Doing a must do in Peru

Jeremy outside of one of the many one way tunnels through the canyon...

Jeremy outside of one of the many one way tunnels through the canyon…

19 October – Day 89

Huanchaco, Peru to Caraz, Peru
Distance: 310kms

Apparently ‘Canyon del Pato’ is a “must do” for overlanders as the way to get from the coast to the start of the Peruvian highlands. So – today, that’s what we did. The first half of the ride was more of the same dead flat and straight desert road that we were on yesterday. Then we left the lovely smooth asphalt for a shale track through along a river and then up through the canyon. It was part moonscape, part desert, part lush mango forest and about 35 tunnels – definitely an interesting mix!

There appeared to by lots of little, local mines… I think mostly coal, but there were also a few that were clearly mining something that wasn’t coal. I was keeping my eyes out for gold nuggets that might be, you know, just lying by the side of the road, or diamond seams in the rock faces around us. No luck on either front. I did see a few locals panning for gold in the river, but the state of the shacks around the place, plus the vast nothingness of the environment would suggest that they hadn’t got terribly lucky yet, otherwise they may not still be out in the middle of the desert – and deserted – canyon.

We camped again tonight which was good! Our ‘campground’ was a big grassy square in the back courtyard of a very fancy hotel. It was perfect. Close to the town centre of Caraz, yet really peaceful and we could see some of the mountains and glaciers above us from the tent. The day finished well with an excellent meal and a locally run restaurant just off the main town square. I had the best roast veggies I’ve eaten in ages, and the boys tried a couple of the local specialities. Even the desserts were fantastic! Mmm, good food. I like it. It’s one of the things I miss a bit, so I enjoyed it all the more.

Dirtbiking in Ecuador – and crossing the equator!

Adrian and Lauren standing on either side of the equatorial line

Standing across the equator!

11 October – Day 81

Otavola, Ecuador to Quito, Ecuador
Distance: 140kms

We spent the morning wandering about Otavola including the Otavola Indigenous textile market (where yes, we did buy a couple of smallish things). The market was excellent – and an unexpected surprise. We knew about it, but thought it was only on weekends.

After the markets, we headed up to a lake that Adrian had heard about which was apparently both good and not a place tourists usually went to, Laguna de Mojanda. It was a bumpy twenty minute ride on a cobblestone road up into the mountains to reach the lake… and that was only the start of it! Once we got there, we found out that there was a road around the lake that (eventually) led back to the Pan American Highway… it was dirt, but there were a couple of locals up there (on small, easily manoeuvrable, light dirt bikes without any luggage) who assured us that it was passable. Hahaha. To be honest, they were right – it was passable, and we made it through. However not without me getting off and walking down and up several muddy hills (at an altitude of 4000m!), and not without Adrian dropping the bike. Argh I really don’t like being a pillion for the off-road stuff. I actually didn’t want to take the dirt road at all. Adrian did, so we scissors-paper-rocked it and Adrian won… so it was off road we went! Adrian and Jeremy loved it.

Our next stop was the equator! Today we crossed the equator – and I can now say that I’ve stood with one foot in each hemisphere. One of the benefits of this is that the days will start getting longer again, which I’m looking forward to.

The ride into Quito was surprisingly easy. The road was great, and even once we hit the city, there was no traffic. We realised why once we’d actually arrived… Ecuador was playing in some sort of pre- Soccer World Cup match 99% of the city’s population was off the road, cheering their team on. The first couple of motels we stopped at were full – apparently because of the soccer – however we eventually got the last room in the fifth or so place we tried. It was getting dark so we went to a local place for dinner and that was about it. Tomorrow we’ll have a good look around Quito.

A roast pig on a spit with chillis in its ears

Lunch, anyone?! So far on the trip, when I’ve asked what sort of vegetarian food a place has, I’ve been offered a prawn salad, a chicken pasta and a range of other non-veggo options. It seems that ‘vegetarian’ has a different meaning here!!

Brightly coloured friendship bracelets made from knotted embroidery thread

Friendship bracelets for sale in Otavola


A small fruit market on the street in Otavalo

A small fruit market on the street in Otavola

Street food in El Salvador – yum!

Marching band and dancers on the road in El Salvador

One of the many marching bands / parades blocking the road. Tomorrow is Independence Day – so the locals are gearing up for their big celebrations!

14 September – Day 54

Juayua, El Salvador to El Tunco, El Salvador

Distance: 182kms (including several delays while we waited for marching bands / parades to clear the road…)

El Salvador continued to improve on me this morning – getting up at 5.30am to watch the sun rise up and over the volcanoes surrounding us was definitely a good start!! Wow – it was beautiful. The coffee plantations lining the lower slopes, the almost unbelievable verdancy of the grass and the trees (so much so that it the hills almost look like they are glowing), and the morning sky is amazing… generally, it’s the only time of day without clouds (no no, not Adrian – the actual sky!). We got going later than expected because, just as we were leaving, Adrian mentioned to the owner of the hotel that we were going into town for breakfast and a coffee and he insisted on making us a coffee with beans from his own plantation. So that was pretty cool… sitting in El Salvador, looking out over the volcanoes, with a local, drinking coffee from his own plantation.

And then our breakfast in town was amazing! The local speciality in El Salvador is a little savoury pancake thing (actually it’s a corn tortilla) stuffed with any number of ingredients including spinach, cheese, beans, chicken etc called Pupusa… it’s a little bit like a Gozleme – and is delicious!!! Even the fact that I was calling them ‘poops’ for short didn’t detract from the deliciousness of these little pockets of goodness. Somewhat embarrassingly, this was also the first time we’ve genuinely eaten ‘street food’ in Central America ie food from a tiny shack on the road, with a gas bottle and hotplate. I am already planning a poops bbq when I get home (although.. I may need to work on the marketing and/or come up with a new nickname for them… I can’t see my friends being too excited about any sort of food called poops!!!).

We headed up into the mountains to have an up close look at one of the volcanoes, Cerro Verde. However the higher we got, the thicker the fog became… and by the time we reached the summit, visibility was perhaps 50m… so all we got to see were the flowers in the garden. For that reason, we didn’t stay up there for very long.

Our way to our final destination for the day, we stopped at a lookout and met an American Harley rider, Bruce, who not only bought us lunch, but also guided us to a local beach resort town called El Tunco, where we stayed for the night. We had planned on going further, but it was already well into the afternoon and Bruce’s advice was that our planned stop was just too far away to reach before nightfall. Given one of our golden rules is no driving at night, El Tunco it was.

El Tunco is a very popular surfer town and is a holiday spot for westerners and El Salvadorians (?) alike. It’s a pretty black sand beach, and the town has a relaxed vibe. I overheard two girls saying that like felt ‘safer’ in El Tunco than other surfie towns nearby, because even though ‘you might get your stuff stolen’, at least you wouldn’t be threatened with a gun or machete?!!

After a spot of table tennis, a walk on the beach and some dinner, that was us done for the day. All very civilised, really!

The black sand beach at El Tunco

The black sand beach at El Tunco

Best. Sushi. Ever.

Close up of some delicious fruit sushi

Fruit sushi – yum!!

3 September – Day 43

San Cristobal de las Casas, Mexico to Comitan, Mexico
Distance: 100 kms

In the local supermarket in the old town in San Cristobal, the toothpaste is kept in a locked cabinet. There are other, more expensive things that are not locked away – but toothpaste is obviously a highly sought after, often shop lifted item. I had to ask the cashier to get it for me!

We spent a bit of time yesterday and today wandering around a market that is a few blocks from the main square. It mainly had Mayan handcrafts including woven tablecloths / table runners, embroidered shirts, leather goods, pottery etc… it was nice just browsing – and some of the woven linens were just incredible. So incredible, that we had to buy a couple of things!! Which is actually a bigger deal than you might think… we’ve got no space for any additional items on the bike, so any purchase has to be sent home before we move to the next town. And even finding the post office can be a task in and of itself!

We wandered into a DHL first – and high tailed it out of there as soon as we’d recovered from the shock of sending one table cloth and three table runners from Mexico to Australia. Wow – so expensive!

Instead, we armed ourselves with directions to the local post office… and managed to find it… only to discover that Mexican post offices do not sell boxes, postage bags or any of the things required to actually mail a parcel – other than stamps. Luckily, the guy there was very helpful and found and old box for us which he cut down to size. He also wrote Adrian a little shopping list of things required to actually package the parcel including a roll of sticky tape and some packing paper and sent him off to the paper store around the corner. Although the package was only 2kgs, the postage cost twice as much as the items themselves… I suspect that’ll be our first and last shop for quite a while.

We contemplated spending an extra night in San Cristobal – and then agreed that actually it’d be nice to see another town in the state of Chiapas, the southernmost state in Mexico and definitely my favourite. As we left town, it started to rain – and it rained pretty much the whole way to Comitan. Our weather gear held up though – so although it was tough riding (pot holes, mud, rain drops on visor, helmet fogging up) – we were dry, and it was only 100km.

Only 100kms… and the relatively short ride ended with the best sushi I’ve had… ever! There was a Mexican-Japanese fusion restaurant a few doors down from our hotel and it was fantastic. So good, that we ended up eating there for both a late lunch, and dinner. The highlight for me was the fruit sushi. It sounds strange, I know… but it was delicious! Really fresh (as in so fresh that I saw the chef making it from scratch),with banana, papaya and philly cheese rolled on the inside and thinly sliced  strawberry and mango on the outside. So, so good. If you’re in Comitan, Mexico, go to this restaurant: http://www.facebook.com/restaurante.la.casita.

Possible unintentional grasshopper ingestion

View over sunken ruins at Monte Alban

Some of the ruins at Monte Alban

August 31 – Day 40 – Adrian’s birthday!!

Oaxaca, Mexico
Distance: 0kms

We had the day off for Adrian’s birthday today and spent it in what is really a lovely Mexican city. The further south we travel here in Mexico, the more we like it. The beaches are better, the cities more enjoyable and the people friendlier. There are also more street vendors.. so many, that it’s impossible to sit down anywhere without being approached, countless times. The main products for sale are belts or bracelets made from knotted embroidery thread, scarves, rugs, shirts, carvings or bookmarks. And it is constant. Mostly, if (or when) we say ‘no thanks’, the seller walks away. And then the next seller approaches us. And so on.

After spending some time in enjoying a coffee on the square and people watching, we headed out to Monte Alban – the ruins of one of the earliest cities of mesoamerica. The city was founded around 500 BC and abandoned sometime between 500-750 AD. So it’s pretty old! We had lovely weather and it was nice just walking around amongst the very expansive ruins… Monte Alban covers an area at least equal to the size 10 football fields – so there was lots of walking to be had!

For Adrian’s birthday dinner, I’d found a fair trade, organic, slow food (ie all local produce) Mexican restaurant with a social responsibility program and its own single village Mezcal distillery. It was to be Adrian’s first Mezcal in Mexico this trip… and the waitress instructed him to sip it slowly throughout the meal. The slow sipping really brings home the flavour of the drink, apparently… a flavour Adrian described as an “acquired taste”… kind of like the chilli wine from the Kingston markets, I’d imagine!!

My main meal involved a delicious sounding stuffed capsicum with a whole heap of different veggies and grains and a thick, dark sauce – minus the grasshoppers that this particular dish also usually came with.

Except that three quarters of my way through the meal, I noticed a significant number of stringy, decidedly grasshopper-antenna-like, threads on my plate. Antenna, attached to what looked – to me – like a part of the grasshopper anatomy. All of a sudden I was hit with the realisation that I’d just eaten a plate of marinaded grasshoppers. I passed the plate over to Adrian for an inspection. His unsympathetic (and, it must be said, highly amused) view was that they were just strings from some of the vegetables… but to the best of my knowledge, and just like in Australia, neither Mexican capsicum, nor kidney beans, nor rice, nor mushrooms are fibrous.

I guess the positive is that I’ve now ticked the ‘grasshopper’ box. Apparently, they’re a great source of protein…hmm..

My spanish is getting better the longer we’re here; I’m picking up a couple of new words or phrases each day. This includes helpful phrases such as “did you go through the road toll back there?”, “do you have your receipt?”, “ok then this toll is free.” , “does the room have hot water?” and – after today – “are there grasshoppers in this?!!!!”