Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Amazing Day in Peru in the Andes--old story from Ecuador

Today was the best ride of the whole trip so far. 200 miles from Poquio to Aranapa in the Andes Mountains. Clear deep blue sky, beautiful road, snow capped mountains, wild beautiful fluffy llamas running about from 4000 meter high plateau ranges with snow and ice and shallow lakes, through, a huge 80 mile ravine with a gorgeous mountain stream running alongside the road, switching back and forth, seeing other vehicles once every 10 to 20 minutes. A lot of WOOOHOOOO's, a lot of pictures, and finally some positive vibes about Peru.

On that note, here is a story I wrote a while ago about a great time in Ecuador:

Quito, Ecuador

We arrived into Quito last night aboard the least friendly skies of American Airlines. We stayed at a hotel that we found on Expedia that is twice the rate of comparable hotels. It was quite nice but for $72 a night you should get something special in South America, not just a 10 x 10 room with a TV on a bracket by the ceiling, and a pleasant bathroom.
Quito is a city of around 3 million people, about 7,000 feet above sea level which is taller than Mt. Washington. It is located in a valley, surrounded by cloud topped green mountains and volcanoes. From March to June it rains nearly daily, as it is now. We are waiting in the custom brokers office trying to get our motorcycles cleared by the officials. We got to see the bikes this morning and they are in fine shape, ready to be put together and head out on the road.

The city has a worn in, but comfortable look, with clean streets and people, (like Barack Obama!) very friendly, with the roads laid out in an understandable grid. It is the largest city I’ve been to with the least amount of bustle. There are some nice plazas and parks in the “Old Town”, but nothing particularly special. The most interesting site so far has been the basilica that was started in the 1600’s and is not finished yet. It makes the Big Dig look like an Extremely Fast Makeover. It is a huge place, reminiscent of Notre Dame, with the structure in place, but missing windows, ornamentation, or any warmth or charm at all. There is still rebar sticking out from ramparts all around where gargoyles and other adornments should go. I’ve never seen anything like it, it has no charm or relation to the two and three story buildings around it, but it does elicit a certain fascination.

A word of caution: since we have started getting into more so called sophisticated places such as Panama City and here in Quito, you can tell certain locals are trying to charge inflated prices to the tourists, for example our hotel last night. The worst example are the taxi cabs. Always ask before you get in the cab how much it is to go to your destination. We had a taxi this morning that charged us $20 for what should have been a $6 cab ride. They have a way of manipulating the electronic meter. Most decent cabbies, you can say “how much to the Grand Plaza?” and they will say “6 bucks”. If they start to give you a line, tell them you’ll take another taxi. Our return taxi was $5, and we are staying in a charming downtown hotel with central hacienda garden for $32

The best parts of roadtrips are always the unexpected things that happen. For example the amazing road we took yesterday through the Andes mountains. On our trip to Mitad del Mundo I saw a sign for Otavalo to the right off of the main road. Since signage in this part of the world is rare, I made the assumption that the sign must indicate the most direct way to Otavalo, known for having one of the great Saturday markets which pre-dates even the Inca times. NOT!

People had told us it takes about an hour to get there from Quito, and I should have known something was up as soon as we turned at the Otavalo exit and found craters in the pavement, followed within a quarter of a mile by a dirt road. Within a mile we had already asked three people for directions, and received what should have been another hint when a guy told us it was two and half hours away. I figured I misunderstood his Spanish, and kept going even when the road turned to sand a few blocks ahead. Soon we were out of town and climbing the mountains on packed gravel, a gorgeous valley down to our right, high peaks all around and cotton ball clouds clinging to the green pastureland rising up the mountains.

The air was thin and clean, as we went higher and higher, the only traffic a couple of 6 wheelers hauling gravel down the road in the opposite direction. We took the first of several wrong turns and ended up just a few hundred yards from a peak, in a quarry where barking dogs and a front end loader did not make us feel welcome. However the foreman was quite nice, and took us to the edge of the precipice where the whole valley laid out in front of us and gave us the directions for the next few miles.

Eventually we came around the corner of that mountain and a whole steep valley laid out before us, a rushing muddy river at the bottom of the steep slopes on either side. The road zigged and zagged down one side and up another, with an unseen bridge hopefully joining the two. No warm blooded life forms to be seen just mountain greens, 10 foot tall bonsai looking trees, and the occasional field of yellow flowers. By now the road was down to a single lane and it was hard to believe that many tourists came this way on their way to Otavalo, supposedly one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ecuador. But they were the losers, as we had this beautiful area all to ourselves. We stopped a few more times to snap pictures, Clara falling over in the soft road, matching my bike drop back in the loose rock at the quarry.

We navigated the occasional boulder and mud slide, and were passed by one truck going the other way on our trip to the bottom where sure enough a bridge awaited. We took more pictures before heading up the other side. Going up is much easier than going down, and more fun, and we quickly were rising and yelling “woohoo” in our respective helmets. At the top of the hill we found a paved road into a village and asked the directions, “up to the right” was the easy reply and we thought we were on easy street. Wrong again.

We climbed the hill and came to the standard highland town, wet and misty, with a Parque Central with the church overlooking it and a one way road encircling it. I asked a woman the way to Otavalo and she pointed down a road which again turned to mud and pits in about 4 blocks. A short older man with a machete was coming up the hill on what was fast becoming a dirt path. He barely understood us in the pouring rain, clearly Spanish was his second language, as is common with many of the indigenous folks in Ecuador in particular, and South America in general. He began using his machete as a pointing stick, waving it around to show the direction to go. During one emphatic point, he nearly decapitated two youngsters coming up the path on a dirt bike who looked at us like we were laying some confusing trap for them! We turned around again and headed
Along the path that yet another person told us was about 2 hours to Otavalo.

The road was now a two track path with the typical country combination of mud, stone and grass. We went down some steep rutted areas, got chased by some dogs, passing sparse farms on either side, usually made of concrete block houses, fence posts of tree limbs delineated with barbed wire, with a few cows, scattered chickens and well laid out plots of crops. The scenery was now more lush, when we could see it through the clouds, with a less steep green valley below us, and continual forested mountain above.
We came to a river crossing where a man was loading rocks into the back of his mini-suv from where the cliff met the river. Clara powered by the two of us, not wanting to stop until she was through, just missing the both of us by inches. The gentleman gave directions in mixed Spanish and English, “keep going to the left, through about 3 turns, when you come to a pyramid stay left, and when you cross the bridge go to the right.” My Spanish has been getting better and it turns out those directions were essentially correct. However, we got off track again where we went over a tiny bridge, obviously in retrospect not the bridge mentioned previously bilungually, which sent us into the tiniest town yet which we circled once in order to get directions and to stop the schoolyard volleyball game which froze in abject amazement to watch us pass.

We now found ourselves on a stone road, which could easily have been laid by the Incas with just drainage gutters added on the edges millennia later. The stones seem to be pounded into the ground in random patterns, with two straight lines delineating the one lane road about 5 meters wide into thirds. After we quickly passed a beer truck(!), we wouldn’t see another vehicle until reaching the before mentioned bridge where a motorcycle was changing his swingarm. In between, we had great fun, both of us yelling YOO HOO, as we switched back and forth, up and down, through sweet smelling virgin forest all alone on our own path in nirvana. We were in the clouds, above the clouds, in the mist, the rain, the clear seeing constantly changing beauty, our motorcycles providing the running track making it endlessly fascinating.

At one point we stopped for pictures and I said to Clara, “I’m sure when we reach this place there is going to be a 4 lane highway to Quito, and it will take about an hour to get there.” Sure enough, once we passed the side of the road rear suspension changers, we were on a perfectly paved 4 lane road which took us right into town, where we still had an hour or so to enjoy this fascinating Saturday market which pre dates even the Inca times. We ended up finding potential beads for New Orleans, a $15 wool sweater for Clara, many interesting gifts, foods, people, and ideas and ended up enjoying excellent local food and sleeping in a pleasant hotel with an extremely friendly host.

The best roads are always the ones less traveled. Certainly in Ecuador.

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