South America, July 2014 – April 2015

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Photos: Colombia, July 2014 | Ecuador, August 2014 | Peru, 16 Aug – 16 Oct 2014 | Bolivia, 17 Oct – 16 Nov 2014 | Chile, Dec 2014 – Jan 2015

Video: Colombia & Ecuador, August 2014 | Peru, 16 August – 16 October 2014 | Entrevista con Sin Barreras, TV Peru Oct 2014 | Cuzco & Macchupicchu, 1-8 ottober 2014 | Bolivia, 17 Oct – 16 Nov 2014 | Chile, Dec 2014 – Jan 2015

1672nd day, Trujillo (S8°07.283′ W79°01.934′), Perù, August 31, 2014

map Colombia-EcuadorChronicle 114, Trujillo, Perù, August 31, 2014 08:00 pm – On June 21, 2014 at 5:30 in the morning, when the taxi that would have taken me to Havana airport did not show up, I went to the empty La Enfanta avenue and I stopped a Buick of mid-50s. I agreed with the driver to take me to the airport for a price much lower than the official taxis and I loaded the cardboard with the bike on the rear seats where it fitted perfectly in all its length, certainly the widest car I travelled on! Behind me, in the queue for check-in at the airport, there stood Kim, a Korean boy, who also had a bicycle, and was going to Bogotá. He begun his journey on two wheels in Los Angeles with destination the Patagonia and then Europe. The take-off was scheduled for 8:00 am but at ten o’clock we were informed that due to technical problems the flight was postponed to 8:00 pm. As it always happens in the hours of waiting one makes acquainted with fellow travellers united in the same fate. So I chatted with Sakura and Akan, two Japanese girls in my same flight. The decade I spent in Asia makes me feel closer to people with almond-shaped eyes that to my fellow Indo-Europeans.

All four of us, plus two bikes, landed on Colombian soil at night and we took a taxi-van to the hostel Sayta, in the ancient district of Santa Fe. The next morning at breakfast I found out that the hostel is a meeting point for oriental travellers and I was the only white among a dozen guests. My intention was to stop only for one day but, unpacking the bicycle, I winced when I saw that the rear dérailleur hanger was conspicuously bent as a result of strong pressure in the plane. The curvature was so pronounced that on low gears the lower pulley touched the spokes of the wheel, for the time being I could not go anywhere. When the panic passed, I asked for help to cyclists in the city through the site warmshowers.org. The first to answer was David, freshly graduated in physics who lives with his mother in the luxurious area of Chapinero. I was his guest for five nights while the bicycle was at his mechanic, who did a great job because the dérailleur itself was slightly bent too.

Cascata ColombiaDuring my stay in Bogotá I went around with my host meeting other young graduated. On one of these occasions, a friend of him was telling me of a young Australian couple who had lived in Canada and crossed Mexico by bicycle. I told her that eight months earlier in Monterrey, Mexico I met an Australian couple who had done exactly the same thing and were heading to South America. From a cursory physical description it could have been the same pair and the more details were added, the greater seems the possibility of being them, until it became an irrefutable certainty that they were the same two Australians. After a few phone calls, a meeting was arranged in a bar nearby and we all headed to this amazing coincidence, incredulous of how small this world is. When we saw the taxi with my possible friends, we all held our breath for a moment until when the car-door opened and I did not recognize neither the girl nor her partner! After all, there are 23 million Australians and this planet is not so small …

David asked me to stay for another week, when himself would have left for a cycling tour of Colombia and Panama, because my presence improved his relationship with his mother, creating a buffer that reduced friction with her. Also his mother, a pensioner who had worked at managerial level for public and private companies, told me I could stay as long as I wanted because I kept her company and her conversations were really interesting and instructive. But, by its very nature, a journey must continue, so on the morning of June 28, accompanied by David to the south-eastern door of Bogotá, I attacked the Andes central cordillera.

The Colombian capital, although it is at 2,700 meters, lies in a valley surrounded by a ring of mountains higher than 3000 metres and that must be overcome before going down a slope for a good forty kilometres. So I got to 700 metres of La Mesa, where I spent the night, and then went up to 1300 metres of Ibaqué, stopping there for two days as a guest of Tiena and her husband, who just days before hosted Kim, the Korean guy met in Cuba.

I know that the winners of the bicycle competition Giro d’Italia in 2014 were Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran, only because I am in their native land. Here I learned that they trained climbing and, I presume, descending along the 45 kilometres of road that on July 4 I started to climb. This section of the highway is called “la linea”, but the name does not correspond to the fact because it is not straight at all. On the contrary, it is an endless series of curves on the side of the mountain covered in lush equatorial vegetation, that gets steeper up to the pass at 3300 meters. Here for the first time I really felt the effect of the rarefied air, breathing deeper and heavier. The natives of these lands have developed two genetic mutations that help them to live comfortably at high altitude: a particularly expanded ribcage in relation to the rest of the trunk, which gives them that appearance of being a bit ‘squat; and a greater number of red blood cells allowing the blood to carry more oxygen to the organs. The other effect of altitude is the low air temperature, and although this is the Equator where the sun is really at peak, it does not exceed 10 degrees Celsius during the day.

chiesa notteWhen people ask me whether it is tiring to bike on a mountain, I replay: only the uphill, the downhill is restful! And so it was descending the Western Cordillera until the city of Armenia, where I stopped one night by Hernando, who also hosted Kim the week before. From that point on, the Highway 25 goes into a long, flat valley, arriving at Palmyra, where I paused for one night at Ramiro’s, a twenty years old mountain bike champion who competes, and often wins, competitions around the country. That night, guests were also a couple of Canadian cyclists from Vancouver heading to the Patagonia. Two adventurous types who in the past skirted the coast of British Columbia as far as Alaska southern islands with two canoes, stopping to sleep on beaches and eating only fish caught during the day. But what I find most remarkable is that they travelled overland from Cape Town to Cairo, across the entire African continent without flying, I would be afraid to do it!

Matteo Tricarico - Cali ColombiaThe next stop was Cali, reached on July 8, where I stopped for three days and was forced to buy a new pair of eyeglasses because the pestiferous dog of my hosts, Carlos and Paula, chewed my old ones. The good news is that the eye examination did not result much difference from the last one dating back to seven years ago. At Carlo’s I met Angel and Martix, a pair of Spanish cyclo-travellers. During the winter he performs as a mime and clown in a Swiss circus and in summer they cycle around South America, stopping in rural schools and centres for destitute children to perform funny shows.

On July 12, I arrived in Popayan, called the White city because the houses in the colonial historical centre are completely painted in white lime, except for some details of palaces and churches, such as stucco or doors frames, which are varnished in vivid colours. Almost every shop-sign is made of brass, instead of neon, creating an atmosphere and feeling of old, as it was in the past when everything was less bright and more mysterious.

chiesa bianca23.5 Kilometres south of the White City, at 11:30 am, on the main Colombian national highway 25, for the first time in my life I had an experience that I would had rather avoided: I was robbed. They were two boys, maybe not even 20 years old, on a scooter. They stopped me between two curves that did not allow the visibility for more than a few tens of metres. The older one pulled out of his belt a black automatic pistol, he showed it to me and said “camara”. At that point I realized that it was a robbery and not the usual meddlers who often approach me with questions. I opened the bag at the handlebar pulling out the camera, while the older took off the MP3 player that I kept attached to my arm. The younger one saw that in the bag there was also the video camera and tried to take it but I stopped him. At this point, the older again pulled out his gun and pointed it at me face at 30 centimetres distance, while the younger took possession of the video camera and the phone. Then, they looked around and jumped on the motorbike, before disappearing behind the curves. I was still pretty shocked, or rather trying to fully understand what had just happened, when cars begun to pass again. The entire robbery lasted no more than fifty seconds. Everything went incredibly fast, quick as a blink of an eye during which the road was deserted, although I believe that the coming of cars would have only postponed the armed robbery some other point further into the mountains.

I like to think, and I always say, that 99% of humanity is good, and that the task of the police is to protect her from that other 1%! Unfortunately, here in the New World I have to revise these statistics because personal safety in these countries is a real and daily problem. In all my life this was the first time I had a gun pointed at my face, but all the locals I met have been victim of one or more violent crimes with firearms or knifes. On October 5, in Peru, there will be local elections and in the slogans of all parties stand out the words “más seguridad”, a sign that the problem is tangible and strongly felt by the inhabitants. They even advised me to keep ready a small amount of money, around $ 20, no less because it would be offensive and not credible and more it would be too much!, ready to give in the likely event of being “asaltado.”

farfalla marroneThe reasons for this criminal violence are countless and start from the pre-Columbian cultures with their human sacrifices, throughout the whole bloody history of colonization with slavery and the dehumanization of indigenous peoples. Until today when Maoist guerrillas, especially in Colombia, have been in conflict with government for decades, so spreading the use of firearms. There is to add the modern abyssal economic and social inequality, lack of education and the violent culture presented by the media, the believe of the inhabitants of the third world in general that a westerner is always richer than them, and many times the are right. Let’s also consider that these two young robbers perhaps were coming from a family in degraded social and financial conditions. And even supposing that they were under the influence of heavy drugs, so abundant in these parts, I can almost understand them, but certainly not justify them because certainly they did not do it for hunger. I am sure that the money they will earn from selling the camera, I do not think that they will use it to make movies !, will be used for purposes far more trivial but more enjoyable.

When that first moment of shock passed and I started to think straight, I continued for a couple of kilometres until a small shop and I called the police who asked me what clothes they were wearing. To make an official report I would have to retrace my steps to the station for about fifteen kilometres. This crime will never be recorded in the official statistics of Colombia, but only in my own. I gave up any hope of seeing my stuff and with it the videos of Cuba and Colombia that I did not copy to my computer. In the end, the real loss that I suffered is the sentimental one and the fact that there will be a hole in the visual narrative of the journey.

andrea ivan con mia biciAnother interesting stop was the city of Pasto, reached after 200 kilometres of ups and downs between 600 and 2800 metres, on a road cut into the rock of the mountain. Here the slopes are very steep and from valley to valley vegetation goes from being green and lush, for the presence of a small river, to arid and thorny where the water does not get. Long gullies are almost bare of flora, with the sole exception of succulent and dry thorny shrubs, while others, at lower altitude, are more lush with low trees like high bushes. But there are also thick forests of pine and birch trees along the slopes of Cerro Morazurco. In the city I was a guest of Andrea and Ivan. He is currently completing his Ph.D. in literature on “Las autobiografías de Escritores”, analysing how these authors write of themselves. She runs a company of city cycling postal service. They are two cyclo-travellers preparing for a trip to Ushuaia starting in September. I acquired a new Pansonic camera, waterproof up to five meters that records both videos in Full HD and pictures with 16 Mega-pixel, thus reducing to a single device videos and photos, which means less volume and weight. In fact, the robbers lightened me in more than one way.

On the morning of July 19, I left Pasto in the company of Ivan and Andrea who wanted to spend a night camping in Pilcuan valley, about seventy kilometres south of the city. The first half of the way is a climb from 2600 to 3300 meters and down to just 1800, where we stopped for the night putting our tents just a few meters from the banks of a Rio Guaitara tributary. We were surrounded by a thick forest of coniferous trees mixed with other vegetation typically equatorial. The next morning we parted, I continued toward the nearby border with Ecuador and they went up the slope of mount Navarrete to return home.

quitoThat same day I reached the city of Ipiales, the last on Colombian soil, from where it begins the true Andean culture as shaped by the Inca empire. The border of Ecuador is located at 2800 meters of altitude, between mountains covered with forests of pine and fir trees. Without realizing it, I crossed the line of Equator, thus passing to the southern hemisphere and continued along the Pan-American to the capital city Quito. , which I reached on the afternoon of July 25th. Here I stayed with Diego and his wife, both cyclists enthusiasts who are parents of a nine years old girl and a seven years boy. I stopped for only two nights with them and I took a full day to visit the cit centre, which is rightly a World Heritage Site for its magnificent colonial civil and religious architecture. I headed south on the 35 and I was a guest of Bruno in Ambato. Burno lived mostly in Brazil, his mother’s country of origin, and here he runs two restaurants left him by his father. Bruno travelled extensively in the Americas and Ambato, where he has been living only for a year, was standing to be claustrophobic and he was looking for a way to get away for a few months, a problem common to many …

gingla con fiumeGeographically, this was the closest point I would get to the vastest expanse of jungle on this planet: the Amazon. And I could not miss to visit it. So, on July 31, I took the highway 30 which, via Baños, goes down to Puyo at the edge of the forest. The road descents to the valley where dense vegetation becomes increasingly impenetrable. Black and white Capuchin monkeys become common inhabitants of the forest canopy and in the cracks of the slopes water is channelled down from the mountain to the vast Amazon basin. Before in millions of trickles, then in thousands of wider and wider streams, then hundreds of rivers that flow to create the most majestic of all: the Amazon. Thus, rainfall and humidity of the Pacific, via the spinal column of the forest, after 7000 km, ends up in the Atlantic, after helping to feed the place with most varied terrestrial and freshwater biodiversity.

alligatoreIn hot Puyo I decided it was time to migrate to warmer climate areas along the Ecuadorian coast. I had spent last month and a half cycling the high and cold Andean peaks, so I retraced my steps to Ambato and then went to Guaranda. This last stretch of road was as physically tough as scenically enchanting. The road climbs up to 4,300 meters reaching the plateau at the foot of the volcano Chimborazo that, all covered in white glaciers, rises in the shape of a perfect cone for other 2,000 meters. It was the first time that I rode where the thin air is a significant factor and I had to stop to catch my breath for a few minutes every couple of kilometres. On the plateau, the temperature was just above zero and I sought shelter in a farmer’s hut to change and put on long pants and warm jacket. Out of the five members of the family, only two daughters in their twenties spoke a little ‘Spanish, because they used to go to the market to sell the potatoes they grow, the others three only knew Quechua, the Inca’s ancient language. In the room where a faint smoky charcoal fire glowed, they offered me a plate of rice, potatoes and corn that I practically devoured with two spoonfuls. Feeling a ‘bit better, I kept on cycling on the bare plateau, covered only by white stones and tufts of yellow grass where herds of alpaca with wool the same colour as the soil were grazing. Numbing with cold, tired and panting, I began descending to the Pacific, from which I separated nine months earlier in Mexico. On August 6, I saw again the ocean dark-blue waters at Puerto Cayo, about forty kilometres south of Manta.

The coast is dotted with fishing villages partially converted into resorts with hotels of every level to accommodate Americans and Canadians, who come here to surf the waves, but especially young Argentines and Chileans who are here to party. The busiest and best known town is Montañita, a concentration of bars, restaurants, pubs, nightclubs and discos. Of these last there are as many as six very large ones concentrated in four city-block, all of them without walls but with only the roof. From ten at night to six in the morning, thousands of youngsters in their early twenties dance without pause. I had been warned of the storm of decibels that every night descends on the town and found a hostel more than a kilometre from the city centre but, despite the distance from the source, the sound waves made the glass of my window vibrate. Throughout the night, streets become like a theater where jugglers, fire-eaters, magicians, mimes and street performers of all kinds are performing in talent shows, which often involve the audience. The night-life is concentrated in a small space and it is impressive for its vitality.

costa ecuador panUp to Guayaquil, I cycled the coastal hills covered with low trees and scrub vegetation, and then I went straight south to the Peruvian border. Looking at the map of these countries, I have always wondered why major pre-Columbian civilizations developed up in the mountains rather than along this strip of flat land between the ocean and the mountain ranges and now I got the answer: that area is completely deserted. It is a rocky and barren expanse, very similar to the Iranian highlands or the desert of Egypt for the proximity to the sea. There is the same contrast between the deep blue of the ocean and the rocky sandy beige dotted with thorny shrubs. As in any respectable desert, there is always a strong and constant wind which, in this season, blows from south along the coast. In the northern hemisphere, from Alaska down, I always had tail-wind while here I will have head-wind up to Patagonia. An Argentinian cyclist called this the Yin and Yang of the American continent. Such adverse conditions are slowing me down and the monotony of the surrounding environment does not help my morale. At least the ground is flat and I think that I will miss this flatness when I will be at 4,000 meters in southern Peru and Bolivia …

bienvenidos a PeruOn August 16, I crossed the Peruvian border, stopping for a couple of nights in Tumbres. I continued south relatively quickly, despite the headwind, reaching Trojillo after 600 kilometres of barren land along the highway 1. Here I am a guest of Sabrina and Max, this last a Swedish man, class 1954 and 25 years older than her. An interesting guy who just nineteen travelled overland from Stockholm to the border of India with Myanmar, a journey throughout Afghanistan, Kashmir and Tibet, a route that today is no longer feasible. The two dedicated a room of the large house into a guest-room for travellers who contacted them via the websites Couchsurfing.org and Warmshowers.org. The place is busier than a real hostel and in the last four days have come and gone: two Brazilian boys, a German couple and Karel, a 63 years old cyclo-traveller from the Czech Republic. He began this journey with his son and son’s girlfriend in Chile, but they stopped in Bolivia while he kept cycling alone to Bogotá and then for a month in Cuba. The occasional travelling visitors are just an addition to a small group of regular guests of the house, where almost every night goes on a little party with spirits flowing like lemonade. As a rule of the house, ever passing guest is required to prepare a dish of his country and Max asked me to cook “spaghetti alla carbonara” with true Italian Parmesan cheese. I have not yet determined the date of departure, as soon as I decide I’ll let you know …

Photos: Colombia, July 2014 | Ecuador, August 2014 | Peru, 16 Sept- 16 Oct 2014 | Bolivia, 17 Oct – 16 Nov 2014 | Chile, Dec 2014 – Jan 2015

Video: Colombia & Ecuador, August 2014 | Peru, 16 August – 16 October 2014 | Entrevista con Sin Barreras, TV Peru Oct 2014 | Cuzco & Macchupicchu, 1-8 ottober 2014 | Bolivia, 17 Oct – 16 Nov 2014 | Chile, Dec 2014 – Jan 2015

<<< Next chronicles – Europe | Cuba – Previous chronicles >>>

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