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October 01, 2009

The end of the road

As they say in this part of the world, j'ai craqué. I've hit the wall. It was one morning a week ago, near Zweismmern in the Swiss Alps, that I pulled myself out of my tent for the last time and decided - it's time to call it a day. Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia can wait for another time.

To be honest, I hadn't been all enthusiastic about continuing when leaving England after my few weeks of rest there, when previously during this trip I'd always been itching to get back on the bike after much shorter breaks. Somehow I thought I'd get my enthusiasm back after a few days.

But that morning, despite the glorious Autumn weather and the picturesque mountains all around me, I couldn't even muster the enthusiasm to ride the next 100kms to Grindelwald, where I'd arranged to meet some friends the next day. I went to the station and took a train.

So, after meeting up with Martin & Paola and spending a pleasant weekend hiking with them and their friends, staying overnight in their cabin and being treated to a traditional fondue, I returned to Grindelwald and checked into a mountain lodge for a week to give myself time to come to terms with my decision, and to reflect on 16 incredible months of adventure. While other guests went out hiking, paragliding, canyoning, biking and climbing in the mountains, I was, for once, more than content to gaze out at the pine forests, 4,000m peaks and glaciers from a comfy chair.

Looking through photos and reading my journal, I tried to distil some of the highlights. It wasn't easy, but here goes.

Most overwhelming natural beauty
Without a doubt, the frailejon-covered paramo of the El Angel Ecological Reserve - Bitterly cold, but truly amazing. Coming face to face with a great horned owl was icing on the cake.

From Ecuador 1

From Ecuador 1

And an honourable mention for Perito Moreno Glacier in Patagonia - After the hoards and their tour buses had left, I sat alone late into the night entranced by the moonlight shimmering on the ice-blue behemouth, with the constant thunder from car-sized chunks of it calving off into the turquoise lake below.

From Patagonia

From Patagonia

Greatest challenge
The crossing from Chile to Patagonia via Lago Desierto - Having to push 40kg of bike and gear for 15 km up a steep, muddy horse track, crossing fast-flowing ice-cold rivers, not knowing if the ferry would be operating at the other end or whether I'd be able to find food there.

From Patagonia

From Patagonia

From Patagonia

Most fun
Cusco, Cusco, Cusco - I don't know whether it was because of all the great people I met, or meeting up with friends and family from home, or the fact that it was the festive season, but my six weeks in Cusco were a much needed and hugely fun break from the bike (apart from getting giardia and bronchitis) .

Scariest moments
Very few. Quito, where I saw and heard of so many foreigners being violently attacked and robbed in the few days I was there that I couldn't leave fast enough - a shame because it was a treasure trove of Andean/folk music.
Oh, and running out of food and water crossing a salt lake in northern Argentina, and then having to climb over a 4,200m pass to get back to civilisation.

From Bolivia & NW Argentina

Best ride
Climbing Mont Ventoux with Tom for the deciding stage of the Tour de France, being cheered on (and given beers) by the 500,000 people lining the road, the spectacular views from the top, and traffic free descent the other side at over 70kmh. The Tourmalet wasn't bad either.

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

From Europe 1

Wonderful people
What really made this journey special were the people I met along the way, their warm hospitality, and their stories. It seemed the poorer the people (and the fewer foreigners), the more welcoming and generous they were. I always felt bad about not being able to reciprocate, but hopefully it's taught be to be more open and welcoming to strangers.

My very first day in Colombia, a balmy and humid evening in Cartagena I met Elger, a busker, who taught me to play Romance Anonimo. As you can see I am still trying to perfect it over a year later.

In Medellin I was fortunate to be taken in by Nati's family and friends, who housed me, fed me, showed me around and generally looked after me for a month while I found my feet on South American soil and got to grips with Spanish.

Learning Spanish was challenging for me but worthwhile, and I was lucky to meet Erika, a Spanish teacher who gave me free lessons in exchange for my efforts to help her with her English.

All the staff at the Intiq Samana hotel in Cusco where I stayed for six weeks. They seemed to adopt me, looking after me when I was sick, and inviting me to their Christmas celebrations. And thanks to Ari, Paula, Simon, Helen and the rest of the gang, I had just about the most fun Christmas and New Year ever.

Spencer and Amy, who were great company on the Carretera Austral.

It was really nice to spend my last evening in South America with Alejandro and Pia. That steak was so good I don't know if I can ever go back to being vego.

Laura and Maria, who looked after me so well in Spain.

Paola and Martin, my wonderful Swiss friends.

And all the people who welcomed a stranger into their homes, fed me, let me camp on their land, offered me a cold beer.

Thanks finally to Dad and Teresa for giving me somewhere to take a break from the privations of life on the road.

May 06, 2009

Welcome to the United States of Fear

"Think you'd better be movin' along now, or I'm callin' [the police]. I'm callin'!".

I was returning to my Dad's home in rural, redneck North Carolina after riding into the nearby village of Rosman to post a few packages, and I thought I'd try to find a shortcut home through the network of lanes and trails.

The gravel road twisted and undulated for a kilometre or so through the springtime forest of oaks, flowering magnolias and mountain laurel, until it came to an abrupt end with just a couple of driveways. I could see the road I needed up on Blue Ridge a few hundred metres away, but there was no way through with a bike, so I turned round and started back the way I'd come.

It was then that I realised I was being watched by a couple of women in the doorway of a nearby house. "What do you want?" "Hi, I'm trying to get home, do you know the way to..." "Think you'd better be movin' along now...".

Yes, I think I had better be movin' along now, before they set the dogs on me or get the shotgun out or something.

Continuing home, I reminisced about the hospitality of South America that I'd recently left behind.

Walking through the coffee plantations of Colombia, and being invited into farmhouses for a café tinto or a thirst-quenching agua panela.

Asking a campesino family If I could camp by their house, and then being invited in for dinner.

Camping in a pasture in the Peruvian altiplano, and being discovered early the next morning by a campesino who, rather than telling me off for trespassing on his land, sat down to share a coffee with me.

So was this woman's reaction simply a case of not wanting her privacy invaded? Or was it, as my Dad later suggested, symptomatic of a general state of fear and paranoia amongst the US population, whereby years of neo-conservative government and a complicit church and media have helped to cultivate a fear of just about anything. Fear of socialism, fear of terrorists, fear of drugs (except alcohol and nicotine; these are ok for some reason), fear of gays, fear of foreigners, fear of Islam, fear of other ways of life or of anything unusual.

But what does anyone have to fear from a skinny guy on a bike? It's not like I was wearing an Arab headscarf. Or Hispanic-looking. Or black.

It's true that a person on a bicycle, or walking even, is a rare and unusual sight around here. Even the banks have drive-thru ATMs so you don't have to get out of your SUV.

But then I must have also been an unusual sight to most South Americans, many of whom would have never seen a foreigner before, let alone one on a strange and colourfully painted touring bike. Ok, sometimes small children would hide amongst their mothers' skirts, but otherwise the people everywhere were welcoming, curious or, at the very worst, indifferent.

Oh, my final reply: "Please do call the police. Maybe they can help me find my way home".

March 21, 2009

Carretera Austral

Well I haven't got around to writing anything since embarking on the Carretera Austral - internet has been a rare and expensive luxury - so now that I've finished it I thought I'd try to sum things up.

The Carretera Austral, Chile's Ruta 7, links a number of remote settlements in Chilean Patagonia, extending 1,200km between Puerto Mont and Villa O'Higgins. Construction started during the brutal Pinochet/CIA regime in the 1970s, with the last 100km to O'Higgins completed in 2000. Along the way you can see memorials to soldiers who lost their lives during construction. Despite the difficult terrain, the overall design and construction is poor, with many sections subject to flooding and landslides, and with apparently little attention paid to environmental and aesthetic impacts.

Most of the road is unpaved ripio, mostly not too bad but it does get a bit bumpy in places, which takes its toll on body, soul and bike (I met other riders with broken rims, spokes, racks etc). It passes through vast tracts of pristine wilderness, some of it protected as national park/reserve but much of it that they simply haven't got round to colonising. The region was inhabited mostly by the indigenous Mapuche until waves of European settlers arrived in the early 20th Century. Now there is a pattern of large cattle/sheep estancias (estates) surrounding the towns and villages, though these can be separated by 100s of kms and so there are large sections of untouched wilderness in between.
The mountains, the southern end of the Andes, don't reach heights of much more than 2,000m, but they are nonetheless impressive and snow can be seen all year round on southern slopes, as well as a number of glaciers. There are waterfalls and cascades everywhere, often right next to the road. You never have to carry much water, sometimes you don't even have to get off your bike to fill up a water bottle.

Then there are the numerous lakes and wild rivers, always nice to stop to fish or swim (on the warmer days anyway). The forests are dominated by southern beech, with a dense understory, sometimes with large ferns giving the impression of a temperate rainforest. Actually it reminds me a lot of Tasmania and New Zealand's South Island, amazing since they've been genetically isolated for millenia (though I never saw anything resembling a wombat or kea). Birds are numerous, from petite hummingbirds to elegant waterfowl to giant condors. Frogs can often be heard ribbiting away close to the road. I loved the large dragonflys which sometimes seem to fly alongside you like a fairy godmother. There are no dangerous animals to worry about, though there are mosquitos in places: unlike the somnolent ones we get in Australia that hover around lazily and will maybe come and bite you if they can be bothered, these ones don't hesitate to make a beeline (or should that be mosquitoline?) straight for any piece of exposed skin.

Add the fact that there is little traffic, and you begin to understand why the Carretera has become such a popular place for cycle touring. Some days I met about 6 or 8 other riders, from countires as diverse as Estonia, Japan, Israel and South Africa, though the majority from Europe and especially Germany.

Unfortunately this unique place is under threat from plans by foreign corporations (among them Xstrata (Switzerland) and E.ON AG (Germany) to construct a number of megadams in the region to harness energy from the various rivers, with the world's longest high tension transmission line to deliver this energy to the north of the country where it will be used to fuel an acceleration in mining growth. The proposals have the support of the Chilean government (no doubt thanks to generous "political contributions"), though are strongly opposed by the local population, with whom consultation has been minimal. Chile's people are being sold the idea that the dams are needed to satisfy future energy demand, but there are a host of less destructive alternatives, chief among them improved energy efficiency and demand management. But who ever made money out of reducing demand?

And so, to the actual journy. I started in the South, in Villa O'Higgins, but first I had to get there from El Chaltén in Argentina, which was an adventure in itself. There is no road connecting the two towns, but there is a route involving a horse track and a couple of lake crossings. From El Chaltén it was 50km of ripio to get to Lago del Desierto, some sections of which were underwater and had to be waded through. I arrived at the jetty with five minutes to spare before the evening ferry left, pretty cold and wet and so not able to fully appreciate the journey along the long, narrow lake with steep forested mountains on either side. At the other end I got my exit stamp from the border police and set up camp. That evening I met a Swiss couple who were coming the other way. They had a five year old son who they towed in a trailer, and had been biking for the last 3 years. I did wonder how fair it was on the kid, as he would have few possibilities for steady relationships or friendships other than with his parents.

From Del Desierto there was a horse track to the Chilean border, the first part of which was so impossibly steep and muddy that I had to make two trips - one with bike and one with luggage, and even then it was hard work. I started to think that I should have hired a horse to help me, as many others opt to. Looking back from the top of this climb the Lago was a spectacular sight, which helped to restore my motivation. From then on the climbing was more gentle, but still tough going with lots of mud and tree roots. I was pushing the whole time, a couple of times slipping in the mud and having the loaded bike fall on top of me. This would be a moderately difficult hike - what was I doing hauling 35kg of bike and baggage with me?

There were about five creek crossings, where I had to unload the bike and make multiple crossings (either wading or using a makeshift bridge). Some were narrow enough for me to throw the bags across and just make one crossing with bike. It would have been much easier in a pair or group, but I enjoyed the logistical challenge and by the fifth had a pretty smooth routine going.

Some people manage to get to Lago O'Higgins in one day, but I'd given myself two, and a good thing too because by 5pm I hadn't even made it to the border and was pretty much spent, so set up camp for the night.

The next day was much easier. After 30 minutes I got to the border and from there the track widened, virtually all downhill, and I could finally ride again. All was going well until I got to the washed out bridge. I'd been warned about this by a hiker I'd met coming the other way, who told me there was a makeshift bridge 100m upstream. Well I walked 150m upstream and didn't see anything, and tried downstream just in case, but still didn't see anything (I later found out that it was more like 300m). Only one optiopn presented itself: to wade across. The water was freezing and deeper than I anticipated, up to my thigh at its deepest. On my first crossing with the bike on my shoulder I was almost toppled by the powerful current. For the remaining four crossings I used a stick but it was still tricky. Any deeper (or had I been shorter) and I think it would have been way too dangerous and I'd have had to have waited until the level dropped. Anyway, I finally completed the task, shivering with cold but exhilerated at having conquered it.

After a few more kms, including some very steep and rocky descent that I chickened out of and walked, I arrived at Candelario Mancilla on the southern shore of Lago O'Higgins, in plenty of time to get the 5:30 ferry. But when I went to get my Chilean entry stamp, I was told that the ferry wouldn't be coming until the next day (due to flooding preventing the fuel truck from arriving) . Fortunately there was a campsite with hot showers, so I had the opportunity to relax and try some more fishing.

Waiting for the ferry the next day, two other riders arrived, Spencer & Amy from the U.S. I liked them instantly and we ended up riding most of the next few weeks together until Coyhaique. They were telling me about a Brazilian guy they'd met at Lago del Desierto who was planning to do the horsetrack on a motor scooter. We were just discussing how impossible it would have been, in particular the washed-out bridge, when we heard the noise of engine. Somehow he made it but to this day I can't imagine how.

The ferry was late and didn't get to the other side until 11pm, I ended up hitching a ride for the 12km to Villa O'Higgines, sharing the back of a truck with half a dozen dead sheep.

After a rest day we started for real on the Carretera, together with Dutch couple Robin & Nicky, and made about 60km before the weather got the better of us. We asked a farmer if we could camp in his field, but he wanted to charge us $7 each - the first time in S. America I'd been asked for money (I guess he gets lots of reuqests). So we ended up camping under a bridge a few 100m up the road. The farmer came along later and invited just the girls into his home for a coffee - what a creep (they declined).

The next day we had to get to Rio Bravo 40km away by 1pm to get the ferry to Puerto Yungay. I got a puncture on the way and, despite going flat out afterward, only arrived in time to see the heart-sinking sight of the ferry leaving. I settled down for a six hour wait for the 7pm ferry, but then was offered a ride in small RIB with some oceanographers who had been surveying the channel. Even though I hadn't lost much time, I only made it another 10kms after Puerto Yungay as I'd spent all my energy racing to catch the ferry.

For the next couple of days riding to Cochrane the weather improved dramtically and I was able to enjoy the Carretera in its full glory, stopping to relax/eat/swim/fish every now and again by a lake or river.

I met up with Amy and Spencer in Cochrane, staying a few nights in a really homely hospedaje. The owner, Ana, lived there on her own and seemed to really enjoy the company her guests.

After a few days I set off again with Spencer (Amy hitching because she was sick). After a forgetable morning of ups and downs in foul weather, the afternoon was a delight, riding alongside the dazzling blue Rio Baker (one of the rivers under threat of being dammed) in warm sunshine until we reached Puerto Bertrand, a real gem of a place on the shore of Lago Bertrand. There was a free campsite right by the lake with plum and apple trees - heavanly.

We had a rest day at Villa Cerro Castillo, where it was decided we'd have a feast on the way to Coyhaique (it was only two days' ride away on pavement so weight wasn't too much of an issue). Spencer suggested lamb so, as we were walking back from the nearby Cave of the Painted Hands, we stopped at an estancia and asked the farmer if we could buy some from him. He was a real character, sitting on his horse with a warm toothless grin and a wrinkled weather-beaten face. He offered to go and slaughter one of his lambs for us but, when we clarified that we only wanted half a lamb, he asked, still grinning but in a more bemused way, what he was going to do wit the other half. So we ended up having to buy a frozen lamb leg in the village, but it was nonetheless a priceless encounter.

And so we rode out of Cerro Castillo the next day on wonderful smooth pavement (felt so good after weeks of ripio), the lamb leg bungee-corded to Spencer's rear rack. By early afternoon we arrived at the national reserve campsite, and within a few hours were enjoying roast lamb and vegetables, accompanied by some porcini mushroom that Amy discovered in the forest, washed down with Chilean merlot. It certainly made a nice change from the normal staple of pasta with tomato sauce. The next day we had a pretty strong headwind, but with the three of us drafting off eachother it wasn't too tough and even quite fun.

Coyhaique is only a small town but it seemed like a bustling metropolis after so much time in the wild. While Amy & Spencer left after two nights, I spent a pleasant few days there recuperating, restocking supplies, making bike repairs, and meeting with activists campaigning against the dams.

My next stop was Villa Ortega. There was no campsite or hospedaje, but the lady who ran the local store, Alicia, invited me to stay and then proceded to feed me and fuss over me. Again she lived on her own so probably just wanted company. I was tempted to accept her invitation to stay another night but decided to make the most of the nice weather and hit the road. As I was leaving she presented me with a big tub of homemade jam made from the plums in her garden - as always in these situations I felt bad about not being able to return her generosity.

That night I experienced the other side of Chilean hospitality: I made it to Mañihuales where there is a campsite in the national reserve, but it was $9 so I decided to camp in a nearby wood instead. Unfortunately I was discovered by a group of boys with catapults who then encircled and bombared me. I retreated into the shelter of my tent, hoping they'd get bored and leave, which they did after a final salvo. But I had a restless night anxious about further mischief.

I continued north, passing through the spectacular Queulat National Park until I reached Puyuguapi, where I was stopped in my tracks by another bout of gastro. But it was the ideal place to recover, a small village originally settled by Germans at the head of a forested fjord, and boasting a warm, comfy café serving great cakes and espresso. On the day I left I stopped at the café for lunch and the most wonderful thing happened. I saw that a hummingbird had got stuck inside the glassed-in veranda. It was getting quite distressed flying into the glass and not having any perch to land on. I tried guiding it out the door but this didn't work, so I held out a finger for it to land on and, to my surprise it did, and I was able to take it outside and release it.

The Carretera continues north to Chaitén, which was evacuated last year becuase of the volcano erupting, although a few people have chosen to remain. Water has to be trucked in and electricity is only avaialble a few hours every evening. Plans are underway to build a new settlement in a safer zone. I decided to turn off at Villa Santa Lucia and cross back into Argentina. My adventure on the Carretera Austral had exceeded all my expectations in terms of natural beauty, just a shame that the government and foreign corporations are hellbent on destroying it in the pursuit of profit. I would definitely do it again though.

January 13, 2009

The making of a cycle tourist

Fighting for breath, pain searing through my legs, and with the wind and sleet doing their best to impede my progress, I finally make it to Abra Lay Raya - the 4,350m pass between Cusco and Puno - after 50km of relentless climbing. Could this be the same guy who, 12 years before, could not even ride the 15km to work without getting off and pushing whenever he got to a small hill?

As a kid I was probably no less active than most, playing ball in the street and whizzing around on my scooter and bike. I looked forward to PE at primary school, although I seem to recall being the worst at just about everything. Even my younger brother could run circles around me at football.

Then came high school and the sadistic games teachers. Sitting in the freezing cold for half an hour for registration (no tracksuits allowed). Playing rugby on frozen pitches where every tackle felt like being run over by a particularly heavy goods train. The cold showers.

I did enjoy basketball though. That is, until I was politely asked to leave the under-12 squad in the second week of training - my advantageous height sadly not compensating for a complete lack of skill and coordination.
So I started to lose interest in sport, and then a car accident put me out of action for about a year.

I was not totally inactive for the rest of my childhood. I always rode or walked to school/work, played a bit of football, and got involved in competitive table tennis. Even so, by the time I reached 18 I was very unfit, I could not even swim 200m freestyle.

At university I continued playing table tennis and got into hiking, rock-climbing and badminton, but there were greater diversions at the time, mostly centred around the student union bar. Then within a few years of starting work my bike was stolen and physical activity disappeared from my life almost completely.

The turning point came during a visit to see my Dad in the US one Christmas. I was walking past a local bike shop and saw a shiny new Gary Fisher mountain bike in the window. I had never done any mountain biking before, but this bike had front suspension and 21 gears and was on sale so, on a complete whim, and not even knowing if the bike was any good or not, I went in and bought it. (It turned out to be a pretty decent bike, I still have it and it is my most treasured possession).

That summer I started doing short rides on the trails around my home in Chippenham. I was really enjoying spending time outdoors in the countryside, and starting to feel fit and healthy again for the first time in years. Then one day I had the crazy idea of riding to work, a whopping 15km away in Malmesbury. Not being sure I could make it that distance, that first day I put the bike in the car and drove to a village half-way, parked in the pub car park, got the bike out and rode the rest. It was a beautiful, fresh & sunny summer morning and the sights, smells and sounds of the Cotswold countryside came to me like they had never done during the 100s of times I'd driven the same way. There was a small hill where I had to push, but otherwise I made it to work quite comfortably, feeling great and looking forward to the ride home.

From then on I was converted. I rode to work more and more often, got some slick tires for the bike and, before long, I wasn't having to push up the hills anymore and my trip time went from 50 to 35 minutes. During the long summer evenings I'd go home by ever more diverse routes, exploring more of the countryside and stopping in village pubs for an ale or two. I continued through the rains of autumn and the snows of winter, each season bringing a new set of sensory delights.

I hadn't felt so good for years, and I wanted others to experience it, so I started trying to encourage more people to ride to work: promoting the health, social and environmental benefits; organising an annual Bike to Work Week; lobbying the management for decent changing and parking facilities. Before long they were having to install new bike sheds, and there was a group of us riding in from Chippenham each day. It was great fun - and sometimes very fast - with six or seven of us drafting off each other. Great days. Work now seemed like just a small interruption in the day's cycling, though I felt more enthusiasm for it and I'm sure my improved physical and mental state helped with my career.

Cycling took over my life more and more, going for rides at weekends with friends, doing charity rides such as the 100km London to Brighton, and then my first ride with panniers: 150km to visit my sister in Portsmouth.

It was moving to Australia though that really got me into cycle touring: building up from short weekend rides exploring the National Parks and isolated beaches around Sydney, to two weeks doing the coastal route from Newcastle to Brisbane, to a month exploring wonderful Tasmania.

These days I couldn't imagine travelling any other way. And my fitness? Well, it'd me running circles round my little brother now (though I'm still hopeless at basketball).

December 15, 2008


Smug chuckles rumble around the Coca-Cola boardroom. The latest global sales figures for Dasani bottled tapwater have just come in. "I still can't believe our stupid customers actually buy this stuff." "We should get a box of donuts sent down to those geniuses in marketing." "And while we're at it, I think we execs deserve another payrise and performance bonuses all-round."

How irratonal it is that so much effort and investment in [so-called] developed countries has gone into providing a potable domestic water supply, only for 99% of it to be used for flushing toilets, watering the lawn etc. And then people still go out and buy bottled drinking water, most of which is just packaged tapwater anyway. (Ok, maybe the bottled variety doesn't have the chlorine, but it's no big deal to let tapwater stand in the fridge overnight and let the chlorine escape.)

Imagine the feelings of a Zimbabwean family who'd just lost two children to cholera because the only water available to them is contaminated with sewage, if they were to see someone hosing their driveway with pure, clear, drinkable tapwater whilst swigging from a bottle of Dasani that would have cost them half a day's pay.

The way we in Western countires take potable tapwater for granted has really come home to me on my travels through Latin America, where millions of people are not so fortunate. I've met other cylists who drink the tapwater wherever they are, though I have not been quite so cavalier, tending the follow the example of the locals - if it's good enough for them, it's good enough for me, although I may get sick occassionally as I don't have their level of resistance to any bugs that may be present. As I can get through 8 litres of water day, this approach has saved a lot of money and plastic waste.

Here the tapwater in towns and cities is generally fine, despite what the guidebooks say (they're covering their backs, I suppose). I say fine because I never got sick, although it's quite possible that it contains heavy metals, pesticides and other organic chemicals that may pose a longer-term health risk. Certainly there appeared to be a lot of cultivation and development in cathcment areas, and a lot of untreated industrial and mining waste and sewage is dumped into rivers. I'm not sure how effective the water treatment facilities are in dealing with these contaminants. Water quality monitoring data is not readily available to the public.

In more rural areas, the domestic water supply often comes from a communal tank supplied by a creek or somesuch. The water is not treated, so typically a family will boil up a few litres of agua panela (water with unrefined sugarcane) every morning in a large pot and this will be used throughout the day as a drink on its own and as a base for the ubiquitous tinto (black coffee) or chocolate.

Standalone properties sometimes have their own tank. Otherwise water is collected in buckets from a nearby source. I'm surprised that there are so few rainwater tanks, as there is plenty of rainfall throughout the region.

The water quality here is not always so good. In many of the mountain towns and cities, including popular tourist destinations such as Quito, Cuenca and Otavalo, the tap water exceeeds international standards (according to the WHO). But then there are places like Ibarra which has good catchment protection and water treatment facilities, but the reticulation and sewerage systems are so antiquated and badly maintained that cross-containation occurs, and local advice is to boil first.

In El Angél, a village high up in the northern highlands, I asked my new friend Balmer if the water was ok, and his answer was that it was 70% ok and that, while everyone in the village drank it straight form the tap, I probably shouldn't. But later he introduced me to his father who was the healthiest 96-year old I have ever met and who had lived in El Angél all his life, so I figured the water couldn't be that bad.

A couple of weeks later I was in Papallacta, a mountain village surrounded by national park and numerous natural springs. I assumed the water would be ok but, to be on the safe side, asked a restarant owner my usual question, "El agua aquí es potable?" (Is the water here potable?). She said that it was, but on further discussion it turned out that it had to be boiled. I guess the word 'potable' has a dfferent meaning to someone who's probably never been able to drink water straight from the tap. From then on, I modified my question to be, "Se puede tomar el agua aquí, sin hervirla?" (Can you drink the water here, without boiling it?).

In the coastal and and jungle regions, the water is best avoided. In Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, there had been such underinvestment in water infrastructure over the years that disease outbreaks were common. When the Inter–American Development Bank offered to lend thew government money to improve the city’s water service, they accepted (no doubt persuaded by generous 'campaign contributions'). Of course, the loans came with the condition that Guayaquil hand over the control of its water to an international corporation - the infamous Bechtel. It is no surprise to learn that, while Bechtel has been earning about $300 million a year from the deal, there has been little improvement and, under the the private system, households who can't afford to pay for bills have had their supply cut off. (See

Here the water is generally not too good. In the few places where I've been told it's ok, it's tasted pretty bad. Then I picked up giardia somewhere along the way, which has disrupted my trip a fair bit. So from now on I'll be boiling or filtering all water, or buying bottles of San Luis (Coca-Cola's local brand of bottled tapwater).

December 06, 2008


5.45pm. The Sun has dropped behind the mountains to the West and there are maybe 30 minutes of light left in which to find a campsite.

I am riding through a corner of Sumaco National Park, descending through cloud forest on my way to the selba (jungle) in Eastern Ecuador, and had been enjoying the rugged forested terrain so much that I'd lost all track of time.

The road (such as it is) is cut into the side of a steep valley and so there is no flat ground either side on which to set up a tent. It is so rough and rocky that I won't be able to ride with just torchlight - it's tricky enough in daylight. I haven't seen a truck or bus for hours so probably no chance of hitching a ride. Camping on the road itself is out of the question in case any vehicles do come along. I should have stopped at the summit half an hour before, where there was a small flat that would have been ideal.

Mild panic starting to set in.

The Sun sets and it seems to be getting darker with every second. Just as I'm beginning to despair, I see a small flat on my left, overlooking the valley to the East, by now just a canvas of obscure shapes and ridgelines - I can make out the sillhouette of a large volcano in the distance. It is pretty close to the road and more conspicuous than I'd like, but it will have do in the circumstances.

I pitch the tent in the darkness. I have performed this task so many times that I could do it blindfolded. Similarly, I manage to get my dinner prepared and cooking away without the aid artificial light - it's amazing how much you can see in the darkness once your eyes are accustomed to it.

Eventually I switch on my headtorch, and see straght away that I'm not alone. There is a large spider apparently enjoying the warmth next to the stove, many small beetles are busily going about their business, and swarms of colourful moths are flitting around my head - a couple have already boiled themselves in my soup.

After dinner my thoughts turn to water. I should have enough, but it's always nice to have some in reserve. I prick my ears, and hear the faint sound of running water coming from the other side of the road. On going to investigate, I discover a small trickle of water flowing down the mountainside. Should be ok to drink. This is turning out to be a pretty good campsite after all.

Though I am still concerned that the tent is visible from the road. I doubt that there will be any ignoble persons passing by, but to be on the safe side I remove the reflective guy-lines and hope they won't be needed later in the night.

5am. Suffocating heat. The equatorial Sun has risen and is now cooking me alive inside my warm sleeping bag. Half-asleep, I quickly fumble around to unzip myself and get outside, where I am greeted by the sight of the sun rising above the volcano, and the mist clearing to reveal an immense expanse of forest descending toward the selba in the distance. I can't find any shade from the intense Sun so, after a quick breakfast and a wash from the trickle of water across the road, I am on my way again.

Twelve hours of daylight left in which to find my next resting place.

December 03, 2008

Back in Peru

Lucho's Casa de Ciclistas in Trujillo. There were 5 other riders staying at the same time as me so space was a bit tight but it was nice to meet some fellow tourers and exchange stories and advice.


Moments after this photo was taken, he answered a call on his mobile phone.
Inca baths at Tambomachay.Cristo Blanco, who looks down over Cusco.

The Sacred Valley, seen from the Ollantaytambo citadel.

There were many school groups visiting Cusco at the same time as me, and for some reason they all wanted a photo taken with me. I should have charged 1 Sol a picture like the locals do.
The summit of Huaynu Picchu.
The same place 7 years earlier.