28 October 2012

Mancora 2

pictures from Mancora Beach

26 October 2012


I awoke inside my tent in my tiny mosquito filled room and started to pack up. I didn’t even have soles to buy breakfast or even a coffee. I wanted to get to Mancora and to a cash machine as soon as I could. I said goodbye to the English woman and took by bags down the stairs to where I had chained my bike to a tree. The front tire was flat. Of all the luck.

I unpacked my pannier with my tool bag and found inside it I had only a single spare tire. What had happened to the others? I recalled patching a number of tires one day perhaps a year ago. It didn’t matter. I pulled the tire off the rim, removed the punctured tube and  repacked the tire with the spare. Then I pumped up the tire. Nothing happened. The spare tire was flat too. Of all the luck.

I sat back down on the stone stair step and, sweat pouring off me now in the sunlight, removed the tire and pulled out the tube. At the bottom of my rear pannier I remembered I had another spare, still in its plastic package, that I had purchased in Argentina. I found it and tore the package open and discovered the tube was particularly wide. It was a BMX tube. I figured it would work and started to pack it into the tire on the rim. But the tire was too small to get around the rim. I’d pack one part and another part on the opposite side would come out. It kept pulling the bead of the tire off the rim. I kept trying but I couldn’t get the thing packed.

Hungry from no breakfast and my head aching from no coffee I became frustrated. I had no spare tire to put on the bike. I was going to have to stay another day in this dump at Punta Sal while my patches fixed on the tires. I would have to do work for the English woman to have something to eat and I would have to stay another night inside my tent in that awful room out back.

Then I got an idea. Perhaps the original flat tire could be re-inflated. I could ride and stop to pump it as I made my way to Mancora. I only needed to travel about 25km. I could push the bike to Mancora if it came to that. I remembered once riding in Argentina an entire day stopping every 5km to pump up a tire. So for the fourth time that morning I changed my tire. Sure enough the puncture on the tire was very small and the air only slowly escaped. It was so slow I was able to ride to Mancora without once re-inflating the tire. 

25 October 2012

Punta Sal 2

An older English woman ran the hospedaje at in Punta Sal. From the start she wanted to know how long I was staying and was insistent that I had arrived in paradise. I have seen many Pacific coast beach towns, twenty or more, on the ride down from Ecuador to Punta Sal and this one looked alright but I did not see a paradise. This English had been living in Punta Sal for 25 years and I was not going to challenge her on it. She was also very keen on my staying. Perhaps it was because it was still low season and I was the only one there. I didn’t know.

Even after I explained my money situation she offered that I could stay and paint the hospedaje and do work with her young Peruvian husband for my room and board. That afternoon I had helped her young Peruvian transport with his mototaxi a large log he had scavenged from the beach and it seemed there was a lot more work she wanted done. I expected the English would work me hard repairing the place.

I didn’t need the work though. I have money to pay for rooms and food. I also didn’t like the little shack I was staying in. There was no mosquito netting so I had to sleep inside my tent put up on the mattress. The young Peruvian husband would also smoke me out of my room every afternoon when he started up the fire in an outdoor furnace they had near the bathroom. Although I could hear the ocean and just see it from the hill the hospedaje was built upon, I wasn’t very near to the beach either.

I was paying 30 soles a night for this room when for 35 soles in Zorritos, where I had come from, I had had a nicer, mosquito-free room, the room cleaned and my sheets changed daily, cable TV, my own bathroom, and a breakfast in the morning that ranged from eggs to fish to shrimp. While you can never go back on a bike I was thinking perhaps I had made a mistake in leaving Zorritos too soon.

This English was also a quite large woman and she smoked and smelled funny. I liked her cooking but when I ate I tried not to think of her as the one who had cooked it. Her young Peruvian husband was a breeder of Peruvian hairless dogs and there was a baby one with pink skin and without a tail which followed me where I went biting at my heels. Even if I had the money to stay I wouldn’t want to.

Mancora, the next beach town south, I had been to a month earlier. It was a party town filled with gringos and hippies and music blasted from the bars late into the night. I was not looking forward to going there either. 

24 October 2012

Punta Sal

The road from Zorritos to Punta Sal ran mostly along the ocean, along sandy, scrub-covered cliffs. There were many hotels and there were many new houses being built in the poor pueblos. The Northern coast of Peru is in the process of being bought up and transformed.
It was only 50km to Punta Sal and I had planned to stay perhaps a week there, but there is no bank in the town. I rode back north to the pueblo of Las Canchas where I was told there was a ATM machine, only to find it had been turned off and the door to it padlocked. It had not been working for almost 2 weeks a woman told me. She didn’t know if it would ever work again. There were no banks in the town and I wondered what these people did for money. Perhaps they traded with each other and did not need currency at all. I had only enough money for two nights in Punta Sal and barely enough for food. I would have to go to Mancora, 20 km further down the coast.
Punta Sal was a strange place. Parts of it were still poor but there were several large resorts for the wealthy and in the center of the town had been built a strange, jaggedly shaped, postmodern white and red building with blue reflective glass. This monstrosity was at least 4 stories tall and towered over the town. I believed it was some sort of hotel. 
Perhaps because it was low season there also wasn’t a great selection in the few restaurants in the town. At one I asked about breakfast and was told there were only olives. I asked what would be that day's lunch menu and was again told there are only olives. I asked about coffee. They had coffee. Did I want coffee? Yes, I wanted coffee. Did I want olives with the coffee? It was that kind of town. Even if I did have money there was no store to buy food I could cook with my stove. I needed to leave for Mancora.

17 October 2012


Huaquillas was covered in a white cloud when I awoke. I thought for a moment I was back in the mountains. I brought the bike and gear down the three flights of stairs and packed it up in the lobby. I liked the hotel and might have stayed another day but there was only one bank in town and its cash machine did not accept my card. I was down to my last $5. I had to go to Peru.
I rode back out of town the way I had come to the border crossing I had gone over by bus a month earlier. I stamped out of Ecuador and into Peru and passed across a bridge celebrating the friendship of the two countries. It was a desolate landscape of sandy, burned-over country in both directions and on the Peruvian side the shoulder on the road turned to only a few inches of asphalt to the right of the white line.

Traffic was now passing me much closer and it brought me memories of riding the white line in Argentina. There the white line was painted directly at the edge of the asphalt and a honk from a truck driver meant you had to get off onto the gravel shoulder or be run down. This stretch of the Pan American in Peru at least gave me a couple inches of black to ride on.

The road passed through the sandy scrub and through an irrigated area of rice patties and some bananas and then passed nearer to the coast and I was now seeing the Pacific Ocean again. Along the water were a number of tiny, dusty pueblos and then I crossed over mountainous area, needing to downshift into my lowest gear to ascend it, and then a long run-out along the beach into the town of Zorritos, the town I had selected to stay a few nights in.


15 October 2012


The bugs fed on me during the night and I awoke in Pasaje bitten and scratching. I had accumulated an impressive number of bites on my legs and back during the last two nights. I planned to make Huaquillas, the last town in Ecuador before I crossed the frontier into Peru. I brought the bike and gear down the narrow stairs and packed it up on the street. I made a scene with this display and a number of people stopped to stare at me.
It was cool and overcast and the road passed through a corridor of banana trees before dead-ending at the Pan American Highway. On this stretch there was much construction and I rode much of the way on gravel and sand and slowly as the country began to change from bananas to pastureland and then to rolling scrub. This area was both a protected ecological zone as well as a military base and testing area. The military buildup here until the border was no doubt a result of the fighting over this area during the 1940s between Peru and Ecuador.
I stopped at a roadside comedor and a had a seco de pollo and then continued over the rolling country into the gritty little border town of Huaquillas. Along the main road into the center I saw a fine looking hotel, one that looked clean enough as to not have bed bugs, and I pulled in and inquired about rates. Rooms without air conditioning were $10 a night and I took one. It was a nice enough place that I decided to stay another night. I was now only a short ride from entering Peru.

14 October 2012


On the flats and at sea level I felt very strong. I had built up a great confidence in the mountains. I rode hard through pastureland and then the banana country began. Banana trees lined the road on both sides and there was the darkness of the mountains I had come down from to the East. It was overcast and there was some mist during the day. There wasn’t much to look at and I put my head down and rode.
After the excitement of the mountains this was boring riding. I remembered that this type of country and the cloudy days were why I had ridden up into the mountains. I was again thinking about getting out of Ecuador. This part of the country was particularly uninteresting to ride as well as poor and, according to what I had been hearing, also dangerous. At least along the northern coast of Peru there was sun and desert and beaches.
But I wasn’t looking forward to the thievery of Peru. I had seen northern Peru by bus and it was a sandy, hot, trash-littered desert pressed between the ocean and the mountains. There were tiny impoverished pueblos along the way and the beaches were filthy. I had also been told that criminals worked the road and sometimes in cohorts with the police. I thought about it while I rode and realized that outside of seeing the sun I wasn’t that excited to be going to Peru either.
I made the gloomy town of Pasaje just after lunch and took a room at one of the two hotels along a side street from the main plaza. The bed sheets smelled of mildew covered over with that awful spray disinfectant that is used in many hotels in Ecuador. I lay in bed awhile until I realized things were biting me. A second straight night I was going to sleep in a flea-ridden bed. I was still scratching my legs and back from the night before.
I got out of bed and made adjustments to my brakes and the front fender. I again removed the rear fender because it was rubbing against the wheel. Most of my gear was breaking down or worn out. There were tiny holes in the rain fly of my tent and the ground pad was punctured in many places; the grill on my camping stove had broken off and the rubber o-ring no longer sealed the gas well; my cycling gloves were torn and filled with holes; my rear panniers were held together with duct tape and extra screws; there was now more duct tape on my handlebars than handlebar wrap; the rubber soles of my shoes had large holes that leaked in water; my computer battery only lasted a few hours; the on/off button on my camera was damaged and the lens was scratched and filthy; and even the new cycling shorts I had spent $35 on in Guayaquil had ripped the first day I had worn them. The only thing working well these days was my body. That was due to the blessing of the Virgin at the Santuario de Las Lajas in Colombia. Perhaps I had made a mistake neglecting to pray for my gear to be fixed. But it was best not to ask too much of the Virgin.

13 October 2012


I went to open the door of the house thinking that if Betty came by while I was packing I could thank her. I tried the key but the bolt wouldn‘t withdraw. I tried more forcefully and could feel the key bending in the lock. I stopped. The bolt was jammed. I couldn’t get out of the house. Then I remembered the small open window in the bathroom. Perhaps I could get out through it.
Looking at the rectangular opening I saw the bike was going to be a problem. I removed the seat post and loosened the handlebar post, turning the bars lengthwise with the front wheel. I dropped my sleeping bag, ground pad and tent out through the opening. Then, standing on the toilet, I lifted the bike up and pushed it through. As I held the bike half out the opening an old man came walking up the gravel path. I held the bike half out the window, making no movement and he passed without seeing me. I dropped the bike onto the ground. Then I dropped my panniers and the seat post out through the opening and climbed up on the toilet and pulled myself up.
I was half out the opening and trying to get my leg through when I see another villager coming down the path. I froze. I did not know what these villagers would think of a strange gringo exiting a house through a bathroom window. But the man passes without seeing me and I am able to pull my leg through and fall out of the window onto my pile of gear. I was out.
I put the key in the lock on the outside and then reattached the seat post and realigned the handlebars and loaded up the bike. Then I slowly brought the bike down the steep hill and pushed it into the main plaza. I ordered a desayuno of eggs and bread and coffee at a restaurant and asked about the way out of the mountains to Naranjal. A man explained I had to ride back to the road I had turned off on to get to Molleturo. That meant I had to climb back the descent I had made into the pueblo. My map was wrong.
I went to pay for breakfast but the woman had no change for a $10 bill. She saw the $5 I had in my money belt and asked for it. It was a five I was 90% certain was a fake. That woman at the artesania stand in Cuenca who sold me my wool hat had snuck it in with a good $10 as change for the $20 bill I had given her. (I had broken one of my rules: only use big bills in supermarkets to avoid getting hit with fakes from street vendors.) I told the woman that the five was a fake. She looked at and disagreed with me. She said she would take it and gave me my change. I didn’t argue with her.
I started back up the steep climb to the main road, hoping I didn‘t run into Betty. I felt badly about her lock. What a bad impression I had made for future gringos arriving in Molleturo. I had busted a lock on a home, passed counterfeit currency and perhaps been seen crawling out a bathroom window. But the climb was brutal and the mistakes of Molleturo were soon behind me and I was back on the main road and still climbing. The sun was out and it was hot and I hoped I was going the right way.
Finally the climbing stopped and the descending began, a screaming descent that cut down the mountain. It was steep and technical and at this speed any error would mangle me or send me off the mountain. Suddenly I saw cones ahead and a man is standing at a turn watching me descend. Suddenly he fires up his hands for me to stop. I immediately think there must be a single lane around the curve and a bus or truck is coming up it. I hit the brakes hard, but I’m not slowing fast enough.
Why this idiot waited to tell me to stop I didn’t know. I put my feet down on the concrete but this elevates my center of gravity and the handlebars start shimmying hard and almost out of control. I am losing the bike and I can feel I’m about to go down. I’m nearly at the point of dumping it and going over the handlebars but with all my strength I steady the bars and slow to a stop near this fool standing on the curve. Ahead I see part of the concrete has been dug up and men are filling it in. That was what he had stopped me for. Why didn’t you tell me sooner, I ask him. You watched me coming down the mountain and said nothing. You’re supposed to guide the traffic, no? The man stares at me and shrugs.
Then there was more descending, bombing down the road carved into the mountainside. It was too fast and steep to stop for any pictures and it was too fast and dangerous to look out into the valleys for more than a glance. It was also a zone of landslides and there was much evidence of fallen rock along the road.

There was 40 kilometers of descending and then I hit the clouds. These were the same thick clouds I had ascended through a week earlier and the visibility was equally as poor and I took it very slowly, braking all the way, wearing my yellow rain jacket to be visible to traffic, and riding the shoulder dodging glass and fallen rock.
Then the clouds broke and I could see across the flat plain and after a long gradual descent I was back at sea level. The road wound through pastureland and ended at the Pan American Highway and I turned south. I continued another 30km through banana plantations to the gritty, impoverished town of Naranjal. I found a hotel with a room for $9 a night. My room and the whole town had a chemical smell to it like vinegar. I was also certain there were fleas in my bed. I could feel them biting me and decided to go out and look for a Tia supermercado. After receiving bad directions four times I found it and bought cereal, water and cookies. As I walked around everyone in the town stared at me. Naranjal was a dump even by Ecuadoria standards and I was happy to get back to my flea ridden room.


12 October 2012


I awoke at 5am in the refugio. It was still dark. During the night I had wrapped my emergency blanket around the exterior of my sleeping bag for additional warmth. It had been ineffective. My feet were still cold. I went back to sleep.

I awoke again after 6am. Daylight came through the cracks in the wooden slats of the refugio. Outside thick fog covered the lake and the brown, scrub-covered mountains. El Cajas is an eerie place, cold and wet and foggy, with hundreds of lakes formed from melting glaciers. I packed up the now dry tent and the rest of my gear and made myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen. I was cold and wanted to get riding to warm back up.

From Lago Toreadora there was 8 km of steep climbing. After a series of long switchbacks I arrived at a mirador called Tres Cruces, marked with three stone crosses, with a lookout over the valley behind and the valley ahead. At over 4000 meters it was the high point of the road’s climb and was the point of demarcation between the Andes region and the Pacific coast region of Ecuador.

From here the road began a furious descent and I was scorching down the side of the mountain, aggressively leaning into every cutback and down, down, wearing my wool sweater with my rain jacket zipped up against the cold, my wool hat pulled low on my head and descending fast.
I saw a sign for a restaurant ahead and since I had eaten only a package of cookies and a coffee I slowed and pulled off onto a gravel road that led to a stone building. Two girls came out to greet me and led me inside a conical hut built of large stones. Inside was a fireplace with a big fire going and room for two tables and I took a seat. It felt wonderful to be out of the cold and to be near a fire. The girls brought out sweet coffee and hot rolls with cheese and a plate of steaming hot maize with melted cheese. Then an old man came in with a guitar and began to play and sing and the girls sang along with him.
A young man came in with a thermos and offered me a glass of clear, hot liquid. I asked what it was. Hot aguardiente, he told me, and we each drank a glass full. It tasted delicious. I sat down by the fire and we talked and listened to the old man sing.

After I had eaten and warmed up by the fire the descent continued and the scrub and grassland covered mountains gave way to green and trees and the clouds broke and it was warm in the sun. The road cut across the mountains, always fast descending, and far below was a river bed.

There were three different roads that descended out of the mountains that were indicated on my map, all near the pueblo of Molleturo. I never saw the first of these indicated roads and came to a turnoff for Molleturo. It confused me because the pueblo should have been along the main road. The map indicated I should pass through it. In any case, I figured I could stay in the town. There wasn’t anything else up here in the mountains and so I turned off and descended a series of steep cutbacks into the little town and arrived at the town square.
There was a woman exiting a shop and I stopped her and asked about a hotel. There was nothing, she told me. I asked if there was someplace I might put up my tent. She smiled and said she owned an empty house that I might stay the night in and told me to follow her. She led me up a brutally steep gravel road and I pushed the bike up it behind her. I needed to stop three times to rest before we reached a white cinderblock house. Her name was Betty and she gave me the key and welcomed me to Molleturo. I asked if I could give her some money and she refused.

The one thing that bothered me about the house was the windowless opening in the bathroom. All the other windows were glassed in except for the bathroom. I figured the town was probably safe but still didn’t like the idea of someone being able to come in through the narrow opening while I was sleeping. I devised a fix with my bungee cords wrapping them around the bike tightly and stringing them to the door handle. The bathroom door could no longer be opened by someone coming in through the open window.
I cooked up some pasta for dinner and afterwards made myself a coffee and studied the map. I still couldn’t figure out why I had gotten off the main road to get to Molleturo. I looked at the map until darkness came and then lay down inside the tent. My computer battery was dead and so I lay there zipped up inside my sleeping bag listening to the children playing outside. I heard someone at the front door and then the lights came on in the house. Outside was Betty. She had come to turn on the electricity for me. I thanked her again for her generosity and again tried to offer her some money which she again refused.
With electricity I was able to finish reading Hamsun’s Mysteries on my computer. It was a strange and exciting book and I was sad that it ended. For weeks now I had been reading a little of the strange life of Nagel every day until my computer battery died. But I was excited to have four more of Hamsun's books yet to read. Then there were all the others that had not yet been translated from Norwegian. Perhaps they would be translated or perhaps I would learn Norwegian to read them. Hamsun was that good.
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