9/28/19 – 10/2/19
No visit from family and friends is complete without a laundry list of gear and parts. Soph’s family left behind a suitcase full of dry bags, gear cages, a maintenance kit for our stove, a cutting board, a rear derailleur, water filters, rechargeable batteries, chain rings, chain ring bolts, waterproof socks, mounting hardware for my panniers, and miniature tubes of superglue. I spent a day and a half in Quito overhauling the bikes. We wanted to be able to fit bigger and grippier tires for the dirt climbs ahead in Peru. I cut our fenders back a bit to make more room. All this work and money and then we miscalculated the cold reality that we would not find a good twenty six inch tire in Ecuador. Read all the touring blogs by people in the states that have never ridden in Latin America and they will tell you that you have to have twenty six inch wheels.
“It’s the third world you know, so all their gear is thirty years behind.”
A better way to put it is that twenty six inch wheels and tires are everywhere, but they are usually bargain bin returns. Twenty nine and twenty seven and a half inch gear is almost everywhere and typically high quality.
A friend in the states set us up with a bike shop in Quito that let me work on a stand and use their tools. I spent the day bumping elbows with Juan, the mechanic. He wanted to know how much things cost in the US and how much it cost to tour the world on a bike. He asked me what the average person in the US makes.
“$40,000 por año.”
He looked a bit like I’d just run his dog over. A few quick taps to the calculator on his phone and he held the screen up to me.
“Es me salaria.”
Four thousand two hundred dollars. I tried to give him a “there there” sort of pat on the back explaining that rent and college and beer were all more expensive in the US. It didn’t have the effect that I had hoped for, not for him and not for me.
A number of people told us that in Ecuador, political corruption manifests itself in the form of never-ending construction projects. These simultaneously create jobs and give the impression that things are getting better. I would typically be opposed to such munificence although in the case Quito it has resulted in forty kilometers of fresh bike lanes leaving the city. On the outskirts we stopped to chat with a man in front of a tienda. He explained, as many Ecuadorians do, that the country is no longer safe because of all the Venezuelans. That we needed to be careful in the jungle because they were everywhere. Lurking in the shadows and just waiting for you to walk by with a job so they could steal it. I asked if Venezuelans had tried to steal his job.
We climbed above four thousand meters for the first time that day. As we reached the top of the pass we were shivering from the frigid air on our sweat soaked shirts. We warmed up in some hot springs outside of Papallacta and camped there as well. It was one of the coldest nights we’d had in months.
Included in our care package from England was a new tent. The handful of botched repair jobs on the other one had taken their toll. Our pad was also a bit large for it and put a bit of stress on the sides. Fortunately Big Agnes took a bit of pity on us and sent a new form fitted pad as well. I hadn’t realized how much the old set was starting to bother me until we put everything together and I had a certain feeling of satisfaction in our home that I hadn’t felt for quite some time.
Sub-freezing temps and a poor night of sleep. Late start cut into what was planned to be a big day of riding. Soph’s chain gets pulled into her crank arms in a way that I had never seen before and we spend several minutes getting it unstuck. Mine follows suit shortly after. I was a bit annoyed, but soon forgot as the riding was about as beautiful as one could hope for. Ecuador downhills. Sweeping. Gradual. Endless. Forty kilometers without pedaling or breaking. River to our side the whole time. Sheer cliffs caging us in. Slight rain around lunch time. Afternoon climb. More rain that we wait out under a bus shelter. And another long downhill.
We stop at what used to be a water park. We read that it had a restaurant, but it was shuttered. All we had for food was rice. There was a man who slept in the guard station with two cute dogs. It was not clear if he owned the place or if he was squatting. He was willing to take our five bucks though. Chicken shit shower but remarkably clean bathrooms. No electricity. Setup camp under a gazebo on top of a steep hill with a great view of the valley below.
Giant insect carcasses flattened in the road. Abandoned concrete walls swallowed by jungle. Sound of machetes in the brush. The Amazon. Giant ferns which I mistook for palms. Steps cut into the dirt climb to hillside huts cut into the mud. Along the road are several steep mud chutes coming down from the jungle. At the bottom of one is a pile of harvested logs. I realized they were intentional. At some point we pass a view point where we can see several levels of switchbacks and could see how the locals used the chutes to send harvested logs down from higher areas.
Bamboo pipe systems bring little roadside cascades where drivers cool off and take a drink. Alien flowers. Sometimes I think my brakes are squeaking but it’s a bird. Other times I think it’s a bird but it’s my brakes. Everything is giant except the people. Indigenous women on the side of the road with little plastic pop bottles. Labels torn off and refilled with a mysterious red liquid.
“Sangre,” she tells me. “De un árbol.”
I hold the mysterious tree blood in front of my face and inspect it closely with one eye closed.
She explains that it can calm an empty stomach, help wounds heal faster, get a baby to sleep, and of course cure cancer.
I politely decline. She adds that it is good with fish and I consider it, but remain firm.
We reach a pass on a cliff side. Three thousand feet above sea level and the jungle is 2,000 feet below. Blue haze over top of green trees. All the way to Brazil. A real curve of the earth kind of view.
“All that oxygen just pumping away,” I think. Somewhere out there thirty five hundred square miles of forest were burning. That’s a bit bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. The world was mourning the loss of Notre Dame Cathedral to fire and pledging another forest (albeit a smaller one) to rebuild it, but nobody seemed to care that the lungs of the planet were collapsing.
We didn’t need to be in Coca until the second of October, so we took a day off at a small eco-lodge and passed the time sitting by a jungle river and watching monkeys eat plantains. We set our tent up on the second floor of a wooden structure with a thatched roof. It poured in the night we discovered that asphalt shingles do in fact have superior water shedding properties to palm fronds. There is no rain like jungle rain though. You’re never really convinced that it will ever end or that it won’t wash you away.
Sixty clicks to Coca. Mostly flat, grey sky, green jungle. No winds and we push hard. Three kilometers from town we get slammed with rain and have to pull into a mechanic shop for cover. Still, we arrived in less than three hours. The town itself is uninspiring. A few dirty bars along the boardwalk, some seafood shops, and jungle people selling jungle trinkets. We bought our tickets for the boat into the Amazon, found a hotel, and went to bed dreaming of Peru.
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