March 26, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
The desert is simple, honest and frank. It is sparse and stoic, both patient and demanding, and something about this unforgiving environment continually draws people from comfortable, well-watered places into its dangerous heart. Compelled by this old attraction, two young Americans departed in early February on one of the most ambitious walks they will probably ever take, through some of the most barren, the most beautiful and—lately—the most misunderstood land south of the Mexico-U.S. border: Baja California.
Justin DeShields, 26, and Bryan Morales, 25, departed San Diego on February 2. They crossed the border and immediately entered Tijuana, where the two travelers, who had been thinking logistically about desert survival for months, found themselves in a landscape blistered by traffic, freeways and urban shantytowns. They walked parallel to the border westward to the beach, where they officially began their walk. Their plan: to journey unassisted by motor vehicles all the way to the peninsula’s southernmost tip before June. DeShields, a documentary filmmaker who has worked with National Geographic, brought along several cameras. With an arrangement to blog for National Geographic, he and Morales—who works as an outdoor educator with urban youth—would document the ecological wonders and crises, the cultural colors and the raw beauty of the Baja peninsula, top to bottom.
Tijuana was simply an obstacle. Not known as Baja California’s proudest asset, it made for a discouraging beginning. Wearing 50-pound backpacks, it took the adventurers several hours to escape the city’s grimy, gritty influence. Concrete scribbled with graffiti, homes built of cardboard and sheets, and the din of urban traffic all faded into the distance at last, replaced by the softness of the sand and the drone of the breaking waves. But they hadn’t exactly escaped civilization. On the shore, the suburbs continued for many miles—and still ahead was the equally imposing city of Ensenada, located about 80 miles south of the border. On the beach, the pair encountered the obstacles of urban development—sometimes nearly to the waterline.
“There were so many private properties that in order to follow the coast, we had to hop fences and walls, and duck through barbed wire,” says Morales, with whom I spoke by phone last week. “There were places where we couldn’t get around rocky points and had to go back up to the highway, but there was no access.” So the two hurried through yards, alleyways and vacant lots, not always sure if they were trespassing or not, but certain of at least one thing: that they needed to move southward if they hoped to ever escape the northern peninsula’s development and reach the unspoiled desert for which Baja is famous.
For Morales and DeShields, the privatization of the public coastline became one of the most disturbing and frustrating aspects of their journey.
“The thing that worries me is that the coastline is being bought up by Americans or other foreigners, and as a result Mexicans are losing their land,” Morales says. “If they don’t have land or access to the water, how can they come to cherish it and enjoy it as we have? They certainly won’t be able to afford to buy it back.”
Though void of cacti and shrubs and open hillsides, this urban region was something of a desert, for most of the residences in places were entirely abandoned, Morales says. They passed vacant hotels and condos and the shells of empty buildings. The beach town of Rosarito—a thriving and popular destination for tourists as recently as six or seven years ago—has died. “It’s literally a ghost town now,” Morales says. He attributes the emptiness of this once-peopled land to “fear of violence, rape, robbery and even the police.” Parts of Mexico have experienced high crime rates in recent years, covered widely by the media. Morales believes such violence, civilian deaths and tourist holdups have unfairly impacted Baja, which has remained, to a large extent, off the path of criminals.
But the hospitality of Baja’s people defied every stereotype about the dangers of traveling today in Mexico. The two encountered kindness and generosity at every bend in the beach, in each town and in each remote fishing camp where they stopped to ask for water. The commercial lobster season had just ended, on February 16, and so these camps were often all but uninhabited. Usually, one man—maybe two—would come out to greet the Americans, along with his barking dogs. Many strangers invited them into their homes for food, coffee and beds.
“Down here you find an experience that, in the States, is hard to come by,” Morales says. “There is a low standard of living, and people have almost nothing. They literally make houses out of our garbage—old garage doors, trailers, billboards—and yet these people are incredibly generous. They invite us into their homes, feed us, share what they have.”
The two camped most nights on the beach, often tucked up against the cliffs in their tent to keep out of sight of passersby, and by day they walked, often on concrete and asphalt, other times along the beach, each carrying 50-pound backpacks loaded with camping equipment, cameras, a water desalinator and—for the odd hour of recreation—a surfboard. Finally, after 200 miles and three weeks of struggling through the development of northern Baja, Morales and DeShields found the solitude and silence of the desert. Here began the joys and hazards of classic wilderness exploration. Many times, the pair journeyed inland to avoid treacherous cliffs and waves. Once or twice they almost ran out of water. They showed up half starved and delirious in a fishing camp one hot day. In a land of sand, sun and solitude, they ate what they could. Peanut butter and jelly on tortillas were a staple—though strangers who greeted them in the road spiced up their diets with tortillas and bowls of beans. Often, the desert didn’t even look like one. The rains of December had had their lingering effect, turning what is known to be one of the most dry and bitter landscapes into scenery as green as Teletubby Land. Locals even told them that the desert flower blooms of the moment had not been seen in nearly a decade.
On March 19, they arrived in Guerrero Negro, a dusty desert city mostly unremarkable except as a chief destination for tourists hoping to watch gray whales, which enter the nearby Ojo de Liebre and San Ignacio lagoons to give birth. From here, the pair walks south. They will remain on foot as they pass San Ignacio Lagoon and walk inland around its shoreline. The plan is to then cut east, across the mountainous peninsula, and descend back to sea level at the date palm-studded oasis town of Mulege. Morales and DeShields intend to finish their journey on stand-up paddleboards, moving smoothly along the tranquil shoreline of the Sea of Cortez, all the way to San Jose del Cabo. Their journey can be followed via their blog “What is West?”
February 12, 2013
A crisp, clear stream flows out of Cajas National Park on a 20-mile circuitous route down to the town of Cuenca—but few fish live in these wild waters. Yet the Quinuas River Valley it forms is a hot destination for sport fishermen. They come by the hundreds each weekend, mostly from Cuenca, seeking the most popular game fish in the world: the rainbow trout.
“What kind of trout live in here?” I ask a young man who serves me coffee at Cabana del Pescador, the campground where I have stayed the night. I am only curious how locals refer to the species Oncorhynchus mykiss, which is native to North American and Siberian streams that enter the Pacific but has been introduced to virtually all suitable habitat on earth. In Ecuador, the species first arrived in the 1960s.
“Normal trout,” he says.
I aim to catch a few fish today and have them for dinner, but I move on, up the road, looking for a happier place to fish. The pond here is muddy, surrounded by concrete and a chain-link fence. Trouble is, I won’t find much better. This valley, though populated by a few wild trout in the streams and lakes of Cajas National Park, is a busy center of aquaculture. Trout farming is generally considered a clean and sustainable industry, though it isn’t always pretty. For a stretch of seven or eight miles downstream of the park, nearly every roadside farm has a handful of concrete-banked pools on the premises, fed by stream water and swarming with trout about 12 inches long.
Up the road, after passing a half dozen possible fishing sites, I pull in to one called Reina del Cisne, at kilometer 21. It is a restaurant and sport fishing “club,” as the sign tells visitors. I have coffee—Nescafé, as always—inside. When I am finished, I ask if there is an opportunity to fish here, and the teenage waiter beckons me to follow. “It’s 50 cents to rent a pole,” he says. “Then, we weigh the trout, and you pay $2.25 per pound.” The biggest fish in the ponds out back are more than ten pounds, he tells me.
He pulls one rod from a heap of several dozen—a broomstick-like pole with a stout line tied to the end and a silver barbed hook at the tip. He quickly mixes up a bucket of bread dough to use as bait, drops a hunk into a shopping-style woven basket and hands me my tackle.
“What kind of trout are these?” I ask, still fishing for local lingo.
“Salmon trout. They have red meat,” he says. He adds, “Good luck,” and returns to the restaurant.
For an angler who has fished in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada and Alaska and New Zealand, this is a sad comparison, and I feel a strange desire to either cry or laugh hysterically. This would make a perfect opportunity for kids, but I know what real fishing, in real waters, is. Here, I have three ponds to choose from—two of them rectangular, concrete basins, the other a muddy, oval-shaped pool 30 feet across with grassy banks. I flick a piece of dough into this most natural-appearing of the options. Several trout dart from the murk as the white ball vanishes in an instant. I bait my hook and fling it into the middle of the pond, slightly embarrassed that I am participating in what locals advertise as pesca deportiva—or “sport fishing.” A similar flurry of fish attack and strip the hook. I re-bait and try again and this time hook instantly into a feisty rainbow. I drag it in and onto the bank, whack it cold with a stick and drop it in my basket. One down, and in another five minutes I have a second fish. I could take more but, frankly, this isn’t fun or engaging. A year ago exactly I was cycling around New Zealand, casting flies at wild trout six times this size and immeasurably more thrilling to catch—wary, elusive, picky and beautiful. The challenge of enticing one to strike made success an accomplishment. Best of all was the experience of being there, fish or none, standing in crystal clear waters surrounded by green meadows and the tall peaks of the Southern Alps. Indeed, fishing is largely about interacting with the environment, and if one catches no trout on an expedition into the mountains, something else is still gained.
But no matter how big a fish one may pull from a concrete-lined pond, using dough balls for bait, the experience feels as hollow as shopping in a supermarket. While I’m here, I hope I might tangle with an eight-pounder, but no such beast shows itself. I wonder if perhaps they tell all guests that giant trout live in these ponds to encourage business. But back inside the restaurant, my hosts show me the de-boned meat of a 14-pounder caught the day before. The meat is thick and heavy and a delicious-looking salmon red. I ask what the trout eat. “Natural food,” owner Maria Herrera tells me.
Down the road, at kilometer 18, I visit a government-run fish hatchery. I roll down the dirt drive, across the stream on a wooden bridge and up a short rise to the facility. I introduce myself to two men in yellow slickers, ankle deep in a muddy concrete basin full of thrashing foot-long trout. The station director, Lenin Moreno, tells me that more than 8,000 adult fish live here. He and his colleague, Ricardo Mercado, are currently trying to get an exact head count in a tank swarming with, they guess, about 300 fish. They take a break and show me to the laboratoria—the hatchery. In the trays and tanks of this covered, concrete-walled facility, 1.3 million juveniles are produced each year and sold to aquaculture operations in four provinces, Moreno tells me.
Outside, they show me a rectangular basin teeming with huge rainbows, green-backed, red-sided beauties that remind me of the two-foot-long giants of New Zealand. Visitors may come here to buy these trout, Moreno tells me. The fish go for $1.50 per pound.
I ask if the meat is red like salmon. “No—it’s white,” Moreno tells me. “But at the fish farms they feed the trout pigment.”
This doesn’t surprise me. The rainbow trout I grew up on were generally white-fleshed fish. Only occasionally on family camping trips as we cleaned our catch would we discover with excitement that the trout had natural pink meat, which tends to be richer and fattier than paler flesh. But in Ecuador’s many fish markets, I have not yet seen a trout fillet that wasn’t colored like salmon, and I’ve suspected all along that this attractive color (which I’ll admit has drawn my wallet from my pocket more than once) was artificially induced. I recall seeing the fillet of a trout caught in New Zealand just outside the outflow of a Chinook salmon farm that was clearly affected by such pigment—probably either synthetic astaxanthin or canthaxanthin, both used in most commercial salmon farming operations (and the latter of which may cause retinal damage). The trout had presumably been eating pellet feed that escaped from the salmon pens, and the meat was partially colored, patchy red and white like a tie-dyed shirt. Yuck.
I poached my farm-caught trout in cheap Chilean Sauvignon Blanc at my hostel in Cuenca, just off the main street of Calle Larga. The meal was fine and exactly what I had been aiming for when I plunked that ball of dough into the pond at Reina del Cisne. But the fish didn’t quite taste up to par. Because although pink-fleshed trout are a sure catch in the mountain fishing ponds of Ecuador, something else, less easy to describe, native to places like Montana and British Columbia, may evade you with every fish landed.
February 1, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Give a man a glass of water, and you may quench his thirst. But teach him to build a biosand water filter using local materials and the simplest technology, and he’ll have clean water for life at a cost of just $30.
Even better, Rod and Ingrid McCarroll, two retired Canadians, will pay half the cost or more if the 30 bucks is too steep. Sometimes it is. The McCarrolls, of Calgary, Alberta, have been traveling the world for 12 years in some of the most impoverished communities with the goal of bringing clean water to millions. They have worked through their own nonprofit organization, Friends Who Care International, in rural India, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, they spent six months in Nicaragua alone. Just two weeks ago, they arrived in Ecuador.
“We hope to provide clean water for 20 million people,” Rod told me at the Hostal El Taxo in Quito, where we met by chance in the dining room. “It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people now don’t have clean water for drinking or cooking. The problem is, the world is growing faster than we’re able to help.”
The biosand water filter that is the main feature of the McCarrolls’ work is a relatively simple thing. Invented in the 1990s by David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the contraption is composed of carefully selected and treated sand and gravel, as well as a layer of iron nails, strategically layered in a four-foot-tall concrete casing. The setup weighs more than 200 pounds, making it too heavy to steal. Maintenance is easy, requiring simply scooping the mucky top water from the gravel layer every few months. Being too simple to experience serious mechanical breakdowns, the water filter all but guarantees a family clean water for life. Tap, pond or river water is poured into the gravel, and at a rate of one liter per 80 seconds, pure water emerges from the spout. The filter removes 99.5 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, according to Rod, as well as 100 percent of parasites and 100 percent of arsenic—which bonds to the iron oxide molecules of the rusting nails and becomes unable to travel through the filter. Currently, the McCarrolls are in the rural mountainous regions surrounding Cuenca—Ecuador’s third-largest city—working with local contacts and community leaders to teach them how to build the filters. Arsenic, Rod says, contaminates much of the region’s water—a serious problem that could be solved as easily as the filter is simple.
Rod stresses that he and Ingrid are not just delivering clean water to one family at a time. Rather, they are teaching others—especially community leaders—to build biosand water filters and to teach the trick to others. By this means, the snowball effect seems already to have kicked in. While the McCarrolls have worked in just half a dozen countries, Rod says that clean water now trickles from half a million biosand water filters in 75 countries.
Apart from clean water, the McCarrolls have also worked to bring sustainable, off-the-grid electricity to the needy through another Canadian nonprofit called Light Up the World. Living in literal darkness, Rod says, means living in intellectual and spiritual darkness, too—as people cannot educate themselves if they return from work to a home too dim to read in.
But the McCarrolls have another objective, too, which leads them through more figurative realms of light and darkness: They are Christian missionaries. This is a more latent, secondary element of their work. Clean water and electricity come first, and religion follows. It may take 30 minutes of chatting with the pair even to discover their spiritual concerns, yet along with biosand water filters, they are indeed missionaries, encouraging those who accept their help to also adopt Christianity.
“If you go around the world and tell starving people that God loves them, it’s hogwash,” Ingrid said. “It means nothing. But if you give them something, then they see that they really do have friends.”
Rod says the interest in dispensing Christian ideals goes hand in hand with having clean water, electricity and basic sanitary conditions. He says, too, that religious conversion is not a main objective—but that it doesn’t hurt to make Hindus into Christians. The caste system, outlawed in India yet persisting through tradition, plagues much of the Hindu world—especially India. It relegates people born as untouchables to a life of poverty and filth—and with contaminated drinking water to boot, Rod points out.
“We’re just trying to help remove them from this darkness,” he explains. “But there are 600,000 villages in India, and many of them don’t want anything to do with missionaries. So how do we get in?”
The biosand water filter. Given to the needy and bearing with it the heavy scent of Christianity (the McCarrolls may prompt prayer circles with families before they depart), “the water filter,” Rod says, “serves as a 24/7 missionary.”
Rod is 71 years old. Ingrid is 70. When she was a child, she barely escaped from East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up. Her family had been torn apart during the turmoil of war, but they managed to reconvene with the help of the Red Cross in Austria in 1945. Ingrid and Rod met and married 46 years ago. Upon retiring, they determined not to kick up their feet between rounds of golf and luxury vacation cruises.
“We decided that we’d done well, and we wanted to give back,” Ingrid said.
After learning about Manz’s biosand water filter in the late 1990s and growing efforts to dispense the invention around the world, the McCarrolls saw their opportunity to help the world’s unfortunate. They worked at first with the organization CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which was led by Camille Dow Baker, a former oil development executive striving to reform her career. Once the McCarrolls had learned the ropes, they established Friends Who Care International in 2001, and they have divided their time between Calgary and the wider world ever since.
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 17, 2013
Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea usually kick in an hour after the victim gets on the bus, I told my brother Andrew. He was eagerly attacking his first cooked meal in a week—a fillet of fish and fried potatoes from a small seaside restaurant in Tortugas. “It does’t matter when you get on the bus,” I elaborated. ”It’s an hour after you get on the bus.”
But he never got sick. In spite of numerous warnings from experienced travelers and stodgy medical doctors that street food, cooked food or any items that have been exposed to tap water, dirt or insects should not be eaten in Peru, we have both retained stalwart health since we began expanding our diet after a week of eating mostly fresh fruit. We started with chicha—Andean corn beer, which comes in several colors—and enjoyed its tart, fizzy bite in the town square of Huarmey. In the northern town of Tumbes we bought a hunk of local cow cheese. It was hard and aged, and it frankly left us hankering for a piece of cheese fresher and creamier, yet the fat and protein were a welcomed change. We look forward to buying more. We eyed the street vendors selling hard-boiled quail eggs for days, and now we have incorporated them into our diet. We have begun eating, as well, fresh corn—lumpy, stocky cobs sold for a few cents by street vendors working gas-powered grills. Andrew, thinking big again in the town of Puerto Pizarro, bought a whole rotisserie chicken with a three-pound bag of cooked rice and monestra (stewed beans) for 20 soles—about $8—and devoured most of the bird in less than 30 minutes. We haven’t gotten to Peru’s famous ceviche yet, though we will.
And while so much savory, hot food, heavy in oils and protein, has been a happy change for us, I have to admit I’d still rather hold out for fresh and exotic fruits. I told this to a French woman we recently met on a beach near Tumbes. She flatly said I was not experiencing Peru. “Like heck I’m not! I’m riding a bike through Peru and eating locally grown specialties,” I said. “How Peruvian is that? I was in France last year cycling. I never ate foie gras or escargots but I shopped at markets and made my own meals and got a great taste of the country.” I just don’t believe that one must have a restaurant staff tiptoe around you every day at feeding time to truly experience place and culture.
Rather, I find the outdoor markets of Peru to be endlessly entertaining galas of color, smells and flavors. Foreigners can expect to find new and unusual items at almost each visit—some variety of passion fruit, avocados the size of footballs, sapotes, mameys, guaba fruits like giant bean pods or sugar cane juice. Notably, Andrew has overdosed on cherimoyas and now grows nauseous every time I start talking about them. He even observed quite astutely during his final cherimoya meal—won’t touch them now—that the fruits smell sweetly like our chain grease. Yum.
But if cherimoyas turn a man’s stomach, the markets themselves are still a joy to browse. Aside from the food we take away, I also enjoy interacting with the vendors—asking names of fruits, exaggerating my surprise at the size of an avocado, asking for prices and holding out for the next stall, where the lucumas just might be ripe (most are sold three days before ripeness). Perhaps especially, I relish the power of leaving no long-awaited meal to chance—because a burning appetite for calories is nothing to waste at the end of each day. I ride my bicycle with potent visions of tropical fruit heaps luring me forward, and though a few hard-boiled eggs might tide me over until the marketplace, I will let no street vendor on the edge of town spoil my glorious meal of victory. The roving ceviche carts and meat grills are colorful pieces of street scenery, and we are enjoying some hot, savory food each day—as several readers advised we do—but eating a creamy cherimoya, a sweet and starchy lucuma or a pineapple with flesh as white and sweet as sugar could be the truest taste of Peru.
I’m usually forgiving of harsh wine while traveling. After all, just about anything from a bottle that gives a bite is appreciated late at night in a tent. But we are losing our patience with Peruvian wine. We had a bottle our first night at the Sol de Santa Rosa campground, on the bumpy road to Canta. It was a Miranda Cahuayo Semi Dry. I set aside my cherimoya to pop the cork—and the smell attacked me instantly. We had already been warned that Peruvian wine was bad, but we had disregarded the advice as the nonsense of a wine snob. But the wine was truly intolerable, smelling and tasting like rancid grease and spoiled raspberries slurried into a bucket of muddy charcoal dust. We tried again the next night with a Peruvian red whose name I neglected to record. Another disappointment—a wine so sweet and pungent that we couldn’t drink it. We vowed then to buy only wines from Chile, Argentina or other reputable producers. But the next night we got duped by a bottle with “Santiago” printed prominently on the label. A closer look during dinner revealed it was a Peruvian wine made of Concord grapes. We crossed our fingers and pulled the cork. It was a sweet, oily-tasting juice, like antifreeze. I’ve made wine in a plastic jug strapped to the back of my bike that was better. Grumbling, we poured it down the drain. A valid critic gives his subject many chances before making a conclusive statement—but how many chances must we give Peruvian wine? If someone could direct me straight to the good stuff—heck, just drinkable would be a start—I’d be grateful and would try again. But for now, we are afraid to buy another bottle.
What else can one drink in Peru? Cheap lagers are available at most grocery stores, but the main national brands taste like the cheap beer from anywhere else. There is also pisco, if you like distilled spirits. Pisco is Peru’s rendition of brandy and is often marketed by grape variety and frequently carries a nice scent of the starting grape itself—surprising for a liquid that has traveled through the tubes and chambers of a commercial still. But in a hot desert after a long day of cycling, sometimes the best drink is water.
We have both gotten sick. We should have known. Book-smart medical doctors and experienced travelers warned us that eating street food or nearly anything out of a kitchen here was liable to make us run for the bathroom. Shows what they know—the bus had no bathroom. We’re going back to cherimoyas.