Author Archives: Mike Rafferty

Poco a Poco: Iguazu to Buenos Aires

This won’t be the last post, but the end of the road is in sight.

We left Puerto Iguazu with storm clouds blanketing this whole part of the continent.  Locally, the piece of Argentina that extends up toward the junction with Brazil and Paraguay is referred to as Mesopotamia, as it is bounded by rivers that define the national boundaries.  Water was rolling in from the South Atlantic in boiling torrents of rain that fills those rivers, and we got up close and personal with a whole lot of it.  Our “rain gear” was almost a joke – this was something well beyond mere “rain”.  Soaked and chilled, we finally broke out near the end of the day and stopped at a great little posada (B&B-like small hotel) in the small town of Gobernador Virasoro.  This is the region where Argentina grows the tea they are all so fond of, and the beautifully manicured fields surrounded us.

The next day, we split the distance to Buenos Aires and stopped at the town of Federacion, which is a tourist destination popular with the hot spring/bath crowd.  We really were just making miles to get to BA, but did take the time to stroll the town and get a feel for the place.  Pleasant on the river and filled with a crowd edging toward the elder set, walking from the baths to hotels in their fluffy white robes.  But again, a nice place to stay the night, and we were well positioned for the run to Buenos Aires the next day.

A short note about the road we were on:  this is the infamous “Ruta 14” that is really the only good choice for the destination we had, and it is well known as a place where the police are…economically motivated.  There are plenty of stories to be found on the internet about motorists (and motorcyclists) who’ve contributed to the well-being of these gentlemen.  And there are a LOT of police on Ruta 14.  Only once did we have the pleasure of their company.

We were waved over at a “control” point staffed by the three gents in the photo.  Two came over to talk to us and the boss stayed back at their car haggling with some other poor soul whom they had ensnared.  He honestly, no kidding, had a calculator on the trunk of his car to do the math.  Too funny.

Our two gents were the warm up, and they deferred all real negotiation to their boss, who would be with us “soon”.  They talked about how dangerous the road was, how we must have been speeding, and how the fine could be as much as 2000 pesos ($500).  But we kinda spoiled their their gig when we came off our bikes with friendly smiles and handshakes, and Heather asking if she could get a group photo of us all (that REALLY made ‘em skittish), and then the waiting game ensued.  We hung around maybe fifteen minutes while their boss dealt with a very animated “client” who was apparently not having it.  And we were taking photos, playing the happy tourists…so when he finally got to us, I think they had all decided we weren’t the right game for their hunt.  We got nothing more than a “be careful” admonition and we were on our way, none the worse for wear, and very glad we had NOT let the tales of bad cops on Ruta 14 keep us from seeing Iguazu Falls.  It is a shame, but I’m certain there are riders who give the Falls a pass just because of these knuckleheads.

Our arrival into Buenos Aires was a sweet ride.  The fields and pastures continue very near the city, and the trees are full of birds.  I’m pretty sure I caught a glimpse of two capybaras lazing in a marsh on the side of the road.  Lots of cattle and horses.

As we neared the city, two lanes turned to four and the traffic picked up.  Then several long and very tall bridges over broad, brown rivers dropped us onto an expressway that gained more traffic and more lanes and, in short order, we were in the midst of it all, shooting across Buenos Aires on a major freeway through the city.  A quick stop to check the maps in our iPhones, and we rode directly to the little house in the Palermo barrio where our friends from the US had arrived earlier in the day.  It all seemed a bit surreal after such an amazing journey of deserts, jungles and mountains, far-flung border crossings and adventures, good cops, great cops and bad cops, hotels, hostels, posadas and many new friends.  To roll up in this busy little street in Argentina, and get big hugs from old friends so far from our start was very, very cool.  Quick showers and a toast to our success and we were all off to discover Buenos Aires…but I think that’s a separate story…

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Woohoo!

We made it! Despite a whole squadron of Police on the infamous route 14, we arrived safe and sound in Buenos Aires. Details to follow…but somehow this mural, just down the street, seemed appropriate.

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Mendoza to Iguazu…Falling for Argentina

Cabernet on the Vine

So, as of last writing, there we were in Mendoza, Argentina.  Mendoza turned out to be quite a nice town, a tourist destination, and a city proud of its trees and numerous plazas.  The town of Maipu that some may have heard of (or read on a wine bottle) is a sorta kinda suburb of Mendoza, made famous by the many vineyards there.  We opted for a bicycle tour of the wine road, and traded our BMWs for beat up little yellow bikes – maybe not such a good deal.  But if you’re touring vineyards, a safer alternative, since the end of each tour is always the tasting!

So off we went on wobbly wheels, and our first stop was a museum/active vintner not far from the start.  We had a nice tour and got the skinny on how they do their magic, with the added plus that it is the harvest here, and the wine making gear is running full steam.

Highlight of the day was lunch at a restaurant in the midst of thousands of acres of vineyards, and it was one of the memorable meals of the trip.  Lunch (an inadequate word for the meal we shared) included a touch of education in that we learned of the Torrontes grape, an Argentine favorite, that produces a delightful white wine, not too sweet, with nice pear and citrus smells.  Yummy.

Mendoza was also where we hardened the decision not to attempt Patagonia on this trip.  It’s just a bit late in the season and would be cool-to-cold, and time is growing short.  Now THAT’S a phrase we hated to see enter our conversation, but it’s true.  We’re starting to see the end over the horizon, and have to either face it or toss all thoughts of responsibility and become permanent vagabonds.

We determined that where we really needed to go was Iguazu Falls.  Many had told us that it was an absolute must, and it involved rolling north to warmer temps, so that is exactly what we determined to do.  It would be a hike, but with a world-class prize at the end.

Miles of Miles (BIG Country!)

Leaving Mendoza heading east was like crossing rural Indiana…repeatedly.  When the vineyards ran out, the scenery turned to enormous farms and ranches that stretched on for miles and miles and miles.  By day’s end, we had reached San Luis, where we spent the night and planned our next day’s run to Cordoba.

The ride from San Luis to Cordoba was a sweet one that might have been even sweeter if it was just a little earlier in the year, and warmer.  After passing through rolling hills and many small towns, it was up and over the Cordillera, topping out at over 7,000 feet.  The thermometer on my bike dove down to 39 degrees F, and stayed there for miles.  It was beautiful, curvy, rocky and fascinating…but cold!  A complication hit when Heather’s bike developed an intermittent quirk – her motor would stall at the same moment her tachometer would indicate (falsely) that it was over-revving.  Weird and totally inconvenient.

We nursed it on in to Cordoba, checked into a hotel, found parking and dinner and called it a day.  The next morning, we met the nice folks at BMW Cordoba, and at first, of course, the problem wouldn’t reoccur.  But a persistent mechanic went over the bike and found the problem – and a very simple one it was.  Prolonged vibration had loosened the connection to her battery, and merely tightening it back cured the ill.  Her bike was simply shutting itself off for brief moments, like a flickering light.  After a thorough going over, her bike was pronounced healed and we were on our way.  These guys are terrific, and if anybody reads this who is passing through Cordoba, be sure and drop by.

Sunrise, Rio Parana, Corrientes

From Cordoba, the next stop was in Parana, on the east bank of the river of the same name.  We passed through more hundreds of miles of lush farmland along the way, with lots of fat cattle.  Parana was where we would break north and head back into humid, more tropical country.  We followed the Parana to Corrientes and spent the night in one of the worst hotels of the trip.  Too bad, really, as Corrientes, a port city on the river, looked to be an interesting town.  But the Falls was our destination and we wouldn’t be slowed…

Off and at it in the morning, we had about 390 miles to make Puerto Iguazu.  This was/is a really nice ride, and I’m glad we made it in the fall of the year – the road passed through increasingly rolling hills and thick, increasingly tropical forest as we headed up into the strange little geographical oddity that is the “Missiones” region of Argentina.  Take a look at a map – it is a thin strip of land extending up between Brazil and Paraguay, and looks like a mapmaker’s mistake.

We rolled into Puerto Iguazu right on schedule, and found our current digs – a great little hotel called the “Jardin de Iguazu”.   It is only 4 months old and extremely well maintained, which means all the towels are new, the rooms are perfect – everything is tip-top!  And the staff are equally fresh and friendly.  We would absolutely recommend this one to anyone headed this way.  After a great dinner, we hit the sack with plans to go and see the falls in the morning.

And see the falls we did!  When we recount the many memorable places and things we have seen on this trip, this is definitely one of the most remarkable, and should mark a place on everyone’s “things to see before I croak” list.  Legend has it that Eleanor Roosevelt, when shown the falls here, said that Niagara was a “dripping faucet” after Iguazu.  It is absolutely tremendous and we now understand fully why people come here from all over the world.  Well worth the days spent riding to get here.  No question.

We started our tour by taking the bus to the park, which is a few miles outside the town.  It filled a good, full day to walk the many catwalks and bridges they’ve installed to get folks up close and personal with the many different falls that comprise Iguazu, for Iguazu isn’t really just one fall, but a wall of waterfalls that stretches across several miles.  Without question, the most exhilarating part was the boat-ride that takes you right up into the crashing waters.  It’s a full soaking event, and worth the considerable hike down to the river where the boats launch.  We both commented how much James and Becky would love it.

The park is home to LOTS of critters, including literally millions of butterflies, some the size of small birds.  We saw dozens of Coatis – the South and Central American cousin to the raccoon, tame as cats.  Lots of signs warn the visitors not to feed the Coatis – but the Coatis seem to have quite another view.  One particularly bold youngster started nosing through a ladies purse that had been enticing him with potato chips, to the crowd’s delight, when he suddenly grabbed her bag of potato chips and bolted.  I guess he didn’t read the signs that say human food is bad for him, and nobody was ready to try and get that bag back…

Delinquent Coati

Day two in Iguazu was a bit of a hoot – but not the hoot we planned.  We started the day with a quick trip to Brazil, and yes, we can technically say we made it into Brazil…but when we got to the customs booth, the polite lady wanted to know where our visas were.  Visas??  Nobody said we needed visas…so our cab driver took us back across the river to the Brazilian consulate where we learned, from a cranky little man who spoke very little but pointed at signs with great enthusiasm, that a visa cost 546 pesos (the same $135 we charge Brazilians for visas), and that they were only available in the morning…as in TOMORROW morning.  We had a good laugh and decided Brazil wasn’t in the cards.

Instead, we remained in Argentina and visited a large refuge that takes in mammals and birds that are wounded or can’t be kept by others.  They rehabilitate all they can, release those that are able to return to the jungle, and keep those they can’t.  It was a very nice guided tour, and a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.

Our second debacle was an intended river cruise, which our hotel recommended.  The Rio Iguazu and Rio Parana join at the edge of this town, just past the falls.  We went to the dock and found that…the boat was down for repairs and the cruise would have to wait until tomorrow…when there’s rain in the forecast.  But it was a beautiful view down at the dock, looking across to Brazil across one river and Paraguay across the other.

So there’s the update for now – we’ll stay here another day, and then break for Buenos Aires, to meet up with friends and start to conjure a way to get ourselves, our bikes and our gear back to the US.  I write that with somewhat mixed feelings, I’ll admit.  It will be absolutely terrific to see the folks that are coming down to BA, and BA should be amazing.  However, contemplating the end of this remarkable journey is not such a happy thought.  Perhaps, like the teaser ending on any good adventure film, the next post should be the prelude to the sequel…after all, there’s still Patagonia to explore…and more of Costa Rica…

Yea…Southern Chile…Patagonia…hmmm…Costa Rica…hmmm…so many places…

Saludos to all, we are still well and still happy, and hope you are as well!

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Leaving Bolivia, Northern Chile

Mountains to desert, the coast to the Atacama…the changes in just a few short days have been astounding.

La Paz:  Busy, chaotic, you gotta be born there to truly understand the streets…but since it was also a “going back” place, like Panama, it felt comfortable and was a good rest stop.

A few words of description might be useful.  La Paz is a city you can divide in three parts – arriving from Peru and Titicaca, the road crosses the Altiplano (high plain) at something between 13 and 14,000 feet.  It’s chilly and sometimes borders on harsh.  The road arrives through the “el Alto”, the sprawling and growing poor side of town.  Navigate el Alto and you next spill down the steep sides of the bowl that contains the center of the city.  Lastly, it drops another step to the Zona Sur, where the more affluent neighborhoods reside.  Each drop includes a temperature increase and more oxygen.  Annual income and altitude tend to be inversely related here – the lower the altitude, the better the likelihood of expendable income.

We arrived in La Paz after several days of making considerable miles, including the best and worst riding days so far.  With no appreciable stop since Lima other than a day in Cusco, we were due a rest.  Heather, doing her usual great job of researching hotels, had found a great little “apart-hotel” hidden away in a hillside neighborhood of older homes in the lower part of the center of the city.  It was impossible to find in the spaghetti map of this old city, so we finally paid a cab driver a buck to lead us to it.  A La Maison is one we can highly recommend to anyone else passing this way – just don’t try to find it on your own.

It was terrific seeing La Paz as a tourist, and my calves should recover soon – Heather is quite a walker and keeping up with her on the steep streets of La Paz was a challenge.  I had brief thoughts of tripping her and causing just enough injury to slow her down a little, but decided against it.  Would probably end up tripping myself in the bargain…

The Gang at Embassy La Paz

A highlight of our time here was reconnecting with the crew from the office in the Embassy where I worked while we lived in La Paz.  It was a real treat to be welcomed back after such a long absence, and we reminisced about past adventures.  These folks are easily some of the most capable and dedicated professionals I had the pleasure of managing in all our years overseas.  They’ve seen big changes recently with the new government.  Evo Morales, the current President, is not a fan of the US Government, so the Embassy population is down considerably.

Leaving La Paz, we got an unexpected sendoff when an old friend, John Elliot rolled up on his bike to show us the shortest way out.  We had spent the previous evening with him and his family at their home.  His short cut probably trimmed an hour off the time required to escape the city, and it was a very pleasant surprise.

We rolled south, again on the Altiplano, dodging rain storms.  A last fill up in Putamayo and we broke west for Chile.  The scenery quickly turned spectacular as we climbed to well over 15,000 feet at the border.  Herds of llamas were abundant, some looked to be as many as a hundred or more, and I’ll never stop chuckling when I see a llama crossing warning sign.  Don’t quite know why it’s so funny.  The mountains (volcanoes) in this region are eternally snow-capped, and top out well over 20,000 feet.  Breathtaking.

The border crossing gets a mention – this was the fastest and easiest border so far.  Drop off the customs docs and get an immigration stamp in Boliva, and ten kilometers later, you’re crossing into Chile!  A couple of Bolivian soldiers who looked to be teenagers made a half-hearted and clumsy attempt at asking for money, but they were still way too wet behind the ears to pull it off.  At the Chilean side, the officials actually HELPED us fill our forms, smiled, were friendly, and counted the flags on our side cases in awe (Chile makes our twelfth country so far).  It was great.  And the backdrop of snow-covered, conical volcanoes was stunning.

We rolled on toward the coast and made Arica that night.  We found Arica to be a completely forgettable town.  If you’re making the trip and can pass it by, do so.

Up and out in the morning, we made for Iquique.  Again, the scenery was spectacular.  The entire coast from northern Peru south through northern Chile is all a vast desert. In Peru, it was enormous sand dunes.  Chile so far is enormous dirt/rock mountains and incredibly deep valleys stretching for hundreds of miles – it all looks like a location shoot from star wars.

There is really no town between Arica and Iquique (and no gas station), so we were pleased to happen across a short string of shops and little cafes at about the midpoint.  There was a BMW motorbike parked in front of one, and we stopped in for water and a snack and met a really nice couple rolling north.  We swapped info about bikes and roads, and wished them well.  They were Chileans headed for Cusco, so we gave them the contact info for Jeff at Norton’s Rat.  I’m sure they’ll get the same warm welcome we did.

Iquique was a moderate ride, and we checked in late in the afternoon at the “Backpacker’s Hostal”.  We both really liked Iquique, which is a combo port city and beach resort.  The visual contrast there is amazing, with the backdrop of enormous and barren desert mountains skirting gorgeous Pacific beaches.  We quickly shucked our riding gear and set out to see a bit of the city.  Highlights included the park along the beach, and the crab empanadas at Hula Hula – a little beer and snacks stand near where the fishing boats are moored.  Also the pelicans and sea lions that hang out at the fishing docks, looking for a handout.  They all put on quite a show.

And now, yesterday, we’ve moved on again – to San Pedro de Atacama, back east toward the Bolivian/Argentine border.  It is said to be the driest desert in the world and well worth the visit.  Gun barrel straight roads for miles and miles, with absolutely no evidence of any living thing, other than the abandoned (and one active) nitrate extraction sites.  Even these are far between.  It is beautiful in a curious way, if nothing else just for the enormity of it all.  In hundreds miles, I saw one bird – and it was dead.  Road kill.  Not a weed, not a tree — nothing but sand, rock and dirt.

As we moved east, we began to climb a bit, and at one point, we passed what we were told is the largest open pit copper mine in the world.  In Calama, the nearest town, we stopped to find an ATM, and the nicest couple stopped in their car to see if we were lost.  We weren’t really lost (yet), but they made sure by leading us to an ATM, and then leading us to the edge of town to the road we needed.  Super nice, these Chileans!

We set out for our last 60 miles across more desolation, and then all at once, after cresting at about 3,000 meters, the road dropped through a remarkable canyon into a delightful little adobe village, with a population of about 2,000.  We’ve only just arrived last night, so know little other than that San Pedro is an adventure destination for foreigners and Chileans alike, and we know that it has great restaurants.  Today, we expect to strip the bags off the bikes and go for a wander.  There are said to be salt pools for swimming and canyons for viewing, and all that will have to wait for the next post.  For now, breakfast awaits and Heather’s still snoozing, so I’d better wake her before she misses out!

Best to all – and take good care.  We’re fine, the bikes are running great (with a bit more oxygen now that we’re lower), and all is well.

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Catching Up, Chapter 2 (Trujillo, Peru), New Video Posted

Heather left off with our departure from Vilcabamba, and that’s where I’ll pick up. You may note there isn’t quite her usual level of enthusiasm in her words — something we both ate yesterday finally gave us our first dose of travelers’ tummy, and last night wasn’t much fun for either of us.  Given that, we decided that while we really aren’t THAT sick this morning, we’re both a bit woozy and it would be smart to lay low here another day and get our fluids back before tackling the next road, to Lima.

Picking up on our departure from Vilcabamba, I should reinforce what a great time we had there, and not so much for the place (which is a lush, travelers’ way-point tucked up into the side of a hill overlooking a beautiful valley).  The greatest treat at this hostal/cabins/rustic resort was the blend of folks whose paths are continually crossing there — Americans, Brits, Irish, Ecuadorians, Germans, Canadians, and more —  and we met a lot of truly interesting people there.  It was fun being known as “the bikers” who rode in on the BMWs, and gave us some currency for having traveled as far as we have, the way we have, to get there.  But these folks would have been just as friendly had we rolled in by bus, like virtually all the other travelers.

We had to move on, and did so in pouring rain.  Yet again, the differences in our gear meant that I had mostly dry feet, and Heather had a mostly dry bum, but somewhere around the mid-point in our day’s journey the rain let up.  We were pretty comfortable when we rolled into the last valley in Ecuador, to the little border town of Macara.  We took a hotel on the Ecuadorian side, found dinner and woke the next morning ready for another border crossing — and this one perhaps the most interesting so far.

The Ecuadorian side of the border was 5 minutes or less — super easy.  We then crossed the bridge and…no helpers or money changers in sight anywhere, which was great.  We walked up to immigration, got a smile and a stamp in our passports, and crossed the road to Customs (Aduana).  Little did we know we were about to meet one of the two friendliest Peruvians in existance — Giovanni Franco — who was VERY pleased to help us through the paperwork, but…his computer system was down and that made it impossible to conclude the necessities.  Never mind, we sat with Giovanni (“Gino”) for about three hours, talking about everything you could imagine — from family, to motorbikes, to travel, to a short off-shoot of religion (Gino is convinced that it was time-travelers who built the Incan civilization), and generally had a grand morning waiting around and watching the ebb and flow of traffic across the border bridge.

Eventually, the system came back on line and we were able to get what we needed.  By then Gino had decided we couldn’t possibly visit Peru without seeing the north coast, so he contacted his good friend Julio (the other friendliest guy in Peru) at Punta Sal and arranged for us to stay the night there at Julio’s place.  Which we did.  And we met another hand-full of terrific folks, not the least of which was Julio!  The feeling was much like staying with family you hadn’t seen for a while, and we all wandered out to the beach to watch the Peruvian sunset.  Everybody thinks their sunset is the very best.  Truth is, I think, they’re ALL damned special.

On departure from Punta Sal, we headed south with Trujillo as our maybe destination — as it was about 500 km — quite a hike.  We rolled through Piura and should have bought gasoline, but we were only about 20% down and that has never been a problem.  But the problem is that there are enormous expanses of absolutely nothing in northern Peru — no towns, no gas stations, nothing but sand dunes for miles and miles.  At the point where both our bikes’ low fuel lights came on, we stopped and split the spare fuel in the four little 1 liter cans I carry, and rolled on through heavy side winds with no idea if a gas station would appear in time.  When we finally rolled into a little town with fuel, my bike said it had 13 miles left.  Closest ever to being stranded…

So through this strange, Baja-like desert, we hammered on through a stiff wind and finally made Trujillo — home of Chan Chan archeological site.  Chan Chan is a fascinating, adobe walled complex of cities/palaces, built by a pre-Incan civilization that was prominent in this area. In time, they were conquered by the Incas, and subsequently by the Conquistadores.  It is absolutely huge, and we walked a representative sample of it yesterday.  But as previously mentioned, we must have picked up a bug someplace along the path, and both rested poorly (and empty) last night.

Quick note, Peruvian hairless dogs:  these poor critters are the ugliest thing I ever saw walk on four legs.  Danged friendly, they are, but dang they are ugly!

What’s next?  Likely a long day tomorrow seeking Lima (rumor has it there’s a starbucks), then Cusco and La Paz.  Some old friends are still there, and we’d like to see it before moving on to the relative civilization of Chile and Argentina.

Bop over and check out the video page if you will — we found a little piece of video wherein Heather shows her disrespect for the Colombian toll booths….we get a chuckle out of it — hope you do too!  It will take a little while to load it, so if it isn’t there, give it a few hours and check again.

As always, hope all are well and happy.  We only had a light touch of the indigenous up-chuckies, so should be right as rain tomorrow…not that they GET much rain here!

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Checking in from Quito!

The time since our last post, though short, has been remarkably full and now if it feels that if I don’t write quickly, important details will melt into the greater story, so here goes –

Greetings to all from the Andes!  We have been and continue to be absolutely swimming in the lush green of southern Colombia and northern Ecuador.  We left Cali a couple of days ago in the company of Sr. Hebert Echeverri, elder brother of Ligia Keller.  We were off to spend the night at his family’s hacienda (“La Corona”) in Santander, a mere 40 minutes from our hotel in central Cali.  He led us out of the city in his Renault, and as we rode across the little bridge that marks the entrance to the Hacienda, which is just on the very edge of the town, it felt much like we were leaping back in time at least 50 years. Maybe much more.

La Corona is magnificent.  The single story house is, according to Hebert, 275 years old.  The structure is constructed with massive adobe walls, tile roof, glassless windows closed at night by time-aged wooden shutters (doors, really), and is filled at every corner with colonial antiquities.  The gardens are perfectly tended and are perhaps the most striking feature.  Flowers are everywhere, even in the trees – and the trees!  Massive deciduous “Saman” trees, conifers, palms, and with orchids growing everywhere.

*We were met in the drive by a friendly cacophony of dogs coming from everywhere, and I must admit that by the time we were leaving I had only managed to learn a few of the names.  Heather got them all.

*Before dinner we went for a short walk with Hebert, to see the cattle and the ducks and the peacocks.  A short stop at the tack room and Hebert showed us his saddles and polo mallets and helmets, all hanging as if left there from their last use (which was likely some time ago).  I couldn’t help but imagine what great conversation he could have with my uncle Lloyd Hall, who has been a horseman all his life (though not a polo player).

*While we were exploring the grounds and trying to count the baby ducks, we were joined by Edgar, Hebert and Ligia’s brother.  The four of us went for a windshield tour of Santander, a lovely little city/big town.  Edgar is a retired mechanical engineer who has returned to Santander and is living with another brother, Humberto, in the house of their grandparents in Santander.  We had a fine brief visit to his home, and enjoyed his wit.  What a funny guy!

*Breakfast followed dinner at La Corona, and we drank our coffee while watching the Azulitos (blue birds) eating the bananas put out for them in the trees, and met the parrot that only knows dirty words.  With much appreciation for the generosity of all, we reluctantly rolled back across the bridge and back on the road, with the destination Pasto, Colombia.

*The ride through this part of the Andes has been nothing short of spectacular.  The lush green carpets enormous mountains, with a two-lane (nicely maintained) route cut from the steep mountainside.  The ride was repeated climbs and descents, hundreds of curves and dozens of switchbacks finally opening onto a high valley that was Pasto.  We found an unremarkable but fine hotel in the city center, and planned our next day.

*Border crossing day:  From Pasto, it was a two-hour mountain ride to the border, where the Colombians required no more than ten minutes of our time.  The Ecuadorian immigration clearance was no more than two.  Customs clearance for the motorcycles to enter Ecuador was, however, a different story.  One cranky gent was the entire staff of the office, and he was NOT to be hurried.  After two hours of waiting, however, he gained a second colleague and we were out in another hour, and legal to enter Ecuador.

*We had thought we might make Quito that day, but the three hours at the border ensured we would not.  We rode into the early evening (dark) and stopped at a delightful place at Lago San Pablo where we shared a cabin, ate a wonderful trout dinner, and rested up for the next day.  The place is called “Cabinas al Lago San Pablo”, and we would highly recommend it to anyone passing that way.

*The next morning, we took Ken’s detailed instructions for our entry to the outskirts of Quito and launched.  His descriptions were perfect, and it was an easy and beautiful ride.

*When we reached the equator, there was a sign inviting a stop at a monument there, and we pulled in.  The proprietor greeted us warmly and offered that if we could link to the web site of his foundation (www.quitsato.org) , he would be happy to have us ride our bikes into the center of the stone circle they had built, for photos.  We responded that yes, we did indeed have a web site, and would be happy to add a link to his site.  And that is exactly what we did!  These folks have a foundation that seems to be dedicated to researching and educating about various astronomical matters and all things equatorial, including the placement of ancient and colonial religious structures related to the solstices.  Very interesting.  Have a look if you wish.

*After our brief tutelage on equatorial science, we rolled on toward Quito, and successfully landed at the mall Ken had suggested as meeting place (since there was no way we would find their house).  We found each other at the “Crepes and Waffles” restaurant, and had lunch while catching up a bit.  What a delight!  It had been some years since we saw each other last, in Washington, and it was really super to see them.  After lunch they led us to where I am writing, to their home high on a hill overlooking the valley, and we rode into the yard to be greeted by their eleven dogs!  Ligia and Ken have no appetite whatsoever for seeing any animal suffer, so there is no “them” or specific breed over-represented, and they’re all friendly, and all…well fed.

Yesterday Ken and Ligia took us on a fine tour of downtown Quito, where we visited the Jesuit cathedral, the Franciscan cathedral, museums and other of the colonial buildings that have been renovated in Quito.  It is a more beautiful city than ever, and certainly is a highly recommended target for anyone considering a visit to South America.

*For the moment, our greatest pleasure is enjoying the company and generous hospitality of the Kellers and their extended family, here in the permanent summer of the Andes.  We are greatly enjoying Quito, and are gathering our intel for the next step, which will be southern Ecuador leading to Peru.

Quick note about the restaurant chain “Crepes and Waffles”:  This is a Colombian-born restaurant chain that supports single moms, with education and child care programs.  All the staff are from that group, and the food is excellent.  I hope they make it to the US, because it is a great cause coupled with great food and service – a bit in keeping with the same spirit that inspired Hotel con Corazon in Nicaragua.

So to all our friends and readers, saludos and we hope you all continue well and happy.  Mas, mas tarde –

M&H

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Bogota to Cali — Forbidden Fruit?

Writing this in Cali, Colombia.  Years ago, working down this way with the State Department, Cali was unavailable, forbidden to visit — said to be just too dangerous in the era of the Cartels and the guerillas.  That may have added some to the appeal of visiting here now, though it seems crazy that such could have been the case when you are strolling the welcoming boulevards and avenues of this delightful city.  But as always, I am ahead of myself.  How we got here:

Bogotá was once known as “Santa Fe de Bogota”, but now simply “Bogota”.  We were there to get things done – the bikes cleared, insurance bought, bikes serviced – and to get on the road south.  But as previously mentioned, Bogota was much more than just a place to finish chores.  Because our hotel was in the center of the city, it was near to much that makes Bogota charming, and awash in the traffic that makes it challenging.  Afoot, we wandered the old and charming “Candelaria” part of town (think “French Quarter”, but older), toured the previously mentioned Gold Museum, and took the gondola to visit the sanctuary at Montserrat, high above the city.  Montserrat was spectacular, with beautifully groomed gardens filled with all manner of flowers and trees.  Lots of eucalyptus.  Saw a really big hummingbird with a no-kidding 6” tail.

Friday morning, we had run out of excuses not to leave, so we mounted up and headed for Cali.  The distance to the mid-point was not so many kilometers, and we thought we’d make it easily by evening.  Hah!  What the distance didn’t take into account was the road…

For clarity – the above statement is NOT a complaint.  The road out of Bogota is absolutely stunning, once you actually get out of the city.  It is consecutive mountain passes through verdant forest, with miles and miles of linked curves.  The last bit before entering the valley that includes Cali is hairpin after hairpin after hairpin – up and down really, REALLY big mountains.  And it is a very busy two lane road, is a major truck route, and breeds some really hair-raising passing techniques.  Many of the turns are such tight hairpins that the semis take up the entire road going round.  In climbing the last mountain, in the fog, the clutch on my GS was smoking and grabbing from slipping it so much to match the truck speed changes.  Actually had to stop and let it cool a bit at one point.  When we finally broke out of the mountains, near Armenia, it was well after dark and we grabbed the first hotel room we found.  We were knackered.  It had been a great, but often hair-raising ride.

No doubt in my mind, Heather is now very ready to ride ANYTHING the US has to offer.  Bring on your “Dragon’s Tail”, or your Independence Pass, or Million Dollar Highway.  In one day, she/we rode “el Nariz del Diablo” (the Devil’s Nose) and more curves than a dozen Dragon’s Tails.  She has quickly turned into one hellova rider.

Saturday morning, it was off to Cali and the contrast was amazing – absolutely no hair was raised riding this road.  It was mostly four-lane, and a really young and smooth highway with higher speeds.  The temp was perfect, we were dry and happy, and though the scenery lacked the spectacular mountains of the day before, it was truly lush.  No problems, no worries, rounded a corner and whoa!  Police check point and we were pretty much all alone on the road, and bound to be stopped.  Difference was, this time (finally) Heather was in front and SHE was the one required to present documents and have her bags searched.  And the bigger difference was that these guys approached us…all smiles and handshakes.  It felt like running into a bunch of old friends at a bowling alley – they wanted to know where we came from, where we were going, and were tickled when Heather suggested a group photo.

With the well-wishes of our new buddies from the Policia, we were back on the road and rolling for Cali.  We’ve seen a lot of police and military in Colombia, and it seems the attitude is that they’re taking back their country from those who previously threatened it.  Funny irony — these guys were amazed that we had passed through Central America, which they thought must be very dangerous…everybody seems to think the other place is dangerous and their home is not.

Mid-afternoon, we rolled into Cali.  We had made a tentative reservation at the Hotel Toscana, and had an address.  Cali is maybe 3 million people, so we had little optimism that we would find the hotel easily.  But in Colombia, they actually use signs and with a little luck, we got pretty close before we had to stop and ask directions.  Once again, it was a motorcycle dude that we asked and once again, he dropped what he was doing to lead us straight to the hotel.

So here we are in Cali, at a great little boutique hotel called “el Toscana”, and we both agree that Colombia is absolutely terrific.  If anybody reads this who is considering a trip down to this region, you can NOT let the old stories and fears cheat you out of Colombia – this place is a wonder to see and the people are just amazing friendly.   We are treated so well, it is a wonder we’re even considering moving on.

Short note about motorcycle culture in Colombia.  The Colombians aren’t “interested” in motorcycles, they’re crazy about ‘em!  Though the great majority are riding pretty small bikes by US standards, the streets and roads are absolutely a-swarm with ‘em.  And many of them are pretty dang good riders, too.  They ogle our enormous (by their standards) bikes both on the road and parked, and we’re a bit of a show everywhere we go.  Import taxes here are VERY high, so bikes like ours bought in Colombia cost well over twice here what they would in the US – and anyone riding what we ride is a very rare sight.

We talked it over yesterday and agreed that what we have NOT been doing on this trip is ever taking a “day off”.  We’re always either pounding down miles or seeing the sites, but we never just chill for a day and rest up.  So today is that day.  We’re in the right place for it, and a nap is definitely on this afternoon’s agenda.

There you have it – we’re likely headed south again tomorrow, toward Ecuador.  We’ll break it into two days to get past the border.  After all, it’s a tour, not a race.  And while everyone says the South American borders are easier to cross than the Central American borders, we are as yet unconvinced.

Hope you are all well and happy.  We are well and content, and my only wish is that you all could see what we’ve been fortunate enough to see in this short month.  It is an amazing place, this “new world”.

All our best —

Mike and Heather

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