The_past_days of Bound South have felt a little indulgent. We’re used to the grit and sweat and stress of life on the road. Arriving in Lima, a connection with a Dartmouth classmate and her coworkers at an international public health NGO led to a restful weekend in the capital of Peru, a sprawling “City of Kings” set above sandy ocean cliffs and an endless coastal desert. Jonathan, a native Coloradoan-20-something, described Lima as “Quito’s bigger, dirtier, older brother.” Seeing as how this same description fit me rather well, I figured I’d get along well with Lima. We enjoyed the rare company of a number of American-volunteer-20-somethings, laughed about 12-hours-a-day, and explored Lima’s legendary gastronomy, colonial center, and superb laundry services. We danced swing in a Cuban bar, ate ceviche, ate our first good ice cream since the States and watched the sun set over Miraflores. We made some new friends who we are determined to see again in the States someday. Sometimes, indulgence isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Dizzying._It_is hard to fathom just how many places we have seen since leaving Alaska. These aren’t necessarily hotbeds of international culture or tourism; simply the view beyond the next bend in the road, or perhaps the mundane spaces between where we are and where we are going that are suddenly lit up by the sun or by a joke or a kind word. There’s an index of thousands in all of our brains now. Riding through a Latin American street at night can remind us of everything from Los Angeles to the first time we rode through the darkness in British Columbia. Sometimes I wonder if we’re harder to impress now that we’ve been at this for so long.
Huaraz was up to the challenge. Nestled in the most spectacular Andean valley in Peru, between the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra, Huaraz is a jewel among Peru’s cities. The city itself is hardly beautiful; a devastating Ancash earthquake of 1970 has left the city scarred to this day without most of its beautiful colonial architecture and urban vibrancy. It’s still a gem of a city, however, because of what lies outside of it; breathtaking glaciers and snowcapped peaks lie in wait for anyone with the time to trek through them. The next time we are in Huaraz, we will not leave before trekking at least a week through Huascarán National Park. The rigorous schedule of a bicycle expedition such as ours unfortunately permitted only a few sojourns in the mountains around Huaraz.
After overcoming a daylong bout of food poisoning, we went on a mountain biking loop near the entrance to Huascarán. We were guided by Julio Olaza of Mountain Bike Adventure. Julio was a godsend for us. Not only did he lend us his shop tools to do some needed repairs on our Trolls, he also shared his story with us. “Mountain biking saved my life,” he said. He was battling alcoholism as a young man, decades ago, and he took a chance as tourism was just beginning to pick up in Huaraz and “mountain biking” was just recently born in the late 1980s. Years later, he is clean and a successful businessman, not to mention an animal on his mountain bike. Muscling our bicycles over the stones of pre-Incan trails above Huaraz, we could barely keep up. For the most part we embarrassed ourselves and found ourselves pining after a front suspension fork. David flipped over his handlebars once. We had a blast.
The finale to our mountain biking adventure was our arrival at a high altitude field above Huaraz where a crowd gathers every Friday to play ultimate frisbee. We joined Peruvian kids, European trekkers, American volunteers, and a host of colorful characters for some exciting play. There are many disadvantages to a bicycle expedition, among them tan lines and diminished cleanliness. But a nice advantage is that our cardiovascular systems are borderline Olympic. We could run all day up at the high 12,000 feet+ of Huaraz, which made frisbee somewhat unfair to a few of our competitors. In the end, we all had a blast and enjoyed the fellowship of a good meal at the California Cafe when we were done. There are a few rare, restorative places on this bicycle expedition where we can forget the pressures of our pace southward and enjoy the richness of a place. Huaraz, you will be missed.
Every_so_often, Bound South embraces its wild side. We leave the ease and surety of pavement for the uncertainty and doubt that coincides with the road less traveled. When we do, we get lost, fall off of our bikes, and endure steep climbs and rotten roads. Adventure is always available in the Andes. Leaving Trujillo and the north coast of Peru, we surrounded ourselves with it, wall to wall.
Cañón del Pato, translated “Duck Canyon”, is the product of two Andean ridges in Peru, the Cordillera Negra (Black Range) without snow to the west and the Cordillera Blanca (White Range) with snow to the east. The valley between contains the Santa River, which winds its way to the coast through the canyon. These two ridges parallel each other from Huaraz to Caraz, where they converge to form the canyon. Near the canyon’s narrowest gap, a mere six meters across with walls rising up to Cordilleras’ crests, the raging waters of the Santa River power the turbines of a Duke Energy hydro electricity plant. The Cordillera Blanca consists of hundreds of glaciers, lagoons, and hot springs. Eight of its peaks rest over 6000 meters, with its highest, Huascarán Sur, sitting at 6768 meters. Its nature is colossal which gives reason for the canyon’s grandeur.
Even more impressive is the road that winds its way through the canyon. Carved into the cliff walls, at times hundreds of meters above the river through tunnels and under overhangs, the road climbs gradually from barren desert at sea level to green mountain valleys above 3000 meters. Beautiful, yes. Easy, no. To this day, the inverse rule has held true. Established in Alaska, the rule reads: “The difficulty of the ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.”
And challenging it was. Mango-sized stones and mud holes covered the single-lane canyon road. Dust coated our sweaty skin as drivers passed by. Shade was in short supply. Simply pedaling wasn’t easy; maintaining contact with each pedal over the bed of rocks was an unexpected challenge. It wasn’t the grade of the road that slowed our pace to 80 kilometers a day; it was exhaustion from riding through a bone-jarring sea of loose rock day after day in the heat. The conditions were tough. A different approach to riding was absolutely necessary.
Each watt of energy we apply to our pedals is work. Slick tires and smooth surfaces allow us to easily build speed and maintain momentum. On rough roads like the one described above, however, each rock or imperfection resembles a hill we must climb, which significantly slows our progress. Pedaling from Alaska to Argentina isn’t easy. I sometimes wish that there was only one mountain pass between Alaska and Argentina (unfortunately, the road south of the equator does not gradually descend to Tierra del Fuego) or that it could be done with a single pedal-stroke. These are impossible, though; I know that.
And I know the realities of the road. Challenges and pitfalls are everywhere. Jagged rocks will puncture your tires and give you a sore butt. Caps will come loose leaving you with no cooking fuel. Tunnel darkness will surround you. The road isn’t perfect. Yet I have learned to embrace all that shapes this experience – both the discomforts and joys – and ride with purpose knowing that what we ride for is good and just.
Feeling_at_home on the road is a rare thing. We have certainly grown accustomed to the rhythm of riding and camping that we established since Alaska. This is the life of a traveler, however, and it makes us thankful for spending time with a new family when we get the chance. In Trujillo, the great northern coastal city of Peru, we were blessed with some time to rest with a new kind of family: the Casa de Ciclistas.
Founded more than thirty years ago, the Casa de Ciclistas of Trujillo is one of the cycling world’s best-kept secrets. Nestled just outside the Avenida España in Trujillo, it is a hostel for bicycle adventurers of all shapes, sizes, ages, genders, and adventures. Come as you are and stay as you are for free. Since its founding, over 2,000 cyclists have walked through its doors and rested here for a night or a few days; once many encounter the splendid comfort and community here, they are tempted to stay for weeks. Lucho D’Angelo and his family take care of the Casa and the cyclists that pass through it. Lucho, a famous Peruvian bicycle racer, was invited to the 2000 Tour de France as a guest of honor and is known the world over by bicyclists for his decades-long work at Trujillo’s Casa de Ciclistas.
In the course of the past few days, we have met a remarkable Englishwoman named Judy who has bicycled from England to China and is now finishing her second Alaskan-Argentinan leg in July. She is riding alone, tough as nails, and some of the best lunch company that one could ever ask for. We have met another Italian named Matias who is taking an extended tour of the Americas for over four years; the duration of his travels perhaps explains the 70 kilos of gear that he is carrying on his bicycle; we suspect that his Italian supermodel girlfriend is hidden somewhere in the rear panniers.
I volunteered here in Trujillo two years ago as a volunteer teacher in a barrio outside the city called Delicias. This time in Trujillo was a wonderful homecoming to me; many things have changed in this city in that short time, but the good things are the same. The sparkling central Plaza de Armas, the spotless colonial architecture, the narrow streets of the Centro and Pizarro and the countless bakeries with the best tres leches we have had since leaving Alaska…all of it was as it was for me two years ago. This was home for me then, and now for us for a few days as well.
We rolled in on our bicycles to little local fanfare, except for the usual shouts of gringo that emanate from every corner of the Peruvian towns and cities that we ride by. We leave to the same chorus, a reminder that we are full-time travelers and students and strangers of the places and peoples that we visit along the way to Argentina. But when we’re lucky, even gringos get to feel at home for a while.
I_like_mountains. Having grown up on the flat, windswept Upper Great Plains, the mountains always captivated me growing up. I’ll never forget the first year I ever saw the Rockies, when I was in 7th grade, after sitting in our family’s Suburban and driving 12 hours to reach Bozeman, MT. Sitting in a bucket seat and looking out of the window, it seemed otherworldly to see majestic, snow-capped peaks rising out of the Earth. To this day, the scale and grandeur of mountains has that effect on me.
Needless to say, the Andes of South America have certainly impressed us. Yet we have left them for a time, trading long climbs through alternating cool rain and blistering heat for the consistent headwinds of the Peruvian coast. The gateway to Peru from Ecuador in Macará brought us to a new country and people but also to a new climate and terrain. Lush mountain vegetation turned to a lowland jungle of sorts, flat as a plate of glass aside from the ominous spine of the Andes that stretches beside us to the East. Moving south of Tambo Grande, the soil soon turned to sand and the trees to sagebrush and chaparral. Soon we were in Peru’s long coastal desert, fighting strong headwinds from the south and with no apparent end in sight. It is amazing how quickly a bicycle can transport you between different natural environments.
At face value, it doesn’t seem like riding through a flat and windy desert would hold much appeal. Why trade the cool mountain air and spectacular mountain vistas for a hot headwind? A simple answer would be: “it’s easier”. We fought all day, every day to maintain our pace through the mountains, climbing over consecutive mountain passes and breathing a sigh of relief if we managed to get 100k done in a day. In the flatlands outside of Chiclayo, even with a headwind, we got a 9AM start and rode in a motivated paceline throughout the day, with the front rider rotating and breaking the wind for the others. We had nearly 100k done by lunchtime, and 180k done by the time darkness fell and we found a cheap hostel to shower and sleep through the desert heat.
The desert flatlands are conducive to a different kind of bicycle touring. It’s about more than just how easy the miles are. Mentally it is almost a totally different riding experience with my brothers. In the mountains, it is as if each of us are fighting an individual battle against gravity and wind. We are thoroughly alone with our heavy bicycles and the sound of rhythmic breathing and the feel of sweat and exhaustion. It is as if the mountains put your mind and body in isolation, not only from the world but also from one another. In the mountains, Bound South is an ensemble split into rooms of overworked soloists, working alone, together.
We had to leave the mountains to regain that feeling of a choir again. Suddenly the miles come easier, and the hum of the tires and the whistle of the wind molds three bicycles into one organic whole. The effort of one on the front is the shield of the two behind, with each pull an individual strength that is sacrificed to move the group forward more quickly than we could ever accomplish individually. It’s kind of cool and a luxury that most bicycle tourists cannot afford. Yet the flatlands are about more than the speed of the riding as well. We are afforded more time to talk by the loosened constraints of miles and time. In Tambo Grande, we met a wonderful and gregarious woman named Gloria who soon introduced us to her accomplished nieces and nephews, all studying a variety of engineering at the local university in Piura. We had time to sit and talk for hours and over lunch the next day. She begged us to stay another day so that we could meet her other niece, the one with “strong, muscular legs and a thin waist who made all the men go crazy when she danced the samba (and her overprotective mother).” Unfortunately, the time had come to go. The experiences we have with people are made richer when we can afford to spend more time with them.
We won’t be here long. A remarkable canyon road to the highest mountains of the Andes will take us soon to Huaraz from the coast. But for the time being, we relish the togetherness and the speed that comes from bicycling through lowlands.
A_surly,_hard-as-nails German professional cyclist named Jens Voight was once asked what he tells his legs to do when he’s hurting in a race. His response? “Shut up legs.” One might think that after many thousands of miles our legs would be silent killers, mashing fat-kid watts and dancing on the pedals to soar over the Andes. Yet another cycling maxim comes to mind, Lemond’s famous quotation: “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.” And so it goes for us, except the “faster” part might be a little dubious.
Most people have no idea what it is like to pedal a bicycle all day, day after day. We certainly didn’t before August. We had no collective touring experience before we drove up to Anchorage to begin this project. Our early days of bicycle touring in Alaska provide constant memories and comic relief to this day. I was a competitive cyclist before Bound South but that doesn’t make Angus any less of a big, fat, heavy monstrosity to pedal uphill. We aren’t looking for pity, just understanding. Every day is a pretty hard day at Bound South; not so hard that we doubt ourselves, never so easy that we take anything for granted. Cycling is 99% physical; what you can do is what you can do. The mental 1% is small but pivotal; if Bound South were the Death Star, it would be the uncovered thermal exhaust port. If your head is in the right place the human body is capable of some miraculous things. If not, you might have a date with a proton torpedo. A good mind alone can’t get you to Argentina; that’s why “dreamt” isn’t the same as “done”. But bad mental states can certainly keep you from it. A good mind is necessary but insufficient.
The number one challenge I have encountered in protecting my “mental game” is compartmentalization. With cycling in general, and a bicycle expedition in particular, it is almost impossible to separate your mental outlook from the environment being pedaled through. It’s hard enough to wake up at some ungodly hour to pedal through cold rain for a few hours for training or, heaven forbid, for fun. It’s even harder when you don’t have a choice, when “home” is an MSR tent, and when the end of your ride will guarantee no more comforts than the beginning. A common thread in all athletics is a powerful and intoxicating self-awareness of the body; it’s strength, coordination, exhaustion, performance, and recovery. The experience of disciplined athletic training for the first time is akin to pulling aside a dashboard curtain and seeing the gauges of your car for the first time. Once you’ve seen it once, you’re forever aware and would never go without it again. So it goes with us; we attend constantly to the sensations of our bodies, fueling and refueling and feeling the sensations in our legs as we move southwards. On a bicycle expedition, however, countless other concerns compete for my mental space along with the stresses of our bodies. Some of it is trivial, like the countless decisions we make on the road about where we will rest, where we will eat, and where we will camp for the night. Other things are easily taken for granted, like the water we used to get from the tap. Acquiring 20 liters of reliable, cheap, purified water to get us through the day is just one of many small details that get lost in the noise of these concerns. Sometimes I wish that Bound South could just be about riding our bicycles and taking pretty pictures. That’s the fun stuff and it’s not hard to handle even on the hard days; though the stress can leave you vulnerable. Minutiae accumulate like pebbles in a stream, and they can bring you to the brink before you recognize it. Once you are tired, thirsty, and battling a headwind for 180 kilometers on the Peruvian cost it is more understandable when a flat tire at dusk makes you want to throw Angus into a river.
The key is always to keep your eye on the prize. Every kilometer done is one less between us and home. We’re certainly not tired of this journey; it’s a privilege unlike anything I have ever experienced before. But the end in Ushuaia is what makes every day so significant and what pushes us to ride southwards with a lot of heart. Live like you’re dying, ride like you’re flying back from Argentina in May. In the meantime, we’ll just tell the legs to shut up and enjoy the ride until the wheels fall off.
Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…
We’ve had a ton of fun chatting with our pen pals, and here is the final letter, unless we get more…
My name is Shane. I like video games. What do you like to eat?
I’ve been known to play video games every once and a while. My brothers and have been on a pretty significant drought, although I did beat the Angry Birds game on my brothers iPhone. I was thinking about hanging up video games since I hit the pinnacle of my career, but I figure I should keep my skills sharp in case something more difficult comes along.
Lately, the bakeries in South America sell pineapple pastries that are impossible to resist. If there was one type of food that I miss currently, I would have to say a good sandwich. It has been several months of tacos, rice, and now chicken. It’s going to be an adjustment to come home to a kitchen with all the fixings. The simplicity of this trip has been an eye-opening experience; I won’t soon forget the convenience of a permanent home.
Thanks for writing!
With_a_ribbon of road stretching back thousands of miles to Alaska, we have many stories to share. Those we meet usually hope to distill the vast spaces and places into a few highlights. It’s hard to comprehend what we are doing in any other way. Upon meeting new people in new places, one of the first things they ask for is our “favorite part of the trip.” They know and we know that this is almost an impossible question to answer, but we try nonetheless. People are the highlight of Bound South without a doubt.
Traveling by bicycle is unlike any other kind of travel that I’ve ever done. I’ve had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities one can grasp with a bicycle and a tent. At this point, I do not know if I could ever go back. We could trade country roads for train stations, tent sites for hotels and hostels, and would miss most of the amazing people that we meet along the way to Argentina. It wouldn’t be the same. In some ways I think our travel by bicycle harkens back to a more sentimental and perilous era of tourism. Perhaps there were days before Lonely Planet, before the internet, before tourism was big business. Travel was composed of much more discomfort, random searching, danger, inefficiency, and luck for better or for worse. And perhaps the attitude towards travelers was different; they were less consumers and more students, people from a strange land who had something to learn and something to share. This is not to idealize the past, because modern tourism has opened the world up in profound new ways. To travel by bicycle channels the most powerful aspects of historical travel; in the modern age, it is hard to do this any other way.
We have noticed on this bicycle expedition that the most wonderful and hospitable people in the world are typically the furthest from centers of tourism. We’re a little more extraordinary and less annoying that way, I think. Based on the flocks of children that gather to stare at us while we eat at rural South American restaurants, we know we’re out of the ordinary. The relative coldness of the cityscape is not a new stereotype, to be sure. In Bogotá, we were just a few faces in a sea of people, a few cyclists scrambling to escape the freeways of the city. We wouldn’t dream of approaching a stranger on the sidewalk and asking if we could set up our tent in his apartment. These are simple realities of urban living the world over. Only a few days later, when we were in the empty mountain roads outside of Mocoa, we didn’t hesitate to approach a farming family and ask for a place to camp for the night. We are asking for help, and a safe place to tent is a gift of generosity that we never take for granted. Deep down there is satisfaction from the knowledge of mutual benefit; we know that we have made others’ lives richer through our travels and stories. Everything we do here on our blog is made more powerful and more poignant in the company of a few new friends.
Our journey is built upon the simple kindness of strangers, the humble and hard-working families of nine countries between Anchorage and Ushuaia. They are of limited means but have more than their parents ever had. They work hard and dream for the even better opportunities that their children will have. They are farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, storytellers, carpenters, mothers and fathers. They are “authentic” as far as touristic parlance goes; but when we’re looking for a family in South America, that’s the last thing on our minds. You realize how far you’ve come from Alaska only when you’re sitting in a family room in South America seeing kids’ eyes go wide.
If you would like to experience this kind of travel and learning for yourself and your family, we heavily recommend signing up for two online services: Couchsurfing and Warmshowers. They can be an economical window to the world and a means to share your world with others. Even if you can’t host us for a night on our journey to Ushuaia, you can help someone like us on their journey elsewhere.
When_a_given stretch of highway is titled “Avenue of the _________”, we know great riding is in store (like our days on the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California months ago). Thus, excitement was my immediate response when I heard from our host in Tumbaco that our route would lead us to the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a portion of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador that lies between two mountain chains and their respective volcanoes. And I wasn’t disappointed. Leaving Tumbaco the next day, we familiarized ourselves with the cloud-shrouded Cotapaxi, the second largest volcano on the avenue at 19,347 feet, as we climbed up 6000 feet over its shoulder at 12,000 feet. At the top of our ascent, we were treated to spectacular views of the volcanoes lining the highway ahead. Before long, however, clouds rolled in and blanketed the peaks.
Our time on the avenue after those brief glimpses was one of hidden volcanoes and inclement weather. Rain, hail, and lightning fell from the sky. Clouds enveloped us in fog on high mountain climbs and descents. In spite of these daily trials, our time was also filled with incredible encouragement. Honks, cheers, and waves became common, and increased in regularity with each additional rain drop. Even our favorite “two hands off the wheel thumbs up” was deployed by one very enthusiastic truck driver. A family gave us space to sleep sheltered from the rain. Kids showed us shelter near their favorite soccer field. A restaurant housed and fed us. After each rainy night, we started the next day energized and dry. The conversations, food, and laughter we shared with the people along the avenue contrast with the challenges we faced while riding it.
One night outside of Ambato especially stands out. A family of eight brothers gave us an unfinished home to lay our sleeping mats and sleepy heads down for the night. Handshakes and greetings abounded while we were shown our sleeping quarters. It wasn’t long before we were seated around their dining table enjoying coffee, bread, and conversation and joined by their sisters and daughters of similar age (it’s funny how that works). I sat next to Mariella, one brother’s one-year old daughter. With a growing vocabulary, her parents solidified us as her new friends. At first, we were her “nue-ego”. With a little practice, though, it wasn’t long before we became her “nuevos amigos”.
When I look back on the road from Alaska, people are what I remember most (and maybe the food, too). Mountains, lakes, coastlines, deserts, roads, towns, and cities blend together to form a vague painting of the americas in my mind. Only when I reflect on our new friends does that painting gain clarity and color.