Off Like A Rocket

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I set off from Lima like a rocket. Now under a time constraint to get back to Europe for my brother’s wedding I took the flat coastal route rather than climbing over the Andean peaks of Peru. Manuel – a friend of a friend and cycling fanatic – guided me safely out of Lima after stops to visit both his sisters and his mum (all of which included photo sessions)!

The coast is a desert dotted with oasis towns. These towns spring up around rivers that flow down from the mountains of the Andes. Little specks of green among the golden sands. In many places they are trying to re-claim the desert – something I last saw in Western China. The contrast of the green irrigated fields with the flat sandy plains or rolling dunes is sharp. However the desert is not devoid of colour, I spotted pink, purple and orange colours at various times.

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With the sole aim of getting to Quito in mind, life was simple. Get up at sunrise. Cycle to early afternoon. Find any shelter I could. Rest from the sun for a couple of hours. Cycle the rest of the afternoon. Find a camp spot. There is something enjoyable about this simplicity, a clarity of purpose. In a world where we are bombarded with information & advertising our every waking minute. Where we spend most of our days in such a hurry that we rarely make time to enjoy the simple things in life there is something appealing about this type of simplicity.

The highlight of my day could be watching the sunrise and cast wonderful shadows over the curved sand dunes, arriving at an oasis town in the midday heat and indulging in a freezing cold drink or perhaps finding a camp spot on the beach to watch a magnificent sunset over the pacific (they always are!) while enjoying my dinner & drifting off to sleep to the soothing sounds of the ocean. Simple pleasures but more than enough to make my day.

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After a week of pedaling I reached Trujillo where I stayed in the original casa de cyclistas (house of the cyclists). Lucho has been hosting touring cyclists from all over the world for 30 years now. Greeting me with a warm smile though, it was clear he has not lost his desire to meet and help fellow cyclists. A former racer, cycling fanatic and bike mechanic he loves anything to do with two wheels.

Lucho

Lucho

Many Peruvians had warned me that this section of the northern coast of Peru is unsafe. Often on my ride I have heard this type of warning, that the next region/country is dangerous. So far however, I have never had a problem and think the dangers are often overstated. With a little common sense I think most of the small risks that might exist can be mitigated. The thing that unnerved me was the sheer number of people I met who were incredulous that I was cycling alone, telling me to be careful and that it was dangerous. My fear stemmed from the fact that one town -Paijan – has a history of cyclists being robbed at gun point. For the first time on my entire ride I felt on edge and was distrusting of people. It was a horrible feeling and left me unable to really enjoy my days.

From Lucho’s house in Trujillo I decided to take a bus 100 miles north to Chiclayo. After much deliberation I decided it was the right thing to do. I wanted to avoid cycling anywhere close to Paijan where so many cyclists have been robbed. Other cyclists you meet warn you about this place long before you arrive and I spent a while reading numerous online accounts of cyclists getting into serious trouble. Though I found no stories of robberies in the last year I still decided it was not worth the risk.

Peru’s coast is so different to it’s mountains. On the coast you don’t get that feel of history and tradition that is so obvious in the mountains. None of the women wear traditional clothes, you hear little of the traditional folk music and see none of the llamas. Perhaps it felt so different because I spent most of my days cycling through vast empty deserts. Many of the towns and cities on the coast are modern although the region is home to some of the best and most overlooked archaeological sites in all South America. Ruins and museums dot the coast north of Lima, the remnants of the Moche and Chimu civilizations.

El Mercado de Brujos (Witches Market)

El Mercado de Brujos (Witches Market)

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After visiting the witches market and the Royal Tombs of Saipan in Chiclayo I took a detour to avoid 130 miles of open desert. El Desierto de Sechura is completely devoid of settlements: no shelter to escape the sun and nowhere to find food or water. My detour took me to one of the principal mango growing regions of Peru. One afternoon I was laid out on a bus stop bench when two men on a motorbike pulled up and woke me. They sat down and we chatted for a while, then they asked if I would like some mangoes. They sped off on their motorbike in a cloud of dust and returned five minutes later with five of the best tasting mangoes I have ever eaten. By the time I was finished my entire face and hands were covered with mango juice but I could not have cared less.

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My detour took me inland, away from the cooling ocean breeze. With around 90% humidity and no wind, cycling through the 40°C midday heat was like cycling in a sauna. Ironically stopping to rest was worse. The breeze generated by cycling helped. When I stopped, even for a moment, sweat poured out of me. My daily water intake soared to 5 or 6 liters per day just to replace the fluids I was losing. A few days later I was hugely relieved to reach the coast again. It was still hot but much less humid and sleep came more easily.

Three weeks after leaving Lima I crossed the border into Ecuador. Immediately Ecuador felt different, smelt different and looked different. Gone were the desert sands, replaced by thick green vegetation. It felt much more tropical than the coast of Peru. Banana plantations lined the sides of the road. Camping on my first night in Ecuador at the Bomberos (firemen’s station) I understood why everything was so green. After dark the heavens opened and for much of the night it rained.

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Sadly I raced through Ecuador in just one week. This was to be sure I am back in Europe for a wedding and to give me more time in Colombia – a country I have been looking forward to for a very long time. Everyone I meet who has not been to Colombia tells me it is dangerous. Every single person who has been says it is the country they enjoyed the most in South America. The stereotypes of drug wars and insurgent gorillas are now out of date. There are still some areas you should not go to (generally deep in the countryside or Amazon) but a little research along with asking the locals should keep you safe. Everything I read about Colombia describes it as a resurgent country full of kind, happy and hospitable people. Perhaps in many ways the ‘Iran of South America’.

After scaling the Andes once again – 5,000 meters total ascent over two days – I reached Quito. The cooler weather and lack of humidity were bliss. It is amazing how quickly and dramatically the landscapes and weather can change in South America. Reaching the capital of Ecuador felt like a huge milestone. It leaves me just over 1,000 miles from the end of my journey in South America. For the first time the end of this continent and indeed my whole ride are in sight. It left me feeling both nervous and excited about returning to England. I rested for a few days with the wonderful Santiago and Ana at the casa de cyclistas just outside of Quito.

At the casa I met two other cyclists: Cherry and Jo. They are cycling south together but it was great to spend a few days with them, swap tales and information. For carnival we ventured into Quito and managed to get into a massive foam and paint fight with the local kids – not sure about you but I think the kids won (thanks to Jo for the photos)…

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Next stop Colombia…

One Response to “Off Like A Rocket”

  1. […] I have never seen before, I reached the Sacred Valley of Sibundoy. My friends Cherry and Jo (from the casa de cyclistas in Ecuador) had put me in touch with a local family there. The father, Benjamin, is a priest and a shaman – […]

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