Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Thursday 16 September 2010

The Race to Lima

The more observant reader of our Pedalling North drivellings may have noticed that we find ourselves in Vancouver, Canada.  Does this mean that our recent blog drought was on account of a frantic spurt of cycling 400km per day for a month?  Erm, actually no.  The really observant reader may have spotted that the blog has been rechristened as 'Pedalling (from the) North'.  A bit of explanation may be in order...

In mid-August, sitting in a hotel room in Camana, Peru, we did some sums.  It became apparent that Delta's (cheap!) Ecuador-Seattle flight schedule came to an end for the rest of 2010 on September 6th.  We had already decided that the US would be better tackled from North to South (prevailing winds and all that...), so this effectively set us a deadline for our main South American leg.  If we were to squeeze in a few days in the Galapagos Islands before leaving the southern hemisphere, we had to haul our *sses to Lima, as an interim finishing point, in double quick time.  From there we would be able to take the bikes and ourselves to Ecuador by bus.  So it dawned on us... we needed to cover a little over 800km from Camana to Lima in 10 days.  And so began our Race to Lima.
There are plenty of long distance cyclists out there whose primary aim is to 'cover the ground'.  We decided early on in this trip that such an approach would mean missing out on so much of the potential richness of our journey.  Consequently we haven't been afraid to stop and appreciate nice places, sometimes for a few days.  So a fixed deadline was something of a novelty to us.  Suddenly we realised that we would have to ratchet up our average pace.  Days off would be put on hold, and we couldn't afford for anything to go wrong if we were to make it to Lima.  To give you a sense of how we got on, this is a summarised day by day report:

Day 1 (58km): After a few administrative hitches (why are airline tickets so complicated to buy online?!), we only set off after 11am.  Not the ideal start, as the clock began to tick.  We were glad to back on the bikes after a couple of days holed up in unglam Camana with varying lurgies.  But those kilometre posts telling us that we still had over 800km to Lima seemed to go by ever more slowly.  The scenery was rawly beautiful, the coastal road slicing perfectly through collosal sand dunes to the right and verdant green fields of crops to the left, running down to the mighty Pacific surf.  Our lunchtime picnic spot overlooked a shoreline that seemed to go on forever into a thin mist.  A dozen black vultures circled overhead sizing up our tuna sandwiches.  Today was the day we realised that our race up the coast would not be helped by the topography - the coast undulated constantly, sending us down into sea level valleys before taunting us back up the other side.  We made it to Ocona, set in one of these valleys, with enough time for a walk to the deserted pebble beach, a cold shower in our roadside hostel, and a hilarious dinner in a family restaurant in which they were all so engrossed in that evening's soap opera that the 10 year old son had to be sent out to buy our beer.

Day 2 (76km): Perhaps it was partly mental, knowing that we'd barely made a dent in our target distance, but today felt like biking through treacle.  It took all morning to cover 30km, and we were shattered by the time we lunched at the top of a 7km climb.  Nobody had warned us about this!  The road carved its way along a near vertical cliff so massive that our bikes looked like storm flies on a wall.  The ups and downs were constant.  There was only one thing for it at lunch: a tasting session for Peruvian fizzy drinks.  Cola Escosesa, Peru Cola and Inca Kola all came in for a stern examination, with Inca Kola emerging on top by a short head.  It did at least fuel us for an afternoon that never let up.  All along the route we were reminded of just how small we were by 12-15ft crashing breakers just to our left, and sand dunes to our right that were so imposing that they often had to be held back from the road by purpose built walls.  It was a race against the light to get to Atico that evening, one which we narrowly won.  Atico - another fabulously random, sandy roadside Panamericana town with all the hustle and buzz that you might expect, as well as the sense of transitoriness.  Vultures sat on the little balcony of our unexpectedly comfortable hostal and the Pacific continued to roll in through the night.

Day 3 (102km): We spent 7 hours on the bikes today.  A necessarily early start, an 'al fresco' breakfast of questionable cereal with drinking yoghurt, as the trucks rumbled into morning life and watery sunshine broke through.  Either the route was actually flatter and more manageable today, or we were just getting into the rhythm of it.  Whichever, we made good progress as we fairly zipped along cutting a line between yet more jaw-dropping desert dunes and the rolling deep blue Pacific.  Truck and bus drivers were on perky form, the sun shone for much of the day, but the breeze was cool enough to keep things comfortable.  The twists in the tail were a couple of stonkingly steep climbs late on in the day when we'd started thinking about a sunset beer on the beach.  Not fair.  We got through them, however, and reached the Puerto Inca Hotel - a glorious spot with no other guests, excellent fresh fish and an ancient history of Incan trade with Cuzco.  The perfect bay was all ours, and Inca terraces striped its sides.  The only frustration, as we ate our breakfast watching birds and seals diving for theirs, was that we had to leave so early the next day...

Day 4 (76km): ... fortunately our overnight concerns about the 3km climb back to the main road from the hotel were alleviated by our nice friend in the pick up, who came to our rescue.  But in the end that lift didn't make much difference to the first couple of hours on the bikes.  The early kms were an endless sequence of ups and downs through rocky little coastal valleys on tarmac road surfaces so bad that we wondered how the Panamerican Highway could justify its grand title.  Fortunately, that rarest of things came to our rescue: a strong tailwind!  This meant that we could breeze in relative comfort through the coastal 'zonas de arenamiento' (though not without some sandblasting to exposed flesh!), where bulldozers work tirelessly to stop the highway becoming literally sanded over.  We actually had a real lunch in a real town - no tuna sandwiches for us today.  Yauca was entirely dependent on its extensive olive groves, but also knocked up a mean tripe casserole for us.  Our lodgings for the night, having been blown along through rolling desert all afternoon, was simple to the point of hilarity: the Lomas Intercontinental offered us an oil drum with a foot of water in the bottom as the 'shower', and a relentless stream of trucks as company.  At first we thought it might have been ideal for an arthouse movie, but in the end it wasn't even up to that!  A low point for accommodation, but an amusing one.

Day 5 (85km):  A day of two halves - the first of which involved some gruesome climbing on tired legs and what felt like almost imperceptible progress to the 30km mark.  We stopped for 'second breakfast' at that point, and chatted to a couple of roadside policemen who assured us that things would look up just around the corner.  How right they were.  We knobbled the next 40km in barely an hour and a half, a spectacular sweep down a long, gradual glacial valley and nearly all the way to Nazca before lunchtime.  The tailwind was the strongest (some would say 'only'!) we had experienced.  An amazing sensation.  We rewarded ourselves with a comfortable night in Nazca, at a squeeky clean and beautifully appointed refuge from the hustle and bustle outside.  Rarely has a swimming pool been more eagerly flopped into than this one, by two sunbaked refugees from Lomas.  We were - briefly - back in Touristland.  The Plaza de Armas filled was with water features and pretty tiling.  Locals and gringos alike wandered as the sun set.  And we knew we didn't have to get up early.  Bliss.

Day 6 (50km): We had decided we could get away with a half day today, and made full use of a full night's sleep and a buffet breakfast.  Those extra hours of rest meant that by the time we got underway, after an early lunch, a 50km stretch felt like a veritable pleasure.  As small planes buzzed overhead, we stopped off in the middle of the desert to climb an observation tower and look down on the mysterious 'Nazca Lines' - enormous horizontal creations that can only be seen from above, and whose raison d'etre nobody has yet explained convincingly.  En route to Palpa, we paused for a few minutes.  In amongst our breathless hurtle to Lima, it hadn't fully dawned on me that these were the final days of South American cycling for us.  For now at least.  It added an extra dimension to our appreciation of how the desert yielded suddenly to the pretty valley of Palpa, its wall-to-wall orange groves and roadside banana trees illuminated by the warm sun of the late afternoon.  Every few yards we passed another mountainous pile of oranges, often hiding a diminutive orange seller.  Later that evening, having identified the simplest of $4 hostels, we sat in a state of post-cold shower invigoration over massive plates of 'pollo saltado'.  We watched entranced as the restaurant owner flicked between the Simpsons and Miss Universe on the booming television in the corner.  Four days to go.  So far, so good.

Day 7 (101km): We hadn't done 7 consecutive days before, so this was always going to be a test.  And boy, the first climb was all of that and more.  Even overflowing glasses of freshly squeezed roadside orange juice couldn't fuel us properly for a massive drag up a climb that looked like a piece of coiled wire just unravelled.  Thank goodness for Test Match Special podcasts to listen to.  Even when we reached the top, the rest of the morning was a seemingly unending grind, slightly uphill, across long and featureless desert landscapes.  There was even a slight headwind.  That wasn't in the brochure.  The turning point came at lunch, which we shared with a kitten and a tiny puppy (quickly christened 'Mervyn') who both enjoyed a penchant for dulce de leche and a love/hate relationship.  Post-Mervyn, it was a more comfortable afternoon, cruising through Pisco vineyards and bougainvillea plants - at least until we neared Ica.  Ica lived fully up to its reputation as a hellhole.  We threaded our way beside the road for the final few kilometres, through near darkness and cheek-by-jowl mechanics workshops, dodging puddles of unidentifiable liquid, tiny buzzy taxis and tuktuks running amok.  And the hooting, oh the hooting.  Cacophonous.  Deafening.  Bewildering.  We've rarely been more relieved than we were to see our unexpectedly lovely, colonial hotel which we shared with more staff than guests, a selection of ancient wine making equipment, and - surreally - a selection of rather beautiful peacocks.

Day 8 (106km): We awoke to a chilly, dank morning, but more subdued traffic and we were soon out of the perils of Ica.  For much of the morning, we cruised merrily along flat, windless roads past fields speckled with labourers bedecked in colourful (if unnecessary) sun protectors.  We passed one after another pisco winery, often hidden behind exotic double gates and down long avenues of trees.  But if our legs felt good, it was our noses that struggled.  All day we were assailed by a pungent mixture of battery chickens (housed in the biggest 'Chicken Auschwitz' sheds you ever saw), human excrement, burning plastic, putrifying rubbish and general muck.  It just seemed that each successive little town got smellier!  Spirits were high, however, thanks to a blend of Eddie Izzard podcasts, smooth road surfaces, and a great new game of spitting orange pips at each other at lunch.  It's come to that.  Consecutive 100km+ days do that to you.  We reached the Ica-esque Chincha as darkness fell and underwent almost perfect deja vu of the previous evening's chaotic stumble through town.  Fortunately, we once again located a gloriously perfect spot for the night - where we could ride up to our room door and sit by the pool sipping pisco sours in the twilight.  As the number of consecutive days on the road racks up, so does the quality of our accommodation.  No shame in that, we reckoned!

Day 9 (65km): The end was in sight.  But curiously, all four of our legs were still feeling strong.  Perhaps the last two statements were not unconnected.  Whatever, we knew we had two 'doable' days to get to the outskirts of Lima.  In fact, today was a relatively gentle one, rejoining the coast after a few days running parallel to it but further inland.  Yet more undulating desert, yet more crashing Pacific breakers, yet more battery chickens.  Although we were closing in on Lima, the settlements out here were hardly sophisticated.  We had lunch on a sandy verge in a small village on the main road, next to a government sponsored billboard proclaiming that the princely sum of $10,000 had been lavished on the place.  A man just across from us was building the most basic house imaginable - just him and his hammer and nails and a few bits of wooden boarding.  By contrast earlier in the day, we had passed a behemoth of a natural gas plant that had received $3bn in investment; all of its gas is going to the US.  Such are the ways of Latin America.  By dusk, we chugged into Cerro Azul, a seaside resort so far out of season that even the multitudes of arrogant egrets and prehistoric looking pelicans on the beach seem to have packed up their beach huts for the season.  Our hostal's owners were so surprised to see us that we were welcomed in like family.  Its rickety pier, tumbledown hostals, gentle surf, angry-looking dolphin monuments and general tranquility were rather soothing and lovely.  And surely the calm before the Lima storm.

Day 10 (76km): We made it.  By now, it would have been odd not to have strapped on our paniers and clambered onto our only-too-familiar saddles.  It had become like a job.  We had begun to see how those 'covering the ground' cyclists must see a country - as a bit of a relentless blur, with little time to meet people except in passing, or to form views about the places you pass through.  It was an experience and a challenge, both physical and mental. But, in the final analysis, we both prefer the slightly more measured approach.  Much of the final day was a gradual procession toward's Peru's capital, assisted by our trusty iPods.  There was still no let up from the 'invasiones' groupings of reed huts in the desert, but we did start to see clues that a city of 8m people was approaching - a massive shopping mall, for example.  There weren't many of those in Ocona, a week or so back.  As we pedalled, I mused that these were actually likely to be our final kilometres of actually 'pedalling North'.

An odd feeling, as it was the end of an unbroken route of nearly 5800km on bikes since Bariloche, back in March.  We have pedalled every metre of it, over the Andes and all the way up the coast.  We're quite proud of that.  It hasn't been easy.  As we passed a wall appropriately graffitied with 'without women, what would we be?', we broke through the 6000km mark for our trip.  Shortly after, with a little help from the guards at a customs outpost, we managed to flag down a bus prepared to take us and our bikes into the Friday evening Lima rush hour.

And to an unfamiliar existence without bikes, at least for a couple of weeks.

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