January 24, 2013
Climbing the Parador de Navas last week, I felt it happen—a ping of pain in the rear of my leg, four inches above the heel. An ache set in as we crawled to the top of the pass, and I knew it was back—my recurring Achilles tendonitis. I spent a week in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, 16 months ago lying in a hostel bed, reading, typing, visiting the local gym, sitting on benches, eying the distant Rhodope Mountains and waiting for a similar Achilles strain to heal up—and I know the boredom that can arrive with athletic injuries. But this time, I have limped into Quito, Ecuador, a fast and modern hub of sophisticated people, energy and activity. Boredom should not be an issue here. Mangoes may cost $2 a piece from sidewalk vendors—a harsh reminder for the hungry cyclist that he is no longer in the boondocks. But there is life beyond cheap mangoes, and it can be found in Quito’s clean public parks, brewpubs, wine bars, bicycle shops, historic center and so much more. Here are a few things to do that can keep one entertained in this highest (when measured from the Earth’s center) of big cities.
Sample Local Microbrews I have no love for Peruvian wine—and as an alternative, my brother and I have taken to the abundant if boring South American lagers available in every corner grocery store. Thing is, I have no love for cheap lagers, either. So when I learned that two brewpubs operated within blocks of the Hostal del Piamonte, where I have been icing and elevating my leg, I ran for them. Limped, anyway. At Cherusker German Brewery, we found a club-like scene with leather sofas and a rustic brick interior—and four beers on tap. That could leave many an American beer nerd thirsting for more options, but in Ecuador, the chance to drink a Belgian-style dubbel and a dark, smoky stout provided much needed respite from lesser beers. After one round, we walked north several blocks to sample the other city brewpub, Turtle’s Head Pub and Microbrewery. A pilsener, a Scottish amber and a stout made up the extent of the house-made beers. The amber was malty, thick and chewy, the stout creamy, smooth and sweet.
Hunt for Espresso Machines Each time we emerged from the desert or jungle into a village in the past three weeks, we listened for that sweet song of the espresso machine. One time I even asked the villagers, “Please, for mercy, is there an espresso machine in this town?” I was thirsty and desperate and hopeful, and the town’s main street boasted some relatively upscale establishments. Several men gathered around me, all frowning and shaking their heads in befuddlement. “Say, Fred, what’s this kid talking about, what with machines that make coffee and all?” “Beats me, Leroy. Does he think he’s arrived in the future?” I even made the whooshing-hissing noise that coffee drinkers so love to hear at 7 a.m.—but the men shook their heads. “Let’s go! His mind is gone.” They had not heard of an espresso machine. But Quito is fast, smart, slick, modern. In hundreds of bars, cafés and eateries, espresso machines hiss like the finest apparatuses of Europe. Cafe lattes arrive with hearts and mountains shaped into the foamy milk, and espresso comes in cups like thimbles, as smart and sophisticated as coffees enjoyed in the bistros of Paris. Top recommendation: Este Cafe, on Juan León Mera street.
Work Out on the Exercise Bars in Parque El Ejido As we rode into the center of Quito on our first day, I had my eyes peeled for that sure signature of any modern metropolis undergoing swift and progressive social development: outdoor exercise bars at the public park. After checking into our hostel, we walked several blocks back to Parque El Ejido, where we had seen among the people and the trees some playground-type structures that looked very promising. Sure enough, we found them—a rock-solid, two-tiered set of pull-up bars in the shade of the trees. A security guard (they stand around every corner and behind every tree in Ecuador) paced slowly around the jungle gym while Andrew and I got to work. My brother, ten pounds lighter than he’d been in Lima, started with an all-time best set of 20. I did only 17—but, really, who’s counting? See you at the bar. Note: The same park comes alive with scores of market vendors and thousands of visitors each Sunday. It’s a good time, but you’d better get your bar time in early, before the kids arrive.
Stalk the Aisles of the English Bookshop Quito is great—but if you need to get away fast, step into the compact, book-stuffed space of the English Bookshop, in La Mariscal. Owned by London native Mark Halton, the store—at Calama and Diego de Almagro streets—provides a refuge of wisdom and intelligentsia for English speakers craving some bookish conversation and quiet time. The shop is crammed with used quality literature (well, there’s also some sci-fi, but never mind), plus a selection of Ecuador travel guides for rent.
Enjoy the City’s Many Miles of Bike Paths Quito bears many marks of a sophisticated hub of culture and style—enthusiastic brewpubs, art museums, numerous sporting goods stores and air-conditioned supermarkets. What more could one want? Bike paths, of course. Leading through the city are miles and miles of them—two-directional lanes separated by barriers from the auto traffic and leading to all corners of the city. But bike paths can always use improvement. In Lima, for instance, the hip locals dump heaps of trash in the bike lanes and set the rubbish on fire. In Quito, businessmen who haven’t ridden a bicycle since they were 8 years old use the lanes as personal sidewalks, and at intersections pedestrians gather in the bike lane as they wait for the light to change. No—not all Ecuadorians are totally wise yet to the concept of the separated, designated bike lane. But parts of Quito are almost as cool and edgy as Amsterdam or Portland, and locals will catch on.
Ride the Gondola to Cruz Loma Lookout Taking a ride on a gondola is a bitter pill to swallow for a proud cyclist with a leg injury. But the TelefériQo Cruz Loma chairlift, beginning at the western edge of Quito, ascends 2,700 feet in eight minutes, taking passengers to the best vista point in the region—Cruz Loma, near the top of Mount Pichincha. The cost is about $9, with discounts for privileged locals and even the option to bring a bicycle to the top and ride the trails back down to the city. Sounds like a blast—but I’ll wait until I can make the entire journey by my own strength.
Get Screened for Malaria at a Local Medical Clinic If you’ve got the shakes, the shivers, nausea, achy joints, stomach troubles or a headache and have traveled in malaria hot zones anytime from a week to a year prior, you had better get checked out. That’s the logic we followed when Andrew came down with sluggishness and other flu-like symptoms on our second day in Quito. We decided that if his condition persisted in the morning, we would go to the hospital. He woke up in a sweat, and off we went on a new adventure. The Clinica de San Francisco was just four blocks away from us, and by 9 a.m. Andrew was having blood drawn and his internal organs examined by stethoscope. The doctor said that Andrew’s relatively mild symptoms did not appear to be malaria-related, but Plasmodium falciparum is a disease to be taken very seriously. The most deadly type of malaria, it is especially dangerous if not identified and treated within 24 hours of the first visible symptoms. The doctor said the test results would be e-mailed within three working days—plus two weekend days. Isn’t that cutting it close, we asked? Don’t worry, the doctor answered; Andrew does not have malaria. We hope so.
And Keep That Leg Elevated
January 23, 2013
We Enter Malaria Country The desert gave way to the muggy climes of the tropics, at last, in the northernmost 50-mile stretch of Peruvian coastline south of Ecuador. We had been pedaling past cacti in the morning and hadn’t seen a sign of a mosquito in Peru—until that afternoon, when we passed a billboard reminding travelers to defend themselves against malaria. We noted the warning—but anyone who has toured on a bicycle knows that stopping to dig through panniers is a chore best deferred until a later time. “We’ll take our malaria pills tonight,” I shouted to Andrew. Thirty feet ahead of me, he answered with a thumbs up.
Near dusk, we turned toward the coast to stay the night at Puerto Pizarro. We headed down the side road and noted signs for mangrove swamp tours. We realized that malaria country had sneaked up on us—bad news when preventative pills are to be taken daily beginning 24 hours before arrival in the malaria region. Entering town, we encountered a pair of cops who waved us to the side of the road and warned us to get inside quickly, before it got dark. “Ah, yes—mosquitoes,” I said. “No—people here will see the gringos and try to rob you,” one of the men answered. They directed us to a hotel. After paying, we hurried across the courtyard to our room—a separated cabin with three beds and a bathroom for $20. Andrew fumbled with the key. “Quick, there are mosquitoes,” I said. He dropped the keys as he slapped one on his arm. “Bug spray!” he yelped and unzipped his pannier. I went into my own saddlebag for my malaria pills. I shook out two of the shiny red tablets and handed one to Andrew along with some bubbly water. He said, ”I don’t think this is textbook malaria prevention,” but took the medicine anyway. We opened the door, shoved in and slammed it behind us.
We were in the tropics. A brief warm rain fell that night, and in our bungalow beds, sweating in the humidity, we studied our map. We had just 20 kilometers to the border. We would be in Ecuador by noon.
We Enter Ecuador The next day, after passport control, the landscape transformed dramatically and rapidly. Large trees with splayed out trunks like buttresses stood grandly in fields, outliers of the rainforest. Other trees, with huge and voluminous canopies, grew on one side of the Pan-American Highway while their long, graceful branches dropped fruit pods on the other side. Banana orchards began, and continued for miles. Scattered among them were cacao trees, with large football-shaped red pods hanging from the branches, and vast sugar cane fields. Breadfruits dangled from elegant but wildly prehistoric-looking trees 70 feet tall with leaves like fan palms. Large green iguanas skittered across the road. Road-killed animals the size of sea otters with shiny black tails lay on the shoulder—some sort of jungle beast we couldn’t recognize. And while plant life fought for elbow room on almost every square foot of soil, that supreme conquistador of invasive species grew in groves—the eucalyptus tree. The people looked and behaved differently than in Peru, too. There was an obvious African origin in many of the locals we greeted as we rode. They honked their horns less—much less—as well. We also encountered more and more men and women carrying machetes, pocketknives of the jungle. Several miles to the east, across the banana plantations, the Andes began as an abrupt bluff blanketed with forest and disappearing into the rain clouds. Roadside households offered direct sales of fruits grown in the backyard. Avocados, watermelons, mangoes and pineapples lay in piles outside front doors, as did Pepsi bottles full of sugar cane juice. We needed money, and in a town called Pasaje we approached an ATM by the main square. I entered and removed my card, typed in my pin and waited for what riches would emerge. The machine sputtered and rumbled and emitted a smashing surprise—American dollars.
We found beautiful bunches of bananas for sale at roadside fruit shacks—and they were hilariously cheap. A cluster of 25 red bananas—the specialty sort that fancy groceries in the States sell for $1.80 per pound—cost us 50 cents. The same shack was also offering traga, cane sugar-based alcohol infused with different fruits, like grape, apple, watermelon and cacao. We bought a bottle of banana traga and moved onward. We stopped for lunch under a bus shelter, and a local man named Antonio came out of a home with his two kids to meet us. We asked him about local fauna—especially bears and jaguars. Long ago these animals occurred here, he said, but people have shot them all. “But up there, jaguars and bears still live,” Antonio said, pointing toward the mountains.
We Enter the Andes Our destination was Quito in five days, and after 200 miles of pedaling through Ecuador’s muggy, hot lowlands, our road led into the Andes. Our spirits rose with the altitude, and we realized we’d been sorely missing the mountains for two weeks. But cycling in the Andes is not quite like cycling in other ranges. In the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rockies, the Sierras, the Toros—in nearly any range of large mountains in the world, a cyclist can say with certainty after several hours of hard climbing that the top of the pass is near. Not so in the Andes, where even the lower of the many mountain passes are higher than the highest summits of other ranges. Climbing from La Troncal over the mountains and eventually into the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes, we saw an amazing transformation of the land. Whereas the lowlands teemed with bananas, iguanas, mangoes and malaria, two miles above we saw country with a strong resemblance to Mediterranean Europe. Cows grazed on green mountainsides among scattered pines. Trout streams flowed out of the canyons. Plum and apple trees grew in yards. The clouds broke occasionally, offering staggering views of the land’s vertical relief. Vast chasms plummeted into V-shaped stream valleys, towns and shacks clinging to the slopes, while the peaks vanished above into the fog. At several points we were able to see what lay ahead—miles and miles more of steady ascent, with no switchbacks in sight.
Descending trucks spewed the smell of burning brake pads. Motorcyclists dropping out of the high country were bundled up like Ernest Shackleton. The summit, obviously, was still hours away. But the monotony, the gasping for air, the slow, slow pedaling, our aching necks—it all finally ended as we crested out on the top of the pass. Trucks, buses and cars honked their congratulations. We believe the elevation there was about 12,700 feet. On the north side were checkerboard farms and villages scattered over rolling hills and looking like Ireland. Beyond, the titans of the Andes loomed, snow-covered volcanoes three miles high and more. The summit of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 20,500-something feet (sources give varying heights), hid behind a veil of clouds. Due to the shape of the Earth and its equatorial bulge, Chimborazo’s peak is the Earth’s closest point to the sun.
Speaking of the sun, it does amazing things in Ecuador’s highlands. Its path leads it high overhead every day of the year, coaxing plant life into bloom that could never live at such altitudes elsewhere. We saw fig and avocado trees sagging with fruit at almost 10,000 feet—an elevation at which even pine trees struggle to grow in the middle latitudes. And whereas grapevines go dormant each winter in most places, farmers in Ecuador—and winemakers—may harvest two crops per year. The sun is so powerful here that it even burned us through our T-shirts.
Up Next: We Enter the City of Quito
January 15, 2013
Virtually nothing lives in much of the dusty, rocky sweeps of desert along Peru’s coast. But as evident as the mere absence of life is the prominent mark of death along the sides of the Pan-American Highway—hand-built crosses occurring almost as regularly as the kilometer markers themselves. They stand coldly in the sand bearing the names and dates of death of accident victims. The crosses are too numerous to count, but there are certainly thousands of them. That this highway is so stained by blood doesn’t surprise us. The truck traffic is heavy and aggressive, buses race wildly north and south lest they reach their destination late by a few minutes and cars honk first and brake later. These reckless vehicles share the road—well, they use the same road, anyway—as three-wheeled moto-taxis, donkey-drawn carts, motor bikers, pedestrians and a few cyclists. We move to the gravel shoulder when we hear large vehicles approaching from behind, for if the abundance of roadside death memorials tells us anything it’s that no drivers on the Pan-American should be fully trusted. In one village, I saw a cross scrawled with a death date just two months prior. Two-hundred meters away was another marking a fatal accident last April. The heavy presence of death, it seems, never quite leaves this place.
Just ten kilometers north of the town of Casma we passed a small woven-bamboo shack with an open side facing the road. Inside were more than a dozen crosses. Each person, it appeared, had died on the same day—August 13, 2005. Some later research revealed that this was the date of a horrific bus-truck collision involving some local commercial fishermen and a vehicle carrying flammable liquids. The crash resulted in an explosion, and 14 people died.
Just several kilometers later I caught a glimpse of something more ghastly on the west side of the highway. I turned around and crossed over and leaned my bike on the dune and stared. It was a human skeleton, bones splintered and smashed and roughly assembled before a crude headstone stuck in the sand. Beside the bleached bones lay the greater portion of the person’s skull, accompanied by a tangle of long brown hair. Andrew had also turned around by now and come back to join me. After a few moments we took several photos, then left to hunt up dinner and a place to sleep in Casma. We asked a local man about the two sites. He said the first was the memorial to a crash three years ago in which 24 people died in an explosion—not quite accurate, but the same general story we gleaned off the Internet. And the skeleton? He shrugged. Probably some crazy person. “Do the police not care or come and collect the body when vagrants die?” I asked. Again he shrugged and said that authorities tend not to bother here with accidents or deaths that go unreported. Still, we wondered why the bones were so broken to pieces (both of the lower legs were entirely snapped, and the back of the skull was knocked out) and, of course, who had taken the effort to assemble the remains as we found them.
Though the crosses along this roadway serve as a constant reminder of what bad driving can do, many, many people both on the Pan-American and on city streets drive recklessly, brazenly shirking basic courtesy and caution. We frequently must stop in the middle of intersections for drivers who refuse to yield in making left turns. The “right hook” is another popular move, by which motorists cut sharply in front of us, then make a quick right, forcing a complete stop on our part and often leaving us in a choke of dust. The honking is incessant—though not solely an act of aggression: laying down the horn in another’s ear also seems to be the way that gentlemen say hello in Peru. Still, the rude racket does little to calm our nerves. Within the towns, three-wheeled moto-taxis swarm like bees. They leap over speed bumps and push through the narrow walkways of outdoor markets. Their horns make strange beeping-bleeping noises, and they zip about with a curious insect-like demeanor. Moto-taxis have been the culprits in vehicle-pedestrian deaths, though on the open road (in the places where they are permitted) they hug the shoulders, like us, and are as vulnerable as we are to the giants of the highway. Sadly—or maddeningly—most accidents here could probably be avoided. One article names human error as the cause of 83 percent of Peruvian auto accidents. According to the same story, 3,243 people died in Peru in vehicle accidents in 2009, with more than 43,000 people injured. Another article reports that traffic accidents are the leading cause of death among children ages 5 to 14, and second among people 15 to 44.
We took a bus from Chimbote to Chiclayo. I have never been particularly frightened during bus rides—but this was no ordinary bus ride. We were seated in the upper deck in the front row, which gave us a prime view of the highway madness that unfurled before us. Our driver was an efficient man, concerned with each half second that went by. He swerved into oncoming traffic to overtake slower vehicles and gain a few seconds of time. He ran smaller cars off the road and angrily blared his horn to show who was boss. While we momentarily tailgaited a slow and lumbering gravel truck, waiting for an opening, another bus passed us and the truck—and had a very close call with an oncoming tanker, probably carrying flammable liquids. Horns blared north and south as the tanker took to the shoulder. Andrew and I covered our eyes and watched through our fingers. A moment later, we overtook the same bus. Beside us was a buoyant, spirited man bouncing his little boy on his knee as the desert highway blew past. What a ride! Night came, and each oncoming car became just a pair of blinding headlights. Our only consolation came from knowing that if we did connect with a sedan or pickup, this bus would smash it to pieces. Flying past us regularly were the roadside crosses, illuminated in the bus’s headlights but having no obvious effect on our driver’s actions.
We reached our destination at 9 p.m.—right on schedule—and we couldn’t complain about that. Or could we?
January 10, 2013
The cyclist who comes to Peru having heard warnings about malaria, rain and polluted water may be as alarmed as I was as we descended from the mountains into a landscape of flailing-armed cacti, spiny succulents like giant artichokes and sand dunes like mountains. Peru’s coast is home to one of the most barren, most imposing deserts I have seen. No place in Greece or Turkey compares in dryness, and even other bona fide deserts, like the cacti wonderland of Baja California or the shrubby sprawl of the Kalahari, cannot match this one—called the Sechura Desert—in sheer lifelessness.
As we crested out at sea level and began our northward advance along the Pan-American Highway, fantastic scenery unfurled—miles and miles of sprawling sand hills, some of the dunes hundreds of feet high, and running all the way from the eastern horizon to the ocean. In places, settlements of inhabited shacks clung to the mountainsides, with rags, bags and torn burlap flapping in the wind. We have come more than 200 miles in two days on the coast, and for much of that distance we have seen not a living blade of grass—just barren scorched rock and dunes. We saw four huge, soaring vulture-like birds yesterday that may have been condors, a few dogs and too many roadside human memorials to count—the sad reminders of traffic deaths. We know the land will turn green eventually, as we have heard Ecuador is a tropical haven, and we’re anticipating that transition. So far the desert shows no signs of relenting, outside of occasional green and irrigated valleys of mango and avocado orchards.
The Sechura Desert is truly an anomaly of a place. Look at the other great deserts of the world. There is the Atacama of Chile, the Kalahari of southern Africa, the giant Sahara of northern Africa, the Mexican-American Sonoran Desert and the great desert of Australia. For all their distinguishing points, these regions all have one prominent feature in common—their latitude. Each one is situated between about 20 and 30 degrees south or north of the Equator. This is no coincidence. Rather, this latitude zone is simply where deserts happen. It’s a function of wind patterns and sun, high pressure and a persistent absence of cloud formation. (There are a few exceptions to this global pattern—namely the mid-continent, high-latitude deserts of Asia and the American West, these areas denied water largely due to their distance from the sea and moisture sources.)
But the Sechura Desert lies between about 5 and 15 degrees latitude south. Why? The Andes. They tower just a few miles to the east, 15,000 to 20,000 feet high all the way from Ecuador to central Chile, creating in certain places what geographers call a rain shadow. That is, air coming from the east via the trade winds waters the Amazon basin generously, as well as the east-facing slope of the Andes. Here, the air rises and cools. Condensation occurs, and clouds drench the mountains. But as that air begins to descend on the west face, cloud formation halts as the air warms. Rainfall ceases. And at sea level, there is a desert, waiting for the water that rarely arrives. The Sechura receives just ten centimeters of precipitation each year in parts.
The beauty of this place is fleeting yet very real in an almost horrifying way. Thankfully, we have had a screaming tailwind for days. Yesterday, we averaged almost 15 miles per hour—great time on loaded bicycles. At about 3 p.m. we passed Paramonga, a town that probably would have had a cheap hotel or campground. But it was too early to quit. “Should we get water?” Andrew suggested. “We have two liters, and we’ll hit another town before long,” I said. But we didn’t. About three hours later, a road sign told us that the next big town—Huarmey—was still 75 kilometers ahead. The afternoon shadows grew longer and the road continued seemingly without end. In places, it shot ahead like an arrow—as often as not uphill. We began to tire, and we wondered where we would sleep, and whether we would have dinner. At last, after ten miles of unhappy silence between us, we saw a truck stop ahead. It was a cluster of restaurants and grocery shacks. We bought water first, then purchased the only onsite food that we considered safe from microbial dangers—beer. A truck driver eating dinner observed our obvious hunger, went outside to his truck and produced a bag of apples and peaches. We thanked him profusely, then thought about bed. It was too late to continue, and we asked the owner of one of the café shacks if we could camp out back. Without a thought, he waved us in. He and his family lived without running water on a bare earth floor. In back, in a yard of trash and blown sand, was a small clay and wood shack. ”How much?” we asked. He waved away the mention of money. We settled in, had our beers and fruit, and read our books until we nodded off. We learned our lesson and will keep a supply of water and food available. I am not afraid of sleeping in the wild, but to finish 100 miles without a dinner is not my favorite sort of suffering.
We took a break at the beach for a morning in Tortugas, a beautiful bay on the Pacific ringed by rocky shores and cliffs and restaurants. We went for coffee at the El Farol Hostal and chatted with our waiter about local fish species, diving, spearfishing, the average visibility in the water and other elements of the seascape. He told us the water is cold enough to require wetsuits—even just several degrees from the Equator. He also said halibut live here—a pleasant surprise for Californians who grew up pursuing the local rendition of the fish. We wished we had time to stay in Tortugas, but we’ve discovered that cycling from Lima to Quito in 20 days means booking it in high gear.
Aside from scattered moments of rest and joy with coffee or mangoes or lucumas on a plaza bench in the shade, the nonstop tailwind is our chief joy out here. Yesterday, as we went the last 15 miles to the town of Casma, we rode for five full kilometers on level ground without pedaling at all, watching with laughter as each kilometer marker came sailing past. I’ve never known a wind to fly so forcefully, so directly along a roadway as this wind does. We have made incredible time with the southerly in our favor, and we’re especially glad to see this desert go by, although at scattered vista points we can’t help but stop and remark that this lifeless, endless landscape is amazing to see. But the desert is wearing us down—especially the daily skirmishes we have with each big town. These are nightmares of congestion, dust and discomfort. Consider one recent image seared into my mind: On a hot, windy day in Huacho, we were battling the frantic heat and dust, looking for a fruit market and dodging the aggressive three-wheeled moto-taxis. Then, across the raging boulevard, I caught a glimpse of a girl, seated, holding a smaller child in her arms. The bigger girl’s head hung in despair—and I noticed then that the smaller girl sagged limply from head to toe. Scores of people were walking past. Wasn’t anyone going to help them? I wasn’t sure what to do. Somewhere else I would have stopped immediately—but here, in Huacho, Peru, four lanes of snarling traffic separated us from the girls. Neither Andrew nor I had a cell phone, spoke fluently in Spanish or knew where a hospital was. A moment later, a blast of heat and dust from a passing bus swept the sight from mind, and we continued forward, battling the streets in defense of our own lives, and hunting for a watermelon.
January 7, 2013
That there could be anything in the world but dust, rubble, traffic, burning trash heaps, mangy dogs and slums seemed impossible as we rolled northward through Lima. Andrew and I had just unpacked and assembled our bicycles in the airport terminal after 13 hours in the air. We were dehydrated, hungry, sleepy and, now, trying to steel ourselves against this grimy ugliness. We found a two-gallon jug of purified water at a gas station, the tap water being off-limits to foreigners preferring not to risk getting sick, and moved north along the Pan-American Highway. Through the polluted hazy air we saw the brown ghosts of mountain peaks towering just east of the city—the abrupt beginning to the Andes. But here, we were all but blinded by traffic, noise and ugliness. I assured myself that the city would soon give way to countryside—it always does, whether leaving Madrid, or Athens, or Milan, or Istanbul—but the sprawling slums seemed endless. Dust plumed into our faces, cars honked, dogs barked. We grew sticky and filthy with sweat, sunscreen and dirt. For several miles we followed a bicycle path—a heartening gesture by this monster of a city—but trash heaps blocked the way in places.
At some point we saw a patch of green grass. Later, we sat on a grassy road median to eat a cluster of bananas. I recall hearing a bird chirp farther down the road. A farm appeared, and trees. We both took notice at once of a soccer field in a green river valley. Trees by the road sagged with mangoes, while others were studded with ripening figs. We found ourselves riding side by side—for the traffic had thinned. The transition was complete. We were, finally, in the countryside, with Lima a horror we hoped not to see again soon. By evening we were crawling uphill, well on our way to a mountain town called Canta—though it was still a vertical mile above and 50 miles ahead. Near dusk, with fruit and canned tuna and wine for dinner, we rolled through the gate of a campground, called Sol de Santa Rosa. “Showers and bathrooms are back toward the orchard,” our host said in Spanish. “Camp anywhere you like on the green grass.”
Cherimoya season is on here in the mountains, true to our hopes. The big, green, heart-shaped, alligator-skinned creatures are heaped on tables at roadside fruit shacks, with painted signs telling passersby that the fruits are ripe. When Andrew and I first saw a sign reading “Chirimoya madura,” we pulled over in a hurry. Five soles per kilo, the man inside the shack told us. About $1 per pound. I told the vendor that this was very exciting for us, that cherimoyas are an exotic fruit in California, where most are imported and sold for at least $8 each. “Here,” the man said, “we are in the center of production.” We each bought a three-pounder for dinner, and that evening in camp sliced them in two. A ripe cherimoya is pliable, like a ripe avocado. Inside, the flesh is snow-white and studded with raisin-size black seeds. The flesh is intensely sweet, fibrous near the stem and otherwise seamless and creamy throughout. It tastes like pineapple, banana and bubble gum. Cherimoyas are native to the Andes, and the season here runs December through April. We’ve landed in a bed of roses.
We’ve also taken a liking to a new fruit called lucuma, a round, greenish-brown tree fruit with a smooth, plastic-like hide and starchy, sticky pumpkin-colored flesh, somewhat like a hard-boiled egg yolk. The fruit is a Peruvian specialty, made into sweets and ice cream and virtually unknown in America. Mangoes, too, are superb, here—with brilliant aroma and a fresh, tangy, concentrated flavor. We’ve found avocados cheap and abundant, and heaps of grapes, which we won’t touch, guessing they’ve been washed with local tap water. As we move through each small village, we ignore the smells of cooking meat and vegetables from restaurants, and we pass by the offers from sidewalk vendors selling tamales and hot drinks. One vendor sliced us a piece of cheese as we looked over his fruits—and we all but ran from the place. Ceviche, too, is another local food we won’t touch—not yet, anyway, as we’ve been advised repeatedly not to eat anything potentially contaminated by dirty water or sloppy handling. But the cherimoyas almost make up for our losses.
The season here has us confused. We are in the Southern Hemisphere by about ten degrees of latitude, and so we would expect this to be summer. But folks are telling us we have come in the winter, that July in the Andes is summer and that when it is summer on the coast it is winter in the mountains. We got hit by a thunderstorm as we crawled uphill toward Canta, and as we wrapped tarps around our bikes we saw that we may need to work out a better rain gear system. Locals say the rain is heavy this time of year. Dense fog enveloped us at about the 9,000 foot level as we crawled onward, and we are feeling the altitude—gasping to recover our breath each time we speak or have a drink of water. We have each taken a dose of altitude pills, and we hope not to get sick, as the only certain cure for altitude sickness is to turn around—and we don’t wish just yet to see Lima again.
We finally made our arrival in the much anticipated town of Canta, and to our alarm there is almost nothing here—nothing, after 80 miles of following road signs and mile markers and believing we were on our way to a mountain hub of activity and recreation and great outdoor markets and vegetarian yoga communes with food to share and Internet cafés and shops offering wireless 3G plans. Nothing, that is, except for fruit shacks, tamale vendors, a cheap hotel and the high Andes surrounding us. Now, considering the many dismal shades of Lima, nothing doesn’t seem bad at all.
Further Into the Andes
Ahead we see on our map Lago Junín, a large high-altitude mountain lake, the sizable towns of Cerro de Pasco and Huanaco and the great mountain pass of Ticlio, or Anticona.