent the night in a very rustic little thatch-roofed hut. Funny story from that night, which anyone who knows my intense and illogical fear of frogs will enjoy (especially you, Mag). I got up in the middle of the night to go pee outside, opened my door and was startled by a green, tropical-looking, tennis ball-sized frog sitting on an electrical cord at exactly eye level right in front of my face, just staring into my headlamp. I screamed, jumped back inside and slammed the door. Thought about it for a bit, then opened the door again, saw the frog still staring at me, and once again slammed the door. I was torn. I really had to pee, but there was no way I wanted to go anywhere near that thing. I sat down on the bed and contemplated my plan of attack. I felt so helpless, and at the same time I realized the stupidity of whole situation. Finally I gathered all my courage and ran out the door, ducking as low as I could, and keeping my eye on froggy the whole time while I answered nature´s call. Repeated the process on the way back in, slammed the door, and was quite proud of myself for the rest of the night.

The kilometre markers along the road count down to the town of El Dorado, and so I, like many Spanish conquistadors before me, figured it must be something special. What a dive. It felt like your typical Mexican border town from some American movie. Just a bunch of surly-looking men lounging in front of a jumble of small shops and restaurants blaring bad latin music around a paved, glass-strewn plaza. Adding to my displeasure was the fact that although all the places seemed to have toilets and sinks, none had running water, and I was told that there never had been. Again, whatever dude.
I was glad to make it to Guasipata the next day, a slightly larger town that meant running water, and A/C and a television in my hotel room to boot. There, a friendly shopkeeper gifted me her last Venezuelan flag, and an incredible rainstorm knocked the power out in the whole town for a couple of hours. I was in a Chinese restaurant at the time, and when I tried to leave my sandals got sucked off my feet in the torrent of water running down the gutter. I searched for several minutes, with only the fierce lightning flashes cutting through the darkness, but I finally located them, one of them more than two blocks “downstream.”
A couple days later was Halloween, and I wasn`t going to let the fact that it`s really not a big deal in South America ruin my fun. Using some materials I`d picked up in Guasipata, I fashioned a cape, mask and “Super Ciclista” logo, which I donned for the 50-km journey to Ciudad Guayana. I felt so silly riding by people, and couldn`t help laugh to myself as I tried to imagine what they must be thinking. I`m sure they though I`d lost it, and in fact the thought had crossed my mind as well.
Ciudad Guayana, spread out along the Orinoco River, is Venezuela`s fastest-growing city, and is comprised of the cities of Puerto Ordaz and San Felix, which have expanded into each other. It´s a very modern-looking place that reminded me of any small American city, with some very nice parks and plazas, several McDonald`s and even a TGIF Friday`s. Riding into Puerto Ordaz I met Jean Pierre and his mother, Teresa, who offered me lunch at their place. I followed them to their house, where I ended up spending the night in the company of some very nice, amazingly hospitible, people.
Today I cruised down the freeway to Ciudad Bolívar, where Simon Bolívar, known throughout South America as “The Liberator,” orchestrated his rebellions against the Spanish. I´m looking forward to spending a rest day here checking out the city.
Ever since I´ve been in Venezuela I´ve been so eager to put in kilometres as I get closer and closer to the coast. Now, less than 400 kilometres remain, and I can almost smell that Caribbean air!

Sat, Nov. 6, 2004: Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela

I`VE MADE IT!!

299 days and 8,989 kilometres after leaving Tierra del Fuego I`ve arrived at the Caribbean Sea! It was a very exciting day. I set out from Barcelona flying the flags of all the South American countries I`ve cycled through up until now, with the Canadian flag waving proudly up top. The whole flagpole was more than six feet tall! I`d left myself only a 15-km ride this morning, and although I was fairly near the coast all day I couldn`t actually see the sea, since it was a very urban stretch with many buildings in the way.
When I finally turned onto a street into downtown Puerto La Cruz and saw blue up ahead where the road ended, I felt such an amazing rush. I screamed or laughed or something as I rode down the street, people must have thought I was nuts. As I approached the sea I was flooded with emotion as I thought of all that I`d been through, the good and the bad, to get here, to this point, right now. I nearly cried. The road ended at a large boulevard called El Paseo, which I crossed and walked my bike onto a small beach, with little palm trees and eveything. A few islands dotted the horizon, it was a much more perfect scene that I`d imagined. Immediately I leaned my bike against a palm, took off my shoes and socks, and walked into the sea, where I pretty much collapsed to my knees in the water. What an amazing moment!
My original plan had been to bring a stone from the Beagle Channel in Tierra del Fuego and skip it into the Caribbean, but unfortunately my skipping stone decided to leave the expedition somewhere in Bolivia, and so instead I simply celebrated my arrival in the same manner that Gwendal, Damien and I celebrated our departure way back in January next to the Beagle Channel: With a bottle of champagne. While I was taking a bunch of photos and video of my arrival, a man approached me and started chatting me up. His name was Napoleon, and long story short, I ended up throwing my bike in the trunk of his car and spent the day with him visiting some of the city`s sights. Later, he and his wife took me out for lunch. What a great day!
My plan for the moment is to spend a night or two here, then head over to Caracas, where hopefully I can store my bike at the apartment of a friend of an Uruguayan friend, and then continue west down the coast (by bus, no more cycling for me thank you) and spend four or five days surfing in a little fishing village called Cuyagua.
Which reminds me of the such good luck I`ve had lately. Three days ago as I was riding I was stopped by a van with two cyclists from Caracas who wanted to know about my trip. Then yesterday, they stopped me again, on their way back to Caracas, and one of them, Segundo, got his bike out and rode the 30 km to Barcelona with me while his friend, Edwin, drove behind us in the van. Anyways, I mentioned to Edwin that I wanted to do some surfing, and he told me that he has his board (I had no idea he was a surfer!) stored at a friend`s place in Cuyagua and I`m free to use it. Sweet! His friend also owns a hotel and restaurant, so I`m pretty much set. Bought a big new book, and I`m ready for my well-deserved down time (and waves, of course, waves).

I remember arriving in Ushuaia more than 10 months ago and feeling scared out of my wits at the mammoth expedition that lay ahead of me. I remember looking at a map of South America and thinking that there was no way I´d be able to do this. But with a couple of good friends to cycle with and get me on my feet (or on my wheels as it were), some gritty determination and, yes, with a couple well-timed bus rides, I´ve made it. It´s hard to believe that the tanned guy strolling the streets here in Puerto La Cruz, happily chatting in Spanish with the locals, is the same scared lad that nearly cried himself to sleep in Ushauia.
Of course I´d like to thank all of my sponsors who helped me get this dream of mine underway, and all my friends, family and all the anonymous friends who have been following my adventure online and offering me the support that has at times been the only thing that kept me going. Thanks so very much for all your support, and above all go out there and reach for your own goals and cross your own borders.

Travel thoughts: Grand Finale

I collapsed to my knees, overcome with emotion, and felt the cool water of the Caribbean lap at my thighs. I scooped a handful to my lips, the taste of its salt providing tangible proof that after 299 days and 9,000 hard-earned kilometres, I’d finally made it.

It had been 10 months since I’d set out by bicycle from the windswept island of Tierra del Fuego, in the southernmost reaches of South America, not sure if I’d actually be able to pull off this monstrous endeavour upon which I was embarking. From my vantage at the bottom of the world, the Caribbean Sea seemed impossibly distant, existing in a completely different world somewhere at the northern extreme of the continent. It wasn’t until I finally arrived in Venezuela, after having cycled nearly 8,000 kilometres, that I knew I was going to make it.

Entering Venezuela, the final country of my trans-South American adventure, gave me that same excited tingle that I get while flying the moment the captain announces that we’re beginning our descent to our destination. Spurred by my own impatience, I set out at a near-frantic pace into the rugged beauty of southeastern Venezuela, a vast, empty region known as the Gran Sabana. I felt so alive cycling through the silent countryside, past rolling, palm-studded savannahs and picturesque waterfalls, the region’s signature flat-topped mountains, called tepuis, standing stoically on the horizon.

It was when I pulled into each new town and had to deal with the ubiquitous shouts, whistles and dumbfounded stares that had been my constant companions in more than 200 towns, villages and cities since Tierra del Fuego, that my mood tended to sour. Someone once said the getting there is half the fun, which I suppose is true to a certain extent. There comes a point, however, like when you’ve been “getting there” for more than nine months, that the fun starts to wear a bit thin.

As I rolled through these towns looking for accomodations, a process that had become as routine as brushing my teeth, I wanted more than anything to be inconspicuous, just another face in the crowd. The fact that such anonymity was impossible, given my light Canadian complexion and fully loaded touring bike, sparked dramatic mood swings that at times bordered on rage. I knew that my anger was senseless, but that only frustrated me more. I was a regular Jekyll and Hyde on two wheels.

My fickle-tempered tour of the Gran Sabana ended with a twisting, white-knuckled descent to a rag-tag cluster of bars, hotels and restaurants unimaginitively known as Kilometro 88. After a restless night kept up by the couple next door in a seedy hotel where the first rate I was quoted was by the hour, I hastily left town and rode north to the marginally less depressing town of El Dorado, boldly positioned at kilometre zero. With its glass-strewn main intersection lined with shifty-eyed men in various stages of sobriety, shouting to be heard over the obtrusive Latin music belching from the gaping doorways of the restaurants and cervecerias behind them, El Dorado was the spitting image of every Mexican border town that’s ever appeared in a Hollywod movie.

Now, more than ever, I was desperate to get to the coast. I continued my pursuit north, making brief stops amidst the ultra-modern office bulidings of Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela’s fastest-growing city, and the colourful, colonial-style homes and bustling street markets of Ciudad Bolívar, the birthplace of Simon Bolívar’s 19th-century rebellions against the Spanish that led to the independence of five South America nations. From here, a massive suspension bridge spans the Orinoco River, the only bridge to do so over the Orinoco’s entire 2,140-kilometre course, after which a relentlessly flat and equally boring highways stretches north all the way to Puerto La Cruz, my ultimate destination.

For the last 15 kilometres of my journey I followed a busy urban corridor into Puerto La Cruz, the flags of the eight countries that I’d traversed to get there waving behind me on a makeshift reed flagpole that stood nearly two metres tall. Although I knew the sea was nearby, it remained hidden behind the dense tangle of urbanity the surrounded me.

It wasn’t until I turned left, onto a side street toward downtown, that a field of blue suddenly appeared ahead of me, the morning sunlight dancing off its reflective surface. Words can’t describe the intense rush of emotion that flooded me at that moment. The memories of all that I’d been through, 299 days of good times and bad, to get to this point, swarmed through my mind as I watched the sea grow closer and closer.

Finally the street ended at a large boulevard, beyond which lay a sandy, palm-studded beach that was more perfect than anything I’d imagined. I crossed the boulevard, pushed my bike onto the beach and leaned it against a palm tree. Slowly, as if in a dream, I removed my shoes and socks and turned toward the water, focusing for a moment on the tiny islands rising from it surface several hundred metres off shore. Then, the irrepressible smile on my face growing larger with each step, I walked proudly into the Caribbean Sea.

http://rgparton.tripod.com/af.html

5 risposte a “Atraversando fronteras – South America by bicycle”

  1. ridwanzero says:

    As I rolled through these towns looking for accomodations, a process that had become as routine as brushing my teeth, I wanted more than anything to be inconspicuous, just another face in the crowd. The fact that such anonymity was impossible, given my light Canadian complexion and fully loaded touring bike, sparked dramatic mood swings that at times bordered on rage. I knew that my anger was senseless, but that only frustrated me more. I was a regular Jekyll and Hyde on two wheels…………….

    onlineuniversalwork

  2. Esteban says:

    Realmente precioso! Qué envidia me das!
    Un abrazo:
    http://estebanalvarezmarcos.blogspot.com/

  3. katie says:

    hey! i just wanted to tell you that i think what you did is absolutely amazingggggg! i am american, but i live in lima, peru, and while reading about your peru experience, it made me laugh a bit… the crazy ridiculous-ness of this country sometimes! thanks for sharing your journey! :)

  4. Reza says:

    Hey Man

    I am amased by your trip and your story. Very well done. My Name is Reza and living in London . I am currently planing my trip, “cycling round the globe” and need some advice regarding your last leg of the journey from Manaus to Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela, specially Amazon Part.

    Would you please help me with the following question:

    1. Is Amazon inhibited? Can I find Hotel and accomodation there, or its a tent all the way?
    2. How safe is cycling there? How about locals and their attitude towards tourists?
    3. How easy is to find supplies?
    4. How about venezuela? Did you feel safe to travel?

    Sorry if my question sounds a bit naive but in this western world news and infomrations are too paranoid.

    Many thank dude
    Reza

  5. Kati says:

    What an amazing adventure!!! I am proudly Canadian-Venezuelan (more Venezuelan in my heart!) and the story and narrative of your journey touched me very deeply. I almost cried at the end, as in the final moments of an intense movie…FELICITACIONES…BRAVO!!!

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