Wednesday, April 29, 2009
After a fantastic stay with some long lost relatives in Albuquerque and a day off the tandem resulting in a cultural adventure around ancient Indian Pueblos and the artsy cafés of Santa Fe, we got on the most direct route North out of New Mexico. The 550 highway was our home for four days of desert, blue skies, red rock canyons, head winds and more desert. The miles drifted by and we lived and breathed everything that road had to offer, which was not much apart from colossal breakfast burritos, oil trucks, monster road kill and dust. But on our third day the never ending orange land in front of us was replaced by an enormous white block of mountains. The San Juan Mountains we were planning to cross. Suddenly the challenge we had set ourselves smacked us both in the face and a nervous anticipation hung over us until those snowy peaks were conquered.
The moment we left New Mexico everything changed. The land turned green, trees had leaves, river beds were filled with water and snow dominated the sky line. Our first stop was Durango where we planned to get the bike fixed up ready for the mountains and spend the afternoon scaring ourselves with how big they looked. It was also the first place we had arranged to go and stay with some warmshowers.com hosts; people who put touring cyclists up for a night. Durango turned out to be the best place we could launch ourselves into the mountains from. The bike shops gave Carlos a good seeing too, numerous people told us we we should be 'stoked' and were 'awesome' for attempting the passes on a loaded tandem and we received free cookies at local cafés. Not only that but our hosts welcomed us into their family BBQ feast for the evening, took us out for an enormous breakfast in the morning and cycled out of town with us for 12 miles to the foot of the mountains.
The last three days have been filled with obscenities and exhalations of joy being shouted out from both ends of the tandem. Those massive and intimidating mountains were exactly that and we both loved (pretty much) every minute of the ride over them. The first day we cycled 52 miles from Durango to Silverton over the 10,630 ft Coal Bank pass and the 10,879 ft Molas pass. On the gradual part of the climb we had an entourage of 30 or so people on racers training for a race in a couple of weeks time. Each one would stop and chat as we pedaled and puffed our way up the climb. It made the first part of the day go surprisingly quickly and before we knew it it was time to face the 6 miles of hairpins. Head down, autopilot on and up we go. About 6 inches of snow fringed the road and gradually started to pour out of an increasingly cloudy sky. We reached the top in a thick blizzard and huddled in the shelter of some Portaloos. The thermometer read -4 degrees C. Before we could contemplate the achievement of getting up the pass we prepared for the chill of the way down. Just as we were looking our most mental yet with socks on hands, jeans around necks and jumpers for hats under our helmets a load of tourists jumped out of their cars and abruptly took some shots of 'the crazy folk tandeming through a snow storm'. Ahhhh fame. Nothing warms you like a steaming hot cup of ego!
After an hour of racing downhill into the blizzard we arrived in the bleak mining town of Silverton, frozen to pieces. After automatically opting for motel over campsite we jumped into the only open restaurant ordered two giant burgers, stacks of fries, two pints of Guinness, two shots of rum and waited to thaw. Surprisingly enough the only time I haven't been ID'd ordering booze on this trip was wearing Nick's socks on my hands and a helmet. The blizzard must have aged me worse than I thought.
After sleeping and thawing we head back out up the mountains. This time the sky was blue and the sun was out and despite a flat tyre 30 seconds in we felt prepared for the 11,010ft Red Mountain pass. The whole day was one of the most spectacular of my life and there is little I can write to describe it. On the way up we felt strong, at the top we were cheered on by an entourage of motorcyclists and on the way down we gasped with joy and excitable fear. At the bottom the mining town of Ouray was a haven of sunshine and warmth with spectacular views of the mountains we had just crossed. Smug and content we grabbed some lunch and headed off North into a warmer and flatter Colorado.
Today everything aches; especially since we decided to take a little detour up a 3,000 ft climb to the Black Canyon of Gunnison this morning. Luckily we both had about 10,000 calories worth of pancakes this morning and so made it up to view the 2,700 ft deep canyon in one piece. Unfortunately the breakfast calorie fest wasn't entirely burnt off in the climb and on first seeing the canyon I screamed 'oh my ***, sh*t, f***.....' to the dismay of several tourists enjoying the peace of the canyon just around the corner. No one can hate a tandem for long though and soon they were all admiring our mornings climb.
Despite all the cracked faces, chapped everything and the shadow of an encroaching plague, Carlos is giving us the ride of our lives and we're soaking up every minute of it.
Monday, April 20, 2009
We knew it would be tough going, especially as when we set off there was an extreme weather warning of high winds and minimal humidity, but I don't think we could have pictured the sheer scale of where we were riding. Nothing could have prepared us for riding 60 miles with only a handful of corners and no water and food stops. After battling into 40mph winds for 4 hours or so we arrived parched and knackered at Big 8 foods, collapsed on a bench in the first bit of shade we'd seen all day and made some sarnies. Then we met 'Hank' (we never actually learnt his name). Without a word from us he walked up and launched into the most brilliant introduction to American weirdness we could have hoped for. As I rubbed thickly encrusted salt from my wind and sun battered face he embarked on an unbroken monologue starting with his ice driving exploits of the last 10 years. From then on it just got better...
Seeing we had a bike he told us how he was going to be sent to the '72 Olympics to cycle for the U.S. if his coach at high school hadn't messed up the forms. He was a dead cert for a medal because '[he] could cycle at 50mph'. But 50mph wasn't his top speed, no sir, and if you're thinking that was downhill think again. His top speed was when he raced his friend in a car for 2.5 miles on the flat and overtook the car even though it was doing 65 mph. We just sat there nodding not quite sure what to say. We needn't have worried, he just kept talking as we ate. Luckily he didn't kill himself on that 65mph run although he did wear right through the sole of his best cowboy boots trying to stop. But that wasn't all he had... As if we may have written him off as merely a cyclist, he continued to elaborate on the strength of his upper body.
He was once in the gym with a father who was coaching his son to be in Mr. Universe that year. This guy was apparently doing reps with 300lb dumbells. Hank's friend saw this and egged Hank on to lift some more, knowing that Hank 'was rangy, but all steel'. Hank couldn't resist. He cooly walks up, adds another 200lbs and does 5 reps, naturally with only one arm, and then 3 above his head just to show what he could do. We were lapping up the stories silently and about 30 minutes in he just kept going. By the time our allotted hour's story time was up he had just finished with him being in knife fights at school, but kicking the knife away with a roundhouse kick, and how he was also a pro swimmer for a time, but just drives trucks to pay the bills. Then as soon as it started it was over. He got a can of coke from the machine and walked off to his truck. Hol and I just sat there before bursting into hysterics. We then stopped soon after just in case he came back and roundhoused us into tomorrow.
We thought this may have just been a one off, but people out here have been the stars so far. The next day an extraordinarily camp Mexican American we'll call 'Philipe', stood up and flamboyantly announced to the diner we were sat in, 'on behalf of everyone in my country, I want to thank you guys [the British] for the Beatles, and also an absolute ANGEL... called Lady Di. Now you folks have a nice day'. And we did; even if it was a little weird when 9 miles down the road he pops out from his car with his flies undone and tells us we just have to go the hot springs in Truth or Consequences.
There have been countless more brilliant moments already. There was the lady who runs the 'Grocery Cupboard' in Radium Springs who 'just melts away when she listens to [our] accents' and Bill the lonely RV park owner who is 'just damn worried about them Iranians'. The size of everything out here is mind blowing from supermarkets to trucks, desert to junk yards, trains to RVs and sodas to pancakes. The speed with which we are climbing up the map seems non-existent but for now we're just taking each canyon as it comes. 2,500 miles left to go and who knows where the next Hank is. We can't wait.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Last night we spent in the Americana Inn motel next to the Red Parrot '24 hour ladies' strip bar stuffing ourselves with Chinese food and watching TV. And this morning we bought a tandem! We had met Charley and
We can not wait. It's going to be epic (and painful)
PHOTOS: Latest shots of Central America are here for anyone who wants to check 'em out.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
We are now just a 36 hour bus journey away from entering the USA and coming to the end of 6 weeks in Central America. We never really had any huge plans or aspirations for Central America. We just needed to travel up through it. If you read or watch anything about this continent it is most likely to be connected to emigrants chasing the American dream, violent drug cartels or the exploitation of land. I had read about all of the above and so was half expecting to come across harrowing scenes as we traveled overland from Panama to the US – exactly the same route as approx 350,000 metric tons of Big Mac patties, 600 tons of cocaine and thousands of desperate emigrants each year. In reality you mostly have to search your imagination to see such things and we have felt safe throughout the journey. That said it has had its moments...
On our first night in Central America we bedded down in an apartment in Casco Viejo in Panama City, eager to escape the crowd we had been traveling with for the last week. The apartment was located 100m short of the imaginary line between the tourist safe zone and the 'red (danger) zone'. It was a mere 5 minute well lit walk from all the hostels, shops and restaurants and so we were assured there would be no real difference. Heading back to our apartment on the first night we were even reassured to find the area littered with policemen and vans, admittedly they were arresting a guy, but it was better than nothing. Five minutes later with the door to our apartment clicking shut behind us gun shots were being fired right outside. Nick raced to the balcony, whilst I cowered behind him and found a gun fight going on between a gang and some police right where we had just been walking home. An interesting introduction to the continent. We later learned that due to the gentrification of the old town the gangs are being moved out of their slums in the old colonial buildings and unsurprisingly don't like it. Change has to come though and gradually the government will have their way and the gangs will have to go elsewhere; a problem that I'm sure encroaches on the majority of Central American cities as they become increasingly developed for tourism. Just as foreign investment pushes indigenous people off the land, it also pays for the gangs to be moved out of the cities. Its not surprising that somewhere along the chain someone kicks up a fuss.
After 10 days of volcano climbing, swimming hole dipping and marveling at the size of bull's balls in Panama we headed to Costa Rica: The only nation in the world without an army and the most stable of all Central America. Rich in nature, as its name suggests, and with an infrastructure that reflects the early investment of The United Fruit Corporation, it attracts lots of tourists. Luckily a fun filled touristy fortnight was what we were looking for and so we had a great time. That said, as with any developing country pitching for tourist dollars, aspiration crime is a big problem here and sad to hear about.
So it was at 3a.m. last Friday with only 9 days left before we enter the U.S, we boarded our first of two 'Tica' buses that would take us up to Guatemala City. Over 60 hours we crossed four borders and dealt with eight sets of immigration officials – not my favorite people at the best times. Expecting the worst, since it was the weekend before Semana Santa, Central America's biggest religious festival, it actually went remarkably smoothly. Every border became slightly more familiar, littered with toothless money changers, dusty dogs and huge women with ogre like faces and tiny legs trying to sell you their home cooking. Perhaps the most shocking part of the journey was the choice of films shown on the bus. Films ranged from violent to extremely violent, covering gang warfare in US prisons (Felon), child kidnapping (Man on Fire), and prostitution (Taken), child rape (Where the Heart Is) and a healthy dash of drug warfare. Not an obvious pick for a 1pm family bus trip through lands renowned for some of the above. Turns out that the most intimidating part of this bus trip was witnessing the Hollywood interpretation of the sun filled and peaceful lands we were traveling through.
Before we knew it we were in Guatemala, on a bus with no clutch winding up dusty roads to Xela. Guatemala is how I expected Central America to be. Instead of the rather bland good roads, large scale farming and modern towns of further South we were suddenly in highlands studded with small shacks, brightly clothed farming families and their green patches of crops. Entering Xela town square was also the first time we had seen any real history since Colombia. So despite another attack of bed bugs and a 24 hour virus that locked us both to toilets at various intervals, we lapped up Guatemala.
Highlights were two failed outings and one very successful one. After only half understanding people's directions in Spanish we failed to reach some mountain side hot springs, but found a mountain and ended up letting off some steam in a Guatemalan body building gym. We spent an hour on the exercise bike looking at a signed picture of a 80's aerobics instructor with a stars and bars thong wedged a little too far up her bum. Then, after missing a bus to a highland village we stumbled across Xela's biggest market. Packed to the brim with clothes, bikes, machinery, sausages, fruit, honey, etc this shopping experience made our Moroccan market adventures seem like a trip to Marks and Sparks. And then there was the successful outing: The Xela Natural History Museum. At first it was a bit of a disappointment as rooms were just filled with random old plants, broken typewriters and dusty football trophies. But then we found the treasure trove. Suddenly we were confronted by a creepy menagerie of every single stuffed animal you could imagine in some rather unnatural poses. After thinking that the miniature goat with 8 legs eating a snake was as weird as it could get we came across a small cabinet of pickled foetus'; rat, snake and... human. Bizarre, a little gross, but strangely intriguing...
After four days of such joys we hopped on two buses (both with various parts missing), a minibus and a collectivo taxi to San Cristobal in Mexico. The journey took us through the most dramatic scenery yet as the road spun through valleys, plunging into deep gorges and climbing back up to ridges bridging forested highlands. The border crossing was a little strange since everyone was dressed up as clowns or in wrestling masks for Semana Santa. Even the Mexican army were in holiday mood as they waved us through, rifle in one hand and snow cone in the other.
I am now sitting writing this from our bed in San Cristobal, looking onto a little balcony where Nick is sipping on a beer whilst reading Defoe. We spent the morning wandering around the plentiful churches of this beautiful colonial town, which prompted yet another debate about religion, its value, its corruption and why we both believe what we believe. After a siesta we went to watch a documentary about the rebellion Zapista movement in the Chiapas region of Mexico. The combination of a rather wooly rebellion manifesto, 'peaceful' demonstrators armed to the neck with guns and a confused indigenous people wanting both their traditional way of life yet access to brand new schools, hospitals and banks meant that we ripped plenty of holes in the film. I have rarely felt like such a pretentious snob and so we have planned to have a margarita and beer heavy evening and are listening to some Bon Jovi to undo such sins.
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
After hearing only the budgetary complaints of grimy, shoe string backpackers down in Panama, we were unsure of what Costa Rica would be like. It's an extraordinary place. First we whisked up to La Fortuna to see Volcan Arenal; one of the world's most consistently active volcanoes. We perused the various tour options and although sorely tempted by 'Mr Lava Lava's guaranteed best time of your life in the world', we plumped for a 'see lava, see waterfall, walk in forest and soak in hot springs all in one mega experience'. We were duly entertained by a sprinkling of spewing lava, some lightly rumbling ground and a couple of canopy bridges. But we were particularly excited about 'Baldi hot springs'. Billed as a touch of Vegas in the jungle we excitedly donned our speedos, but not leaving the thriftiness behind we avoided the $7 beers at the swim up bar by sneaking in a bottle of rum wrapped in a towel and just buying cokes. Godders and I immediately tried the hottest pool and burnt our legs. In hindsight the fact that a woman was heating her baby's milk bottle in there should have been a clue. Less hot pools provided respite from sore limbs and we finished the night with some dramatic drunken watersliding which cleared new passages in my nostrils I never knew existed.
From here it was off to the world famous cloud-forests of Santa Elena. At $25 per person for a guide and not wanting a big crowd we decided we would just walk around ourselves. Nervous we wouldn't see anything we crept onto the trails at 6.30am with nothing but optimism and a small leaflet of local fauna. Within 2 minutes I look up and say, “Errr chaps, I am pretty sure that is a resplendent quetzal”. Now I imagine, this may mean nothing to most people, but for the last month we had been past multiple 'Quetzal trails' from which descended legions of glum, khaki clad birders who had traveled all the way to South America just to see these 'flying dragons'. Sure enough, a consultation with the leaflet confirmed we were looking at one of the rarest and most impressive birds of paradise on earth. A strong start. We then spent the next 5 hours spotting hundreds of birds, ants, butterflies, giant milipedes and occasionally scaring Godders by saying we had seen a tree frog; an inexplicable phobia that provided hours of entertainment. Just before we left we bumped into a guided tour going the other way. The guide in a jocular tone says, “spotted any quetzals?”. When we replied that we had in fact seen two the audible groan from the tour group lent us a smug edge on the trip home.
We have now finished the trip amongst fire dancers and hippies on the Nicoya peninsula. Campfires on the beach, swimming in waterfalls and getting lost in the forest after dark have filled the days. It has left us realising what an incredibly diverse country Costa Rica is. All of this is only a few hours from place to place. It is a little more expensive, but then instead of the $2 turd, rice and beans you get elsewhere in Central America, you have to pay $4 but get a massive plate of salad, fresh fish and various bits and pieces of deliciousness. It really is a case of you get what you pay for and unless you are scrimping every penny then Costa Rica is the place to come. We now leave Godders and Charlie and head North on a 60 hour bus journey to Guatemala where we will spend a few days. And then... U.S.A.
We can't quite believe we are such a short distance from the U.S. From when we left England it always seemed like an impossibly distant oasis of development, the English language and ease of travel. We are now only ten days away and from there it is just a few months of cycling and walking before getting on the freighter from Vancouver to South Korea on August 19th. We have a rough idea for a cycling route which is below, but we need advice from anyone of places to go or people to see on the way. At the moment, we plan to go from El Paso up towards Santa Fe, skirt west of the Rockies towards Aspen before heading up to Yellowstone and a short hop north west up to Vancouver.
It isn't a detailed plan as yet and we need to fill in some gaps. Therefore any suggestions of things we should see send them to firstname.lastname@example.org or post a comment on the blog. If all goes to plan we will be riding our new steed, a shiny red Santana Noventa (already nicknamed Carlos), out of El Paso on the 15th April. From there, we just keep heading north. Can't wait.