Friday, October 31, 2008

Goodby Ecuador, Hello Peru - October 31

My favorite poem, and what I think has always been my philosophy of life, is Robert Frost´s ¨A Road Less Traveled¨. And that´s what I decided to do to get from Ecuador to Peru. Not necessarily smart, but definitely more interesting.

Most people cross the border at Macaras, but I decided to take a 200km dirt road from Vilcabamba to Las Balzas.

It wasn´t a bad day, but definitely the physically hardest riding I had done. 200km of winding, steep, dirt with a couple of streams and mud stretches thrown in for good luck. Oh yeah, and did I mention the fog?

During the 9 or 10 hours it took me to get to Peru I think I saw about 5 other vehicles. This was definitely the middle of nowhere. But the scenery was spectacular

Finally I arrived at the Peruvian border. For those of you used to crossing into Mexico or Canada, this is not like those border crossings. First of all, there is nothing there. A couple of huts, and that´s it.

On the Ecuadorian side, I had to wait for the customs officer to come back from Peru, where he had gone for lunch. OK, it´s just across the bridge, but it sounded a bit strange to me.

Now, the border crossing itself is interesting.

First, you have to realize that I had just ridden in on what was essentially a narrow, dirt cowpath (in the background of the picture above). On the other side of the border, into Peru, was an equivalent piece-of-crap road. But joining these two, at the border itself, was a beautiful, two-lane paved highway that must have stretched for all of 200 feet! Some government official must definitely have a brother in the bridge construction business!

I asked one of the people at the border why they had built this miracle of modern engineering to join these two horse trails. The answer: ¨Maybe for when they pave the roads.... like in 50 years!

The Peruvian side of the border was equally impressive. It took a while to go through immigration because the immigration official had gone home to take a shower. Since I needed to get to the next town with a hotel before dark, I was forced (with the help of a local guy who was obviously guarding the bridge) to roust him from his shower to come and stamp my passport.

I finally made it to San Ignacio where I spent the night. Paved road in the morning... something to look forward to!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Vilcabamba: Last Stop in Ecuador - Oct 28 to 31

Leaving Cuenca was a pleasure... at first. About an hour of nice flat paved road. And then, of course, it all turned to crap . Construction, mud, wet roads, and fog.

Are you seeing a pattern here? Welcome to South America.

At one construction site I stopped and imagine my surprise to see a clone of my bike... same model, same color, same panniers: A true twin. Now, most of us doing the South American loop on a motorcycle tend to have something of an idea about who else is on the road through various web sites. We use these to give and get information, and meet up with other riders. So I was somewhat shocked to see a tall gringo woman that I hadn´t heard about standing next to the bike.

Sylvia Owen is a dermatologist from Montana, and had left Montana at about the same time I left Panama, so she was really hauling! When the construction site opened and they motioned us to continue, on we rode. Unfortunately, they had jumped the gun a bit and there was a string of dump trucks backing up on the one- lane road. We pulled over, a ditch and cliff to our right and trucks to our left, to let them pass (missing by inches). It was fine for the trucks, but then came a flatbed loaded with a bulldozer.

This caught Sylvia´s bike and I could hear her screaming in fear that she was going to be pulled under the truck. I was stuck and couldn´t do anything but blast my horn until finally the truck stopped after dragging her about 10 feet. Needless to say, she was more than a bit shaken. I persuaded her to come with me to Vilcabamba to ¨decompress¨, and on we rode.

Vilcabamba is a small village noted for the longevity of it´s people. It is a beautiful, tranquil place in the mountains. The hotel (Hotel Izhcayluma) was excellent, and the German owner Peter does a great job. I´m not a super fan of German food, but in this case the fare was excellent.

We also met Joseph and Doro, a German couple driving the most outrageous vehicle I have seen. Their ¨camper¨ was obviously made by the same company that made Rommel´s tanks, and they had driven it around the world for the last three years. I ran into them again in Peru... it´s hard to miss this thing.

Sylvia left after a day, and I stayed on. I´m getting really good at decompressing... not easy for what Karen calls a super-type-A personality. Oh well, I´m trainable, although I did have a bit of bike repair to keep me busy.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Cuenca: A Real Gem - October 24 - 28

Guayaquil failed to impress me (big, dirty, uninteresting), and so I left after a day there. The ride to Cuenca was a particularly tough one; OK, it was a holy bitch! After the first hour I headed into the mountains and the road got BAD. As I hit the cloud level it was foggy and wet, slippery mud, with visibility about 10 feet. I was able to average about 15-20 mph. At one point traffic was stopped for about an hour waiting for a construction site to be cleared, but we were all entertained by watching the boulders roll down the hill from where they were working up above. The word of the day was ¨DUCK¨. Then of course they had to clear the road.

The road kept climbing for hours, eventually reaching a pass of more than 13,000 feet. For those of you not used to driving at this altitude, engines need oxygen to work... and there isn't much there. The bike loses a lot of power at that altitude. It was COLD! In might be near the equator, but altitude trumps latitude every time.

I finally started back down the hill and into the Parque El Caja s (more on that later) and the scenery was spectacular.

Eventually -- cold, tired, and more than a little dirty -- I reached Cuenca.

Cuenca is a very nice colonial city of about a half million people. The central area has many beautiful old buildings, along with the obligatory dozens of cathedrals.

Part of what made Cuenca fun was the group of "kids" (aren't they all these days) that I met: Sandra (German), Markus (German) and Robin (Belgian).

Sandra and I went hiking in Parque Nacional El Cajas, an area I had ridden over on my way to Cuenca. Hiking at that altitude isn´t easy ( actually, it´s fine if you don´t need to breathe), but the scenery is incredible.

There's an old village in the park that use to be a way-station for travelers going from Guayaquil to Cuenca 150 years ago when the trip took about a month. Now it's maintained as a kind of museum, although we couldn't get in until we found a caretaker with a key.

Part of the village is underground... this was also a silver and gold mine. One of the more interesting rooms was the bathroom. An odd assortment of skeletons, stuffed snakes, and even a toilet!

Sunday, I went with the ¨kids¨ to the market at Gualaceo. This is a small town about an hour by bus (and 60 cents in cost) from Cuenca. A typical local market, but I always find these interesting.

The highlight was going to lunch in the municipal market building. There were different section s for different types of food. We opted for the roast pig, and I´ll tell you that for $2 we feasted. Crispy skin, tender meat, and appropriate accompaniments. Mmmmm.
And I was even told that it was guaranteed kosher (I think that´s what they said. Although it could be that ¨quosheir¨ means something completely different in Quechua... like maybe ¨taking dirty money and pulling pork with the same hand gives the meat better flavor¨, or something like that.
The next day we went to Baños, not the famous one, but a village near Cuenca. While we weren´t impressed at first with the facilities (just looked like a swimming pool, with some steam rooms up above), it turned out to be a great day. We sat around in the hot pool while it pissed rain all afternoon. Met some very interesting local people who always come on Mondays. Why Monday? Because they clean the pool on Sunday night. Good reason! There was also a fun group of Ecuadorians in the steam room. About 12 raucus, middle-aged businessmen who also come every Monday and spend the afternoon sweating and drinking. Sandra was excluded (men only steam room), but Markus, Robin, and I had a good sweat and a great time. No pictures permitted!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quito to Guayaquil: The Ecuadorian Coast - Oct 22, 23

From Quito I headed to the coast. Tired of rain and cold, it was time for SUN, and a nice warm beach. Unfortunately I hadn't read the weather reports... what is (mistakenly) called the Ruta del Sol (Route of the Sun) was anything but. More like the Ruta de No Hay Ningun Sol Por Ningun Parte (Route where there ain´t no sun nowhere)

The road over the mountains was pure fog. Visibility, oh maybe 10 feet. Mudslides about every 6 cm, and did I mention the rain? Not fun, but after a day and a half I arrived in Canoa.
Canoa is a little beach town that was actually quite nice despite the weather. Not many people, but the ones who were there were a very friendly bunch. All the hotel / pub / restaurant owners seemed to go out of their way to make you feel at home. The kind of place where the publican comes over and invites you to sit down with him for a brewski. Kind of a Gringo/Ecuadorian version of Cheers.
Despite the overabundance of traffic (as you can see), it was a nice, tranquil place.

Getting south from Canoa involved a ferry ride from San Vicente to Bahia. The ferry "terminal" simply didn't exist. Just a drive on the beach, a wait for the ferry (an old landing craft) to pull up, ride a little bit through the sand and surf, and then go up a wet metal ramp and hope you don't slip.

Of course, at least I had ¨proper¨ transportation. One of my fellow passengers on the boat was obviously taking his roosters for a joy ride on his bike. They didn´t look any too pleased, and I don´t think were particularly looking forward to the voyage.

South of Manta I ¨discovered¨ a new road... problem was they hadn´t gotten around to building it yet. This is my way of saying that I took a wrong turn, got lost, and was on this godawful stretch of deep sand and dust. The bike didn´t want to cooperate, and decided to take a little ¨rest¨, without consulting yours truly. Now, if you´ve never tried to lift a loaded, heavy bike by yourself in deep sand I can tell you that it´s not as much fun as it sounds like. But after finding some rocks to prop it part way up, and trying my best to develop another hernia, I was on my way.

The problem was, I didn´t know my way! So I stopped at the only house for miles to ask directions. My Spanish is good... unfortunately my Quechua is non-existent, and that´s all that the old man in the house spoke.
So on I trod, eventually finding pavement and the road on to Montañitas. This is a surfer paradise, but given the lousy weather and rain I took off after one night and headed for Guayaquil.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Ecuador - Otavalo and Quito October 12 to 18

After leaving Colombia (sob!) I entered Ecuador. At the border I met a couple of German guys on BMWs, and thought I might have some company for a little while. But alas, they got all pissed off when I told them that they didn´t need carnets (a kind of import tax guarantee) to enter Ecuador. They informed me that they had paid 10,000 euros for the carnets and they were going to damn well use them! Since they aren´t required, I just filled out my paperwork. They left in the meantime. Oh well, everyone is not to be traveled with!

The Edward Scissorhand Memorial Cemetary - I made a quick stop at the cemetery in Tulcan near the border. Why, you might ask (since I don´t know any of the residents)? Turns out some of the gardners there thought they were Edward Scissorhand, and did a real job creating tree sculptures. Quite impressive.

I then went to Otavalo. Karen and I had been here 10 years ago for the Saturday market, but I was not there for the weekend this time. I stayed three days just catching up on getting things done (that´s a traveling term for buying a phone card, doing laundry, and the like. Otavalo is at about 8500 feet above sea level, so you have to get used to doing things with a bit less O2.
The most noticeable thing about Otavalo is the indigenous population. The people here aren´t in native dress for anyone... that´s just the way they are. Made for an enjoyable stop.

On October 15, at 12:27 pm, I officially crossed into the southern hemisphere. I missed getting the perfect photo on my GPS by a few feet due to traffic.

Quito was another fun stop. The hostal I stayed in (the Crossroads) made me feel like the Old Man From the Mountain. Everyone there seemed to be about 12... like most of the hostals. But a very friendly group who liked to go out and have a good time. Fortunately some of them were willing to drag me along. I also took some Salsa dance lessons, but then the ¨senior moments¨ kicked in and I´ve forgotten absolutely everything. But it was fun at the time!

A friend of a friend that we had met in Panama (thanks for the introduction, Zack, and for the invitation Mark) had also organized a ¨watch the debate¨night in an Irish Pub in Quito, so I didn´t feel totally out of the American political scene. A heavily Democratic crowd (YES!)

Also got in a little sightseeing. Churches and such, but also an interesting tour of the presidential palace. I was in a group with a bunch of Cubans from New York, so I felt kind of at home (don´t even try to figure that one out). The palace guards dressed kind of like the White House guards in the Nixon days (and for which he took an endless amount of ribbing). These are a bit more authentic.

More soon.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Cali, Isla Gorgona, and South out of Colombia * Oct 6 to 11

Time to catch up on the news. After the Operation Smile mission in Cali, I spend a few days there then decided to go diving on Isla Gorgonas for a few days. I had heard that the diving here was spectacular. It was good, but not quite what I had been hoping for. I was looking for whale sharks and hammerheads, and didn´t see either. But did see lots of other big fish, and huge schools of tuna.

The island itself used to be a prison, kind of like Alcatraz. The only inmates now are tourists and a few ¨family¨.

There were some particularly large schools of baracuda, looking like sharks at the surface. We dove in to watch (very impressive) but alas, no underwater camera.

On the return from Gorgonas I was waiting for the plane in a restaurant and the owner was feeding a small animal. Turned out it was a baby anteater, a month old. They are found (or stolen) in the jungle and sold for pets. This woman buys them when she can and raises them long enough to let them go in the wild. A truly cool animal!

From Cali I headed south. I spent the night in Pasto with Camilo, a friend of my friend Jacqui, a brit who rode her Enfield 500 from India around most of the world and stayed with us in Panama for a few days (Jacqui... there´s your plug!)

Then it was across the border into Ecuador. In all, I was one month in Colombia and loved it. It´s a great country, beautiful, and the people are wonderful and friendly. Don´t let the old reputation scare you off; Colombia is a great place to visit and as safe as anywhere else. Put it on your list.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Operation Smile (Operacion Sonrisa) - Cali, Colombia - Oct 4


As many of you know (and now the rest do too), I've been involved with Operation Smile for the past eight years. I was on the board of the Seattle chapter, and am now a board member and treasurer of Operacion Sonrisa Panama.

Operation Smile is a worldwide organization that helps kids with facial deformities... mostly cleft lip and palette. We work with the poor, and all treatment is free. The organization is non-religious, and medical "missions" are strictly medical.

We never see kids like this in the US, Canada, or Europe because they tend to be treated when they are less than a year old. Yet a kid with a cleft lip and palette (basically a big hole in the roof of the mouth going into the nasal cavity) will have difficulty eating, drinking, and talking. Often they are shunned by the village. Yet in just an hour or two we are able to correct this terrible debility. It is truly miraculous!

One of the things that I am doing on this trip is meeting with the Operacion Sonrisa people in countries where we have operations to get ideas that we can use in Panama. It so happened that there was a mission in Cali, Colombia, as I was in the area so I was able to participate and observe. Following are some pictures from the mission.

It's always fun to help amuse the kids before surgery. Many of them have never been to the big city, and they are understandably nervous. I always bring along "Miguelito", my pet trained raccoon (ok, he is a puppet but don't tell him that... he thinks he is alive). He looks very real, and is always a big hit.

I also tend to spend some time in surgery (don't worry, they don't let me operate!) There always seems to be a few kids that the volunteers form a special bond with. This time "mine" was Omar. A great kid. One of the more satisfying things that I sometimes get to do is take the kids to surgery, and be with them while they are put under (and of course, watch the procedure). This time I got to accompany Omar.

Another one of my favorites was Marcos. As you can see, he is a very cute kid with a severe cleft lip and palette. His father is the casique (chief) of a local indigenous tribe and they had literally come to the city from the jungle for the surgery.

Marcos' surgery was complex. No matter how many times I've watched, I'm amazed how the surgeons can take what looks to me like a bunch of raw meat and create working parts of a mouth. Think about how many muscles it takes to move your lips and you'll appreciate the complexity of putting it back together.

Immediately after surgery you can see the difference. It will take some time for the swelling to go down, but this little fellow should be able to lead a normal life. And all this in a little over an hour!

Operation Smile is completely free for the kids we help. We rely strictly on donations. If you are interested in helping out, contact Operation Smile ( or let me know.

If you are looking make a contribution to the Panamanian community, but want to be able to take a tax deduction from your US income taxes, we can arrange this. All donations will come to Operacion Sonrisa Panama, but we can have a receipt issued by Operation Smile in the US so that it will be fully tax deductible. Just let me know (email me at

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pereira: The Coffee Region - Sept 30 to Oct 1

After leaving Cali I stopped to see my friend Michel Medina in Pereira. David (the South African) decided to continue on, as I would be stopping in Cali for an Operation Smile mission... more on that later. Michel is a plastic surgeon that I roomed with on an Operation Smile mission to Bolivia four years ago. He just opened a new clinic that is beautiful. For those of you thinking of "having a little work done... just to touch things up", Pereira would be a good place to go. Direct flights from Panama and Miguel is a superb surgeon. I have watched him operate several times on the OpSmile kids and he is great. **This has been a non-paid advertisement**

Only one hitch in Pereira. On my way to visit Michel's clinic I was stopped by a roadblock checking documents. Unfortunately I had left my insurance certificate in Michel's house. The traffic cop (more at the level of a crossing guard) wouldn't let me continue without it. While I went to get it, they towed my bike! Took all afternoon to get it back. To top it off, they weren't supposed to do that, and we complained to the chief. Hopefully she'll get what traffic karma has to offer.

Michel and his girlfriend Melissa were great to me. One night we went to a town in the mountains for the thermals. Beatiful waterfalls and lots of hot water. Made it a bit difficult to maneuver after all that relaxation.

The next day Melissa and her mother took me to visit Salento. This is a little colonial village in the mountains where the houses are all painted in a very unique and colorful manner. Very picturesque. We had a great lunch (fresh trout) and much coffee. This is the coffee growing region of Colombia, and in case you were wondering: Yes, Juan Valdez is alive and well. There are Juan Valdez coffee shops all over Colombia. Starbucks, keep the hell out! Old Juan is pretty popular here. In fact, a couple of years ago they had a country-wide competition to pick a new Juan Valdez. Guess the old one was becoming a bit decaffeinated.