29 September, 2012

Day 87, 312km: To Cuenca and planning

I'm continuing my descent of Ecuador. Yesterday came the realization that we're soon in October. Plus I'll probably need 10 days or so to figure out what to do with the bike and where to sell it.
So that leaves about 60 days of driving. A quick look at Google tells me we're talking about 12-14,000km for the itinerary below.

October - November ... feasible?
Which means an average of 220km a day. Tight. Do-able but tight. And that's excluding Brazil, another 3000km (270km a day). So I've made rough plans. Peru, 2 weeks. Bolivia, 1 week. Chile, 2 weeks. Argentina, 2 weeks. +1 week spare. Let's see how it goes.

I know these calculations might sound weird, talking about countries, places and people in terms of thousands of kilometers and average distances a day. The thing is though, I'd rather not be somewhere in the middle of Patagonia when the time comes to get back to work!

Start of the day, altitude 3600m, temperature 9C
Today was spent in the Ecuadorian Andes. Great day, mostly sunny and amazing landscapes.

Created with www.dermandar.com
This is where I decided to plant today's restaurant. The view was awesome!
It's cold up there
The moustache is slowly but surely coming back. Right now it's still not in the "ridiculous" stage as it was through Central America. Soon.
My companion for today's lunch were a kid and his dog. The place I stopped was next to a water well, used by the village below. So the kid was spending his Saturday afternoon carrying water to and from the well in a 10L tank. I guess that was his lucky day as he earned chocolate biscuits and the chance to rev the bike's engine. He was so excited doing it!

More mountains!
The road was excellent, the most tortuous section was 90km in length, 20km as the crow flies. Lots of fun, and not much traffic.
Cool mountain pastures up there

By now avid readers (come on I'm sure there are at least one or two) will probably have noticed that I much prefer the mountains to the sea. Actually I haven't packed a swimming suit. I know some of you who will fall from their chair and others who will sigh loudly reading this. You should know though that water contains a lot (really a lot) of dihydrogen monoxide, a powerful solvent which is fatal if inhaled. So I avoid that stuff.

Farming at 3000m+ ... people here are in shape!
Something about the grass being greener on the other side I guess, as I was raised in a coastal town. I tried looking for studies on that topic but couldn't find any (the travel industry is pretty good at spamming google so searches on travel preferences are really hard.) Assuming that there are four types of landscapes: urban, farming plains, seaside and mountains I'm sure there's a relation between the "raised in" landscape and the "rather go to for holidays" landscape.
So daydreaming actually came back today. The road was taking me all the way around a wide valley and that was a 16km detour to go across a 2km wide valley. Which got me thinking why not building a bridge instead? The Millau viaduct has a similar size, but it's really an old fashioned bridge.
Why not suspending the bridge from balloons instead? Kind of like a pontoon, but for the air.

Cuenca downtown, very pretty town
So while I was getting lost in the calculations I reached the city of Cuenca.
I stopped when I figured we'd need a 30m wide balloons every 10m ...
Although that'd be so cool. For those who want to continue the research, the calculation was:
At full load, 10m of the two-lanes bridge would weight 80T (2*30T trucks, 5T of cables to anchor the balloons, 15T of deck - that's completely arbitrary)
80T requires roughly 80*1000 cubic meters of helium
Using spheric balloons (best volume/surface ratio) that's roughly a 30m radius

So, back to tangible realities please find my first HD (woooaaaw) video! As you can see I'm still struggling with the editing and the aspect ratio is slightly messed-up. I'll try to improve on the next one.

That's an interesting piece of decoration
After circling around downtown a bit I eventually found a fairly priced hotel with a private parking. The Hotel Principe (apparently they didn't pay the website bill! http://www.hotelprincipecuenca.com/.)

Tomorrow I'll cross to Peru (see rough plan above!)

Cheers everyone hope you had a great weekend.

28 September, 2012

Day 86, 400km: Officially south

Today is a big milestone! I'm now in the Southern Hemisphere!

Ipiales/Rumichaca border
The day started with the crossing of the border into Ecuador.
Google maps, Garmin and Open Street Maps do not have much for this border so in case that's useful for someone else, the GPS coordinates below.
  • Ipiales customs/immigration is at 0.81484N 77.66280W
  • Rumichaca customs/immigration is at 0.81433N 77.66498W

The border was very easy and quiet. Just a lot of people on the Ecuador side so I spent the "regular" two hours there. I didn't see any other tourist, maybe I was there too early.

Nigth club estrip tis!
First building on the Ecuador side of the border. Probably a landmark of Ecuador fine dining and dancing. That or a brothel.

Welcome to Ecuador!
A Harley Davidson rider told me in Popayan that the roads in Ecuador were great. I didn't really understand if he meant that the landscape would be great or if the road surface would be great.
Well I can now say that both are true. The roads appear to be brand new, excellent conditions, signage and marking.
Oh and cheap too, highway tolls are (all) $0.20.

Bienvenidos a Bolivar with Cro-Magnon and Jesus. Science and church go hand in hand!
A few hills after that wonderful town sign I was stopped by Ecuador policemen. There were searching cars by the side of the road. A guy in his thirties with a gangster face proceeded to question me, all the while chewing gum like a cow.
Since everything was in order, he made me open the luggage (panniers) and proceeded to empty one of the two panniers on the ground. Satisfied with his utterly useless search he gave me my documents back, I packed and left. Jackass.

Impressive views along the way to Quito
I had three options planned today depending on the road condition. Quito, Ambato and Rio Bamba. I was in Quito around 2PM so I decided to stop there for lunch and continue on my way south.

Diesel was even cheaper at $0.25/L !
Soon we will be selling couplers in here! Seriously similar ads are all over Central America and ... Ecuador
I was pretty excited today as I knew I'd be crossing the equator. I was nervously checking the GPS, waiting for "the moment" where I would leave the northern hemisphere. The last few kilometers before that mark, I was cursing at the road each time we were heading north for a few turns, I want to go south!

Crossing the equator ... done
I think the equator is a pretty universal landmark. Borders aren't made to last. Tropics location vary slightly with Earth's dance around the Sun, the Greenwich meridian is artificial too. But the equator ... its here to stay!
So it felt good knowing that I made it here all the way from Vancouver.

Nothing worth noting on that spot though
Since I had some time to spare I took a back-road to get into Quito, which is probably why there wasn't any monument or even just a stone to celebrate the passing of the Equator. Doesn't matter, still did it!

Quito downtown. Not bad actually!
The place where I stopped for lunch was a in "hotel" area and there were quite a few tourists. That was a surprising change after Colombia where I barely saw other foreigners. 
While having lunch I heard English, lifted my head and saw half a dozen tourists entering the restaurant. They wore trekking shoes, had backpacks filled with water, "adventure jackets" (you know the kind with dozens of pockets) and bucket hats.

I nodded to them and their reaction was surprising. 

Imagine Indiana Jones on his way to the Lost Temple. Sweat rolls down his forehead as he cuts through the jungle with his machete. He is on the lookout for headhunters. Some noise on his left! He immediately unleashes his whip, ready for the unthinkable.
And out of the jungle comes a man dressed with a suit, who salutes Indiana and gives him directions.
Indiana would no doubt be utterly disappointed and question his whole adventure.

They probably felt something similar when they saw me in the restaurant, the only foreigner, reading the news on his phone. They looked disappointed and left the place. I saw them a few moments later when I left the restaurant, they were in the most packed and darkest restaurant in the area. Guess they found their Lost Temple.

A unknown park nearby the hotels area
I left quickly after lunch as massive dark clouds gathered above the city. I red before that Quito's weather is unpredictable well I can confirm that. 30 minutes before the rain was the blue sky pictured above.
Maybe that's due to the city's topology. It's actually scattered over maybe 4 or 5 different valleys. I guess it's considered a single city since there's an urban continuity but it really feels like different towns when going out of a valley and into another.

Ambato, perched atop a hill
After a short drive (on still excellent roads) I was in Ambato, a city spread on top of a hill that reminds me of Manizales in Colombia. Made it to the hotel before night (!) yeah and took some rest before heading out for a short walk.

Pretty cool view of the city. In the center is a large statue of Jesus, his hands opened towards the city.
That's all for today!

Tomorrow off to somewhere in Ecuador, I have no idea yet.


Day 85, 300km: Southern Colombia

Ipiales was a nice stop for the night. The night was cold! I haven't seen a heater yet in South America, I guess people have a higher level of tolerance than in Europe. Exiting the warm comfort of the blanket was however rendered easier knowing that I'd spent my day travelling in the southern Colombian Andes. Mountains!

It's dry! Looks like Utah
Now the big surprise was the weather. Hot (went up to 38C and stayed over 30C most of the day) and dry! Can you believe it? Not what I pictured for Southern Colombia.

I guess there is a wet season judging by the river banks. No signs of rain however!
Police presence is quite strong in Colombia and I have seen police checkpoints several times every day. The army also is very present and gives the thumbs up to everyone on the road, that's pretty cool. Really makes drivers feel safe.
The police is maybe less friendly, although they usually wave me through. Well not today.

A checkpoint was setup on top of a hill just before a sharp curve. The speed limit where they were was 30kph. I was probably doing 80 when I saw them and tried breaking "casually" so that the bike's front wouldn't dive and reveal that I was really driving too fast.
Still, this time I was invited to park by the side of the road.

There were 3 officers. A young one and two older. The young one approached to check my bike and papers. That's good news as rookies are usually easier to handle.
He proceeded to go through the checklist he probably learnt at school a few months back. He must have been a good student as he's the first policeman who noticed that the passport I give is an old, cancelled, useless one.
So I proceeded to give him my current passport, and he continued to check my paperwork. I didn't have any insurance but apparently that didn't matter.

Since everything was in order, he tried another approach. (The conversation went in English, he spoke fairly well)

Him "Did you know how fast you were driving?"
Me "30kph senor"
Him "No you were driving faster, too fast. Here the speed limit is 30kph."
Me "Yes senor, I was driving at 30kph."
Him "No you were going faster"
Me "I don't think so, but if I did I'm sorry."

He looked back at my papers, searching for inspiration. After a minute or so he talked again, this time more aggressively.

Him "Why do you travel alone?"
Me, surprised "Sorry what?"
Him "Why not travel with your family?"
Me, laughing "Well I ..."
Him, getting angry "Why not travel with your wife? Huh? Why alone? Why?"
Me, looking at the ground, in a low voice "My wife ... is dead, senor."

(I have obviously never been married, even in Vegas)

He said something that I didn't get, probably "Sorry" (or "f*** you") and looked back at my documents. My answer seemed to have destabilized him. One last glance at my passport and he gave everything back reluctantly.
I put my helmet back on with a huge grin. I'm not sure what he was looking for, probably just doing his job, I don't think there was an intention to extort money. Still, a fun time.

Dry andes
Back in the mountains, I decided to setup today's restaurant at the spot pictured above. The heat and the road made me tired. Some sections are filled with potholes, potholes that are filled with sand. Probably an appropriate solution to limit the damage trucks make but for motorcycles that's rather dangerous especially in the middle of a curve.

It was hot, I do look miserable when hot (not only though), like an old dog walking with towards the shadow with his head down.

Nearing Pasto (50km from the border with Ecuador) the landscape finally turned green again. The temperature dropped around 15C. One of these days where there are no appropriate way to dress.

The city of Pasto. Glad I didn't stay there for the night.
Gas in Colombia is around 10,000COP/Gallon (1.15EUR/L) for Premium. In Ecuador it's much cheaper as we shall see tomorrow.
So other travelers need to anticipate the fact that gas pumps near the border have no regular nor premium, most offer only diesel! Make sure to fill-up in Popayan.
What's funny is that there is still a regular number of gas stations. The most boring job in the world, working for a gas station with no gas.

Las Lajas sanctuary, nested in the valley

I arrived in Ipiales around 6H after leaving from Popayan, so I had time ahead to visit the city. Back in Bogota with Amelie and Daniel we played a game of Colombian Monopoly and Las Lajas was pictured. Naturally I headed there when I saw signs along the road.
(Who needs Lonely Planet when you have Monopoly?)

Someone must have lost a bet
Walking down the hill towards the church, I kept wondering who got the idea of building a church across a river valley in the middle of nowhere. I guess some night a couple monks had too much beer and one ended up loosing a bet which would cost him the rest of his life building this sanctuary. That or the Virgin Mary appeared, I guess.
Ipiales church on the main square
After this visit I went into town (oh yeah) looking for a place for the night. Ended up in a hotel nearby the main square. Had dinner and off to bed early for the next day's border crossing.

Wish everyone a great weekend ahead,

26 September, 2012

Day 84, 120km: Popayan, la positive attitude

Today I managed to get breakfast! The view there was amazing as you can see below.

Parking inside the hotel? Try to do that with a car ... the place I ended up in was very "hospital like" if that means anything. Clean, spotless white rooms and walls. Pillows with the hotel's logo printed on the cover (those who checked-in at Bangkok Nursing Hospital will know what I mean). I was in the "surgery district" apparently. The crowd at the hotel was composed of young women with bandages on their noses and probably in other regions that I didn't have access to.
My breakfast buddies were two young couples from I-forgot-where "a 3 horas de Cali" who (if I understood correctly) came here to offer plastic surgery to their (not-so) loved ones. Cute!

Today I intended to go to Pasto. Google said 7H from Cali. People I asked gave me various answers, from 5H (pointing at the bike "con esa moto? se va rapido") to 8H (me: "la ruta es bueno?" "mas o menos ..." with a grin).
Not wanting to end-up at night once more, I re-routed for the closest city on my way south, Popayan. Plus it looked beautiful. A short 2 hours drive away, which meant I had time to shop for some groceries and various bike related stuff in Cali. Plus there was a Carrefour...

Tollways in Colombia
 Now you might remember how to go through a tollway "the Mexican way"? Stick to your right, avoid the barrier and any staff who might be in your way.
Well Colombians understood that very well and decided that highways would be free for motorcycles! Viva!
So there's a lane on the far right of the tollway only for us two-wheeled people.

Hill road on a sunny day = smile
Finally! Something I hadn't seen since ... well since Guatemala now that I think about it. Something that is vital to maintain a smile on my face. Something that instantly gives "la banane" under the helmet.
Well paved, wide mountain roads on a sunny day. After 3,000km of relatively shitty / extremely winding roads that was a blessing.

Reminded me of Thailand's north between Pai and Mae Hong Son. Yeah I know everything reminds me of Thailand.

Sorry for the power line. Still a nice landscape
Lots of farming/lumbering going on. Cute little villages. Great roads and unreasonable speeds.

Lunch stop, the view is pictured above!
Having stocked-up on food, I had all options available for lunch break. Another thing that puts "la banane" under the helmet is seeing a nice spot and deciding "I'm going to put today's restaurant right here" and just park on the side of the road.
So after this 3 weeks break I'm slowly but surely remembering all the little things that I unconsciously took the habit of doing and have to keep on doing to be enjoy the journey. Breakfast, music, "restaurant planting". Daydreaming will surely come back soon as well.

Popayan historical district, "the white city"
 Quickly made it to Popayan. The city's historical district is pretty with all these white houses.

The main plaza
Wandering around the streets, I remembered the wise words of Lorie, a French contemporary philosopher. "Il arrive parfois que ton moral se casse. Pour ca moi j'ai trouve un remede efficace. La positive attitude." Translation is futile, meaning transcends language with such profound lyrics.

The crowd gathers for dinner
So that's how I was reminded of the last item on my "good mood checklist." Wandering on foot through the city where I'm staying for the night.
So I now feel ready for the journey ahead!

After being back on the road, I now feel back on track.
Cheers everyone,

PS: I don't think I have talked about food before but here they have some empenadas (small pies) with potato, peanuts and spicy sausage served in banana leaves. Delicious. Empenadas pipian. 

25 September, 2012

Day 83, 305km: Steady

Woke up. Missed breakfast. Ha! The days where I woke up before the hotel breakfast seem so far away now. I'll have to bring them back, and fast.

Incredible landscape up there in the mountains
Leaving Manizales, I was in coffee-land. "Eje cafetero", the coffee triangle. Incredible landscape and mountains again. Now I now what a coffee tree looks like. And that it's called a coffea.

Garmin, or how to turn 15km into 45

 That's how the day started. Great curvy mountain road along the coffee plantations. Not quite the 15km highway it looked to be on the GPS.

Take a deep breath and relax
 I was still warming up. It's funny how after this 3 weeks break (I mean it's not that long!) some things are still fully automatic (packing, bike checklist, jacket checklist) and some things take some time getting used to again (taking pictures, proper planning, enjoying the day!)
Still, I managed to score an order + basic conversation with the waitress in Spanish today so that's a little victory. The food was even good!

My room for the night ... Thibault and Amelie I hope you're proud
I was in zombie mode today. Realized in the evening that maybe it's music I'm missing. Anyway. Made it to Cali, checked into my room "Pon Pon".
I'll try to sleep early, wake up early and generally be back into "going south" mode!


Day 82, 300km: Here we go again

I feel like I have to learn to do this again! My navigation was lacking, my route planning sucked and the hotel plans were a total failure.
So that's how being back on the road went!

Bye bye Bogota
 I left from Bogota at the somewhat morning-ish time of 11am. It was hard saying no to a nice breakfast with friends. I remembered at that time how I felt when I left from Bangkok, then from my family in France before starting the trip. Excited, scared, anxious, but also eager to see the Americas!
Now I have to say that it's way easier starting a trip in British Columbia than it is in Colombian Colombia. And I'm fully aware of that fact so I set the "anxious" dial a notch up.

Oh so THAT'S why they were honking!
 All in all it's great to be back on the road. The family events were still in my mind all day long and that's on what most of my "available brain time" went (when I wasn't focused on avoiding potholes, trucks swerving in my lane without giving a f*** or simply making sure the motorcycle didn't end-up rubber side up.)
Which meant I didn't pay much attention to what was around me at first.

So when a car behind me started honking, I thought little of it. Looked into the mirrors to try and understand what it was about but still didn't have a clue. A few moments later the car passed me and a lady in the passenger set told me "spanishspanish PLAQUA spanishspanish". Now a plate is called "plaque" in French. So I pulled over anxious that I had no license plate anymore.

But it was there, hanging on by a single screw, still doing the job well like the devoted, efficient plate it it. Kind of how I was on the bike. Not 100% but hanging-on.
Little shack that I thought was abandoned until kids came to say hi
 While fixing it, a couple kids came out of the house pictured above. I was pretty sure to be alone on the side of the road and they scared me. That made them laugh, at least I'm sure I made their day! We exchanged a few sentences in my still broken - slightly improving Spanish and I was back on the road.

Entering the coffee valley
And what a road it was. My destination for the day was Manizales, then Pereira if time allowed. Well I didn't anticipate at all that the road would be so ... mountainous. I mean it was great but so twisty that I averaged 40kph at most. The day started at 2600m in Bogota, then down to 1000m-ish, then back at 2000m in Manizales.

The last kilometers to Manizales where really bad. At night, with rain, by 15C, in mountain roads washed by mud and landslides. I'm sure there was another road to enter the city, that one really sucked. So instead of making it into Manizales around 4pm as planned, I was there at 6.30pm.
The hotel I looked-up the day before was actually outside the city itself, another hour away from the city center where I was.

Stopped somewhere in downtown in a cybercafe to find another hotel. When I came back to the bike, there was a crowd gathered around it (there are a lot of motorcycles in Colombia, most if not all around <250cc). This is the first time in Latin America that people told me "Hey that's a BMW F800GS, cool bike!"

It was late and I wanted to check-in, shower and sleep so I said bye to the crowd (picture Mr. Bean getting into his Mini and leaving his parking spot with great pain). Found a hotel after more searching and cursing at Garmin for being a piece of shit (I think I'm going to try free maps instead of the Garmin one I bought.)

Then off to bed, I felt exhausted like when I first started the trip. I have to get the rhythm going again!


Day 81, 0km: Ready to go

Spent a week in Bogota after coming back. Thanks Daniel and Amelie for taking me around it was great being with you guys.

Bogota's Millionarios scored!
That was a very good time in Bogota, I think I can say I now know most restaurants and bars of the "Zona T" thanks to Daniel.

The beard is gone, couldn't go back with it ;)
It was hard to go back on the road after those 3 weeks of break. Mentally first (I love being cozy in an apartment as much -if not more- as anyone) and physically too, stopping gave my body room to declare itself tired.
So on that Sunday I decided that the next day, Monday 24th I would be back on the road. There was no particular reason, I just had to keep moving!

We bid farewell with Daniel, Amelie and Daniel's mother who arrived for vacation. Have a good time all of you, you deserve it!

Now back on the road, headed south. I'll try to be in Quito, Ecuador by the end of the week.

Cheers everyone, sorry if I turned some coffee breaks into disappointing moments. 
And don't worry anonymous, I'll be back with shitty news and horror stories soon!