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Aguas Calientes, Bolivia

Route 4, BoliviaEARLY AFTERNOON IN the wake of England’s second defeat to Belgium in the World Cup and I’m eastbound on Route 4. Estancia Aguas Calientes is only 165km and I take it steady to save fuel. I pass the gas station at Robore with the gauge just over a quarter but gamble on fuel being available at Aguas Calientes 30km further on. “Get it while you can.” Is my fuel mantra since I don’t yet carry reserves. Rarely do I obey it though and start fretting when the needle plummets below the last quarter mark.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaBearing right off the highway onto the red dirt track to launched me into a sand pit and the Yamaha’s narrow tyres fight to stay on the surface. I haven’t mastered riding in deep sand yet. The steering doesn’t work and the rear wheel drifts sideways. Losing momentum results in the rear wheel trying to bury itself as I try to move off. I try to find the firmest looking car tracks and keep moving forward, paddling my feet like a swan trying to take off from a lake.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI ride into the Miraflores Toucan campsite around 16:30. I spot only two other tents here down in the far corner near the waterside. I select a quiet area near the trees and no other attractions. Quickly pitched, I change into shorts and t-shirt, grab a towel and stroll down to the lake.

Aguas Calientes, Bolivia34C feels surprisingly warm and I wade out, waste deep toward the shimmering surface where the bubbles are breaking the surface, crystal clear water, into the warm humid air. I soak until the sun sets, stirring up the sand and attracting the fish to whatever’s being released by the bubbles. Every now and then, I feel a nip as a fish forages for food. A school of them find the flaking skin between my toes where I’ve contracted athletes foot and nibble away. They can have that

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaOut into the tree-shaded campsite, the moon is a thin crescent, not enough to add to the sparse lighting around the site. I buy a beer from the attendant and ask about fuel during our conversation. “Robore.” he says. I’d seen that fuel station 25Km back from where I came. I laugh and feel I need to explain why. It was the station I had passed way back. He tells me someone in the village sells out bottles for 5bob a litre. I say, “That’s cheap” and he says “No, muy caro” until I explain the international rate of “Ocho por litro!” He shows me on my sat nav app where to go in the village. The main thing is I don’t have to backtrack for 8bob a litre.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe dawn paints in a rose petal sky as I enter the warm clear waters of the lake. I consider going in naked since it’s early and not many people are around. I play safe and keep my briefs on, followed, ten minutes later, by a family of three.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaI decamp and pack away slowly to scoot the bike along the sandy track toward the fuel bottles in the village. After asking a couple of stores, I found a private cabana on the corner. “Seis!” he tells me and I ask for six litres without haggling the sixty pence difference. He looks like he needs it more than I do. Six litres tops me up just perfectly.

Aguas Calientes, BoliviaThe sat nav indicates a restaurant perched on the bypass around the village but it doesn’t seem to exist in my physical reality. The time was 10:50 and the World Cup Final between France and Croatia was kicking off at 11. I hang a U-turn at the junction and cruise back into the village to the store across from the fuel vendor that I noticed packed with people settled in plastic patio chairs.

I thread myself between the crowd and the stacks of fruit and veg and order a cold Coke and ask if I can watch the match. The seats are all taken and I prop myself against his fridge for a two-hour stint on my feet but the shopkeeper brings a stool out and invites me to sit next to his potatoes.

Everyone appears to be cheering for Croatia. Seems, we all like the underdog… The breeze through the store takes the stickiness out of the tropical humidity and the open-sided shade of the store was the perfect place in the World for watching a World Cup Final.

Yacuces, BoliviaShortly after midday, the little Yamaha was humming its way eastwards toward the Brazilian border, 210km away. I wanted a break before tackling the bureaucrats, so my target was to be a wild camping site near Yucuces, 165km away, which would leave about 45km to the border the next morning. Today though, a fast but leisurely journey on these straight and level roads. Time enough for Sunday lunch in El Carmen Rivero Torrez,

Turning of the El Carmen bypass, the hexagon paving blocks are cute to look at but rough to ride on and they deliver me to a bare looking Plaza surrounded by market stalls and booming PA speakers. I find a food stall just off the Plaza and face the customary plate of chicken and rice. A cold beer helps both relax and revive me. I check the sat nav for my destination.

The wild campsite on the sat nav gives no clue to landmarks to look out for and I add the distance of the junction that leads off the main road to the milometer and count down the miles along route 4. There aren’t that many junctions and the turning I finally take is the only candidate for miles. A loose gravel track leads north away from the main road for five kilometres. Tall dry pampas half obscures a pair of laybys that combine to make a turning circle with a six-metre radius. Nothing here but tall grass, gravel and telltale signs of campers. Litter remains scattered over the floor: blister packs for tablets, cotton buds, food wrappers, used batteries, tissues. Man tracks…

Yacuces CampEarly evening brings out the flies, dancing before my eyes, distracting me as I pitch the tent in the edge of the pampas, flattening the grass for creating a softer sleeping base over the underlying gravel. I wheel the bike close to the tent and, from the track, I’m almost invisible. Passing traffic would have to look 90 degrees to notice me. Nobody passes, day or night.

The only sounds in the night are of nature, birds I’d never heard before, no traffic or booming music. The black sky scattered with stars and the pale belt of the milky way directly overhead. In the day, an uninspiring laser straight country lane. By night a magical alien soundscape and a firmament so clear and bright and close enough to almost reach with outstretched arms.

A creature sounding about the size of a small dog brushes past the tent. I lay quiet and it disappears as fast and silently as it came…

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San Jose de Chiquitos

Jesuit Misiione of San Jose de Chiquitos300KM… IT LOOKED A tall order to start with and now it was officially afternoon and I’ve only knocked off 25km. Whatever… If I have to sleep in a field then so be it.

1 pm on the ring road. The traffic is busy enough to be stop-start. The midday sun is on my left shoulder as I head east. I estimate that when my shadow is in front of me then it’s time to look for the junction for route 4 east.

San Jose de Chiquitos MissionAt the traffic lights, I notice a horse and cart at the curb and think “How quaint.” The lights change and the truck moves off and I almost run into the back of it when it slams on its brakes to avoid the quaint horse and cart merrily trotting across the dual carriageway.

My shadow moves ahead of me and I stop to check the sat nav. Route 4 is 200metres ahead. Eastbound on the ring road, the traffic begins to thin and pick up speed. The cityscape takes a long time to dissolve into the countryside. So slow that I don’t notice when the buildings have all gone, replaced by fertile green fields on plains reaching far beyond the flat horizon.

Flat plains foster straight roads and I was maintaining a steady 80kmh at ¾ throttle.

I reach behind to check for my water bottle. Gone! It must have jumped out of its tethering when I hit the speed hump that I noticed far too late in the last town. 180Km, my neck is getting stiff, I notice the fuel gauge at 2/3. 120Km to go. The gauge lies. I know the needle starts to plummet below the bottom half.

The straight level road has been paved all the way with very little traffic. I’ve kept the speed below 90km and watched the kilometres roll away at a rate unknown in the mountains. 60Km to go and the gauge is below a quarter. The best range from this level, I’ve managed so far, is 40km. The last town was 20km behind me and I’m concerned now. All I can do is watch the needle drop and count down the kilometres. “El Certo 8,” a sign tells me. The village is either hidden or so small I miss it. Another sign, “Quimome 10km”

Hotel Villa Chiquitana, San JoseI pull over in Quimome and ask at the store about ‘Gasolina’ he points to the turning I’d just passed on my right but don’t understand what he’s saying. I notice the water bottle hanging by the left-hand pannier and refresh myself with a long slug of water before I go to three more locations in the general direction of the fuel, venturing away from the main road along a dirt track, into the village. A small handwritten sign hangs from the porch of a cabana on the corner of the street. I strike gold with four 2 litre bottles of petrol at 10bob a bottle.

I stand the bike upright off the side stand to squeeze in the last of the 8 litres and weave my way around the potholes back to route 4, thanking the people that helped along the way with a hoot and a wave. So I now have a rough range of a tank on a straight level road about 280km guessing the last bit of needle on the gauge. I leave my jacket unzipped for the air to help dry the sweat down my back. I’ve noticed the temperature rising, the further east I go, even with the cooling effect of the airstream.

I roll into San Jose de Chiquitos just before sunset. I didn’t expect this kind of progress. My average speed must have been about 65km/h, way above the usual 40 or 50.

San Jose, CristoHotel Villa Chiquitana has rave reviews on iOverlander. The lobby is immaculately clean and the place looks a cut above the usual standard I’m used to. Jerome the owner, tells me they no longer accept tents, as they have caused so much trouble, and directs me to Balneario el Quebracho. “You can’t miss it, there’s a giant white Jesus in the middle of the road, it’s just past that…”

Balneario de Quebracho, San Jose de ChiquitosI set up and rest in the tent until dark before taking the 1km stroll into the Plaza. On the eastern side, the Jesuit mission is warmly illuminated in a sepia orange glow, rekindling romantic memories with my fiance when we visited the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas… an age has passed since then… another life ago.

The plaza is a beautiful expanse of tree-shaded openness, crying out for a perimeter of quality cafes and restaurants. Instead, a single side to the south boasts budget fast food of the usual chicken, rice and pizza. Set away from the strip on the western side is La Tortilla, serving Tacos, Burritos and Nachos.

Settling down in the tent, the night is comfortably warm. I’m too tired to read and I lay back to listen to the serenade of the chirrups of the creatures of the night, plus the bugle sounding a plaintive post from the military base just down the road. A distant dog howls its own response out of the darkness.

Toucan, San Jose de ChiquitosI awake just before dawn, not because of the cold but due to a menagerie of animal noises, cockerels by the busload, the caw of a toucan, unknown tropical songs together with collective shouts from the infantrymen on the training ground. Just after the sun casts leafy shadows over my tent, I open the door and see the mosquitos dance up and down the fly screen. A horse trots by, untethered and unencumbered by harness or saddle. A circular saw screams in the near distance. It’s clear in the warm tropical light of day that this place is undergoing a refurbishment. I appear to be the only guest. I don’t mind. I promptly pay for an extra night…

Once washed and dressed, I pack my laptop in the satchel and walk up to the plaza in mosquito armour of fleece and jeans under the midday sun. I feel the sweat trickle down my spine. The mosquitos seem to avoid the street but I don’t take the trouble to take my fleece off, instead moving from shade to shade along the street up to the central plaza.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaI’m looking for a place suitable for uploading a blog and the plaza isn’t it. I walk an extra kilometre down to the hotel I visited yesterday. Hotel Villa Chiquetana. Electric, Wifi and decent coffee. I choose the corner table in the restaurant next to a mains socket. Windows border both sides a view to the patio area of the restaurant and the other looking out across the lawn toward the pool. Indoors being only marginally cooler than outdoors became a haven of solitude and productivity for the rest of the day.

Hotel Villa ChiquitanaMy second visit to La Tortilla for Mexican fare cemented a good friendship with the proprietors. I think they don’t see a lone gringo on a motorcycle stop by very often.

I’m up at eight the next morning and pack away well in time for the 10 am England Belgium 3rd place playoffs at the Hotel Villa Chiquitana. I secure an early seat. No-one else joins me. The patio is mine and the cashier’s, who occupies herself sweeping the breakfast crumbs from under the tables. I take advantage of the WiFi and comfort until 14:00. Kilometres need vacuuming up fast to make my Bolivian visa deadline at the Brazilian border by the 17th of July. Today’s the 14th plenty of time in hand…

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Tangerine Dreams.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodI LAY IN bed imagining the distance of the fuel gauge from needle to empty and distance from Porongo to fuel stations on my Android apps. The nearest were 6km in La Guardia fording the river. The nearest over the bridge was 26km. I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far, the speed the needle drops on the lower half of the gauge. The thought was debilitating but there was nothing to do until it came to moving anyway.

The next morning, after fruitlessly cycling thoughts through the fuel conundrum, I emerge out of the tent into the cool shade of the tangerine trees, breakfasting on their generous fruit off the leafy floor, I set off walking to take a Porongo Fordlook at the river crossing. 2km, the GPS told me until I’d already walked a kilometre into Porongo, which by then had changed to 4km. Sticky humid air under an overcast sky stuck the t-shirt to my back, reminding me of my work in the sweaty oil fields of East Texas back in 1982. The round trip would now be 8km instead of 4. Still, I had all day.

The block paving of the Porongo streets merged into the rust-red sand, at the edge of the village, deeply rutted in places by the tyres of heavy trucks. Walking was easy but dull on the dead straight dirt track. Eventually, I reached a ford, a stream about two metres across and 5 centimetres deep. The GPS app put me on a river bank at least a hundred metres wide. It didn’t tally with the amount of water I saw yesterday at the crossing further upstream or what was on the screen. I scratched my head and turned round to go back. I didn’t know at the time but two hundred metres further on would be the ford across the river 30cm deep and about 80 metres across.

I noticed a sign in Porongo hanging on a bungalow “Hay Gasolina.” My saviour. I could fill up here and thus relaxed into village life and watched Belgium beat Brazil in the world cup quarterfinals at the local restaurant while feasting on yet more chicken, rice and fried banana. It seems whatever I order, it consists of chicken, rice and fried banana. How about some fish and chips or burritos?

Porongo to La Guardia FordStripping all the straps and remaining luggage off the bike the next morning I set off to the river after Giulio told me I must have been at the small river, not the main one. He was right. I fought with the loose sand along the track and the bare riverbed and sat at the water’s edge to watch traffic cross. I waited a while and saw only a lone cyclist push his bike across the knee-deep flow.

I turned round to visit the bungalow with the ‘Gasolina’ sign. “No! No gasolina!” There seems to be a common habit of displaying signs for non-existent goods and services. I can see the logic for cafes advertising WiFi for attracting disappointed customers but a bungalow that has nothing else for sale? How about taking the sign indoors. Eventually, I found a motorcycle repair shop around the corner from the restaurant that had petrol in two-litre mineral water bottles. I was saved and celebrated with another meal at the restaurant They didn’t have what I ordered yesterday so I ordered something else and got chicken, rice and fried banana with a different sauce on the side while watching The Simpsons dubbed in Spanish.

Instead of El Simpsons, I watch the policeman at the crossroads trying to work out why he was posted there diverting traffic from entering the empty plaza via a full-width road with no traffic passing either direction. I guessed the stretch was a one-way street… with hardly any traffic… why? The following night I ride to the store to buy some water and do a u-turn in the Plaza on the journey back. A local flapped his arms frantically trying to get me, the only vehicle moving within a quarter of a mile to turn round. I returned to the campsite without passing another vehicle.

Santa Cruz de la SierraRefuelling gave me the freedom to run in and out to Santa Cruz and explore the city centre. I got to know which streets weren’t amputated with an improvised dead end or disempowered by a “no left turn.” Many of the crossroads looked like four-way stop junctions but without the stop signs. Seems to be that the bravest goes first. The best strategy for me seemed to be, keep a good rolling pace slow Santa Cruz de la Sierraenough for an emergency stop but fast enough that I could gun it through and be clear pronto once I was sure there was no traffic within striking distance. I memorised the easiest route to the central plaza and found the customary Irish Pub that seems to sprout not far from South American Cathedrals and Plazas.

Many travellers have spoken of visiting Santa Cruz but, being here, I haven’t seen any. Probably the least touristy city I’ve been to so far. I like it here even when the cold snap arrived extinguishing the pleasant balmy t-shirt climate. The wind came out of the south, I imagined from the cold plains of Argentina, and threw the bike weaving from centre to verge along the road to Santa Cruz. It was cold now, I had to break out my padded coat from my improvised pillowcase in the tent then empty the pockets and stuff it back in come bedtime.

Giulio, the host is a good friend now. He gave me a tour of his new land purchase near the national park where he plans to build tree houses to let out. There is evidence of growth and development in the area and when they build the new bridges across the river, land prices here will soar. I got to hang out with his friends in Santa Cruz, as we cheered on Belgium against France in the World cup Semifinal.

Samta Cruz del la Sierra Skyline

The wind dropped and the sky cleared but it was still cold. I stay one night in the appropriately tangerine coloured VW Combi, which was more comfortable and not quite as chilly. I decide to stay for the England semi-final leave the next day eastbound 750km toward Brazil: a three or four-day trip before my Bolivian visa runs out.

VW Combi, Bolivia9am, I meet the landlord’s elderly father entering the gate come to feed the pigs with the scraps from the restaurant he runs in the village. A cheerful man wishing me “Buena dia.” they knock the s of the greeting here. I warm myself on the chair on the porch receiving the full beam of the morning sun, while peeling a third tangerine still spitting the pips out from the second before riding into Santa Cruz for breakfast and watch Croatia beat England in the world cup semifinal. The other plans I had for being online evaporated along with England’s 1966 dreams.

The cold snap passed and the wind dropped to a calm comfortable evening and I ride back to Porongo with the sun kissing the mountain tops on the lilac dusted horizon. It’s rush hour in Porongo and I pass one Mazda pickup and one Ox-drawn cart of tangerines as I ride to the moto repair shop to refuel with three 2 litre bottles of petrol. Returning to base camp, the host is away, which means no access to the shower since it’s locked away in his home. I would quite like internet access now I’m refuelled and relaxed. There’s no access to it anywhere I know of in Porongo and it’s not worth the 25km ride back to Santa Cruz.

I browse through the maps on the phone. The destination I select as my next target is Hotel Villa Chiquitana in San Jose de Chiquitos, 300km away. The reviews tell of this four-star hotel permitting tents pitching on the extensive lawn down by the swimming pool. If I make it in one jaunt it will be the furthest I’ve ridden in one day in South America, or ever on a motorcycle under 900cc. Weather shouldn’t be a problem and the road is as straight as anything I’ve seen on the flat plains on the altiplano but then again, I expected an easy day of Samaipata to Santa Cruz.

I’m often reluctant to get moving. I get to know a place and end up liking it then I have to give up all that investment and step into the unknown once again. It rarely feels exciting. It takes a good couple of hours to pack away, I’ve left everything to the last minute as usual, due to my dislike of packing. I promised myself one last breakfast at the AME cafe twenty-odd kilometres away in Santa Cruz and it was already 11.20. I’d yet to roll the tent up into its bag. 11.30 and I’m hammering along the road to Santa Cruz. I’ve got to know every bump and bend in the last 5 days and lean the fully loaded Yamaha over as far as I dare around each bend and try to counter fear induced stiffening of my arms and upsetting the balance of the bike. 11.55 I stroll into the AME Cafe and get my order in for an Americano, chicken and banana free breakfast before the noon deadline…

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A Bridge Too Far

Cuevas Falls, Samaipata.LAS CUEVAS IS only 20km away from Samaipata but a visit to the waterfalls had been recommended. The campsite across the road wedges itself in the elbow of the hairpin as the road crosses the river. I pitched the tent as far from the roadside as I could, then wandered across to visit the falls.

Small and pretty, freshly cut grass and clearly marked paths to the red sandy beaches of the falls. The falls are all within half a kilometre (there are no caves.)

Las Cuevas, Samaipata, BoliviaA few people were enjoying the sun and the water. It was a pleasant enough visit but I would have preferred staying at Serena in hindsight. Sometimes a visit is worthwhile to extinguish the curiosity that is carried if ever an opportunity is missed.Las Cuevas Camping, Samaipata, Bolivia

After the road crosses the river, it scales the hillsides on either side. There is no escaping the noise of the overnight truck’s bellowing exhaust brakes on the descent and the chugging and roaring gearshifts on the ascent.

I waited for the morning sun to dry the dew off the tent before packing away. Santa Cruz is less than 100km east, and my planned camp at Porongo lies at least 10km closer. I should make it in less than three hours, even on dirt tracks.

In the pale yellow light of a warm sunny day, I rattled over rocky dirt roads and rolled over dusty grey asphalt. Signs warned me of speed humps that were sometimes there, sometimes not. And speed humps sometimes produced themselves unannounced with their paint long worn away by tyres, sun and rain, and camouflaged in trail dust. I’d become wary of villages long ago as they almost guaranteed speed humps.

La Guardia hosted my junction to turn left toward Porongo, which happened to be the unsigned street thirty metres ahead of me from where I had stopped to check the maps.me satnav app. Perfecto.

Porongo to La Guardia FordSurprise! The river crossing wasn’t what I imagined… no bridge. A wide ford across a shallow river over a rust-coloured sandy bed. The water flowed at a good jogging pace and the ripples suggested depths over knee deep. The distance across must have been at least a hundred metres and the chances of a deep channel along the way were greater than I was willing to risk with my laptop in the bags, phone in my pocket and my low slung exhaust pipe about a 30cm off the ground.

One of the things on my wishlist for buying a motorcycle was a high exhaust and air intake. In reality, even if I had that I still wouldn’t cross. Among all else, I didn’t want to get my feet wet.

Examining the map more closely, I could see the roads were coloured slightly duller on the handful of river crossings all the way down the river toward a single bridge, the Puente del Urubo, that linked Urubo to Santa Cruz. Porongo was less than 10km from where I sat on the river bank. I hung a U-turn and rejoined route 7, 25km to Santa Cruz. I’d get to see the city centre sooner than planned.

As is the way of cities, the traffic got heavier and slower the closer I got to the centre. Suddenly, a barricade of plastic drums across the road. I could see the dual carriageway continue toward the centre but all the minibuses were looping back to one of the inner ring roads. This time it was no blockade. It appeared to be a makeshift pedestrianised zone. Traffic lights were here managing the flow from the side street near the hairpin and the buses were looping and jostling across the outbound traffic to get to an extended bus stop parade. Obviously, there is no clue of this on the app and I picked up the diversion on one of the middle ring roads.

Santa Cruz de la Sierra Map, BoliviaIf you imagine the city’s road plan as a giant spider web of four concentric rings, and spokes radiating out from the centre, that’s roughly it with grid sections cut and pasted here and there. The result is, the longer you stay on a road, the less likely you are of knowing where you are and which direction you are facing. The Sun had moved my shadow from left to right. Stopping to check the map, I found I’d gone from the 9 o’clock position to the 4 o’ clock position already. I was travelling anticlockwise around the second to inner road and wanted to turn left across the traffic. Junction after junction was signed “no left turn” and I gave up trying to see the centre and, instead, aimed for the bridge back at about the 10 o’clock position to Santa Cruz. I was tired of the urban battle with the taxis and buses, it was getting late and I hadn’t yet established my campsite.

I guessed correctly, between the thickening traffic, the anonymous-looking, unsigned turning to the bridge and had joyfully overcome the mighty shallows of the Rio Pirai. Legend has it that the bridge was built privately by an Santa Cruz Bridge to Uruboentrepreneur who set up toll gates to recoupe the ten million US dollars he had invested. Apparently, the government told him he couldn’t do that and the crossing had to be free of charge. As a result, the man killed himself and the remains of the toll gates lay inactive, becoming his personal tragic memorial each time I passed. Even more bizarre is the number of government tollgates along the half-built highways across Bolivia. The logic of Latin bureaucracy eludes me…

Another confident route mapped out on the maps.me app took me on a cross-country scar between gigantic commercial sites along a rutted grassland strip, littered with tyres and fly-tipped rubbish. But from then on it was plain sailing along a smooth white concrete ribbon into Porongo.

Morgante boasted Italian food on iOverlander and the only clue to its location in this physical world was a wooden ‘Pizza’ sign hanging near the gate. In this respect, Maps.me had the location pinpointed. The owner’s name was Giulio but he wasn’t there. His landlord was though, harvesting tangerines from the orchard shading the site from the sun. Jose, the landlord, knew nothing of Morgante and could not understand my poor Spanish but he recognised Giulio’s name in the iOverlander app I was waving around in sign language. and he gave him a call.

Giulio explained he was closed due to recent heavy rain and wasn’t taking guests. My fuel gauge was now nudging empty from the unexpected extra mileage. I explained I only wanted to pitch a tent and then was happy to let me stay, for free. One of the attractions here was WiFi but there was none.

Porongo Tangarines, Morgante Nature and FoodToday was meant to be an easy jaunt but turned out to be an unexpectedly tough battle on unfamiliar city web of streets with unpredictable traffic, with a 60km detour that took my fuel gauge down to E. I selected a flat area beneath the tangerine trees to put up the tent. The sun was somewhere near the horizon, out of sight behind the tree-tops and I was glad I didn’t have to search for another campsite using what was left of the day and my fuel.

Morgante Nature and Food, Porongo
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The Circus Hippies of Samaipata

Samaipata morningsTHE MORNING BROUGHT the eastern sun to project the shadow of the bike on the tent wall and I was gently warmed out of my sleeping bag. The night had been chilly but nowhere near as cold as the Altiplano. I drank water but ate no breakfast then decamped at leisure, making sure I left nothing hidden in the leafy undergrowth and hit the road shortly before ten. I only made a hundred km yesterday an I had two hundred and fifty to do today to make Samaipata. It could well mean another night out in the sticks.

There’s a dilemma with catching up a slower bus or truck. Either hang back out of the rooster tail dust cloud being whipped up where rubber meets dust or plunge right in and hope there is an overtaking opportunity pronto. There was a good mix of asphalt and dirt track between the intermittent road works so hanging back until the surfaced roads was my adopted strategy, confining dust between sweaty-neck and laundered collar.

Motorcycling BoliviaI made good progress and my lengthening shadow led the way into Samaipata shortly before sunset. El Jardin is its name: the camp-ground recommended by Marwa at Samay. She said it was up the hill from Jaguar Azul, which is 0ne possible description of where I was, looking at the map for its location. A guy on a motorbike pulled alongside and spoke some Spanish and I recognised the words Jaguar Azul. “No, El Jardin,” I replied. He thought for a minute and indicated to follow him and so was led to the gate of El Jardin Hostel.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataEl Jardin has a rustic self-sufficiency feel about it. Cobb walls with bottles inset to make multicoloured windows. The young volunteer booked me in for two nights and introduced herself. “That’s a nice name. Easy to remember” I said, and forgot what it was by the next morning. It wasn’t a problem as I never saw her again.
The crazy-paved steps, strategically spaced for giants of a 97cm stride, led down to the dorms and the lawn where half a dozen tents were already pitched. An assortment of dreadlocked circus hippies were juggling and warbling along to a El Jardin Campsite, Samaipata, Boliviaguitar. I picked a spot as far to the end of the lawn as possible not noticing that the French couple next to me had a dog that would favour laying in the shade of my tent during the day and chew a bone not far from my ears in the middle of the night. “Bonjour,” I said as I was pitching the tent. After a glance at me for a second, they turned away, silent.

The campground nestles in a small valley with a dirt track curling around the north and east perimeter as it fords the stream that also runs through the site then over the track. The incline meant that all the plentiful motorcycles that passed in the night would open up their throttles to climb the hill and give us the benefit of their musical engine notes.

In the peaceful interludes, chirrups of treefrogs and croaking from bullfrogs sang me to sleep, accompanied by random percussive dog-tooth on bone rhythm.

Rain woke me up at dawn. I emerged from the tent to a damp cheerless grey sky, reminiscent of a British October. The intermittent showers and the unbroken clouds kept the blanket of gloom throughout the day.

England v ColombiaSamaipata is about the same size as Coroico but has readily available WiFi – and is without the steep streets. Breakfast at La Chakana on the main plaza quickly became my regular treat. Round the corner at Tierra Libre, they were showing the World Cup games. Tomorrow would be England v Colombia. Normally, they are closed Tuesdays but the wife of the owner is Colombian and they would be opening for the match.

13:55pm the next day, and Tierra Libre’s doors still sports its big brass padlock. Across the road is Gyros bar and nightclub. I can hear the sports commentary booming through the half-open doors at a volume that creates a pressure wave to prevent entry. A minute later, the owner and his family turn up and the Colombia supporters milling around the street, and me, gravitate toward the opened door and jostle around the restaurant to face the screen.

A tall European man introduces himself to me. His name’s Bert from Holland who married a Bolivian woman and opened the Serena hostel up the lane from El Jardin. He invites me to drop in for a cup of tea.

El Jardin Hostel, SamaipataThe circus hippies at the El Jardin are as warm and welcoming as a fish pond in February. I approach a Woman wearing a floral dress sitting in a deckchair slurping soup from a spoon and attempt to break the ice. “Hi, where are you from?” She turns to face me. The face is in its late forties or late fifties with a cotton pad taped over one eye and answers in a deep German accent “Where are any of us from?” and I notice the two or three-day stubble on his/her face. The question was intended as an introduction: an extended greeting, not an existential inquiry. I wish him/her Bon appetite and climb the oversize crazy paved steps in suitably long strides towards La Chakana.

A warm and bright afternoon becomes the perfect opportunity for a ride out to the Ruinas del Fuerte, an ancient fort on a hill about 10km away. I turn off the main road and begin the winding ascent into the hills and the bike jerks as I’m leaning into a left-hand hairpin and I lose drive. It felt like I’d leaned over with the side stand down but I’d been around too many bends already for that to be a possibility. No drive, I coasted to a halt then glanced at the rear sprocket. The chain had come off but appeared to still be connected to the concealed drive sprocket and so was easy to put back on. I adjusted the tension to the full extent of its travel. It’s time for replacement really but I’ll run it a bit longer and squeeze some more life out of it.

The time was 3.30 by the time I got to the fort. The ticket seller checked her watch as I made the purchase and I guessed I still had time to wander around the circuit. Two men were playing cards and one asks if I need a guide. I said no. Mini-Machu Pichu, someone described it. Not how I would describe it though. The treasure of this place is in its history. I guess I needed a guide. Deb would have loved this. Ideal National Trust territory, but without the drizzle…

The Gates at El Jardin Hostel, Samaipata, BoliviaI get back and book a third night at Samaipata and feel it’s enough, I’m done and I’m happy to leave the circus hippies in the garden. One more breakfast at La Chakana with the loaded bike parked where I can see it from my table and then ride to Hostel Serena for the promised tea. I meet Bert coming down the lane on his 250 motorcycle and he tells me to let myself in at Samaipata Cafehis hostel, he’ll only be 15 minutes. Hostel Serena is an immaculate place with views over the Samaipata rooftops. Camping here costs twice El Jardin but includes breakfast. Adding El Jardin to La Chakana brings it on a par… The place feels like a retreat for unwinding. I was tempted to stay but reluctant to unpack the bike again and so I stuck with my plan toward Las Cuevas on the way to Santa Cruz.

Samaipata town, Bolivia
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Cochabamba Days…

Samay Hostel, CochabambaTHE SAMAY HOSTEL bustles with young twenty-somethings and me. I have the last available bunk in an eight-bed dorm. The bed is wide and covered sheets and one thin bedspread. Warm enough for the climate and light on my body, so comfortable, that the next morning, I book another 3 nights.

Cochabamba is a city with a population of over six hundred thousand but with a small town feel. The days are sunny and warm exceeding the mid-twenties, a good ten Celsius above La Paz. It feels good to be out of a coat and in t-shirt once again, it’s been a while…

Giselle is a young Brazilian volunteer at Samay, keen to learn English, which makes it easy for me booking in. Marwa is half German and Egyptian and volunteering at Samay. Nico is Argentinian, has a Suzuki 125 and is also a volunteer.

I mistake the owner, Denise, as a guest. She’s mid-twenties and beautiful and trusts her volunteers to run the place enough that she comes and goes at will. Andrea is the cleaner, stocky without being overweight and with my poqueno de Espanol and her little English we communicate economically but with good cheer. Andrea is busy with the donkey work of changing beds and ministering the laundry but finds time to go upstairs to flirt with the muscle-bound builders constructing the house next door, a source of early morning commotion, loud enough to wake the dead – or gap year travellers.

Cristo de la Concordia Monument, CochabamabaUp the hill is the Cristo de la Concordia. A monument to JC himself, a metre taller than the famous monument in Rio de Janiero. The Teleferic up the hill is closed for maintenance with no sign of maintenance activity as I walk past shortly before 5pm and head for the stairs up the hillside to catch the sunset.

Cristo de la Concordia Teleferic StationThe sun maybe above the horizon but is already behind a hill in the distance. I climb the stairs rapidly to see if I can catch it but the sun is sinking faster than I am rising and I stop to catch my breath. The climb takes about thirty minutes and is a fair workout for the legs and cardio system. With the cable car out of action, there are no elderly or infirm visitors here but a good smattering of families and couples taking pictures and admiring the cityscape light up through the balmy dusk.

Cochabamba from the Cristo de la ConcordiaDarkness falls before I descend and I quietly tread the steps down through the chirp of tropical treefrogs and crickets. Dark but not cold feels like a dream after La Paz: like it shouldn’t be possible in reality. No-one is around between the descent and arriving at the hostel.

Later in the week, a young couple staying at the hostel, descending the Cristo stairs in the dark were robbed at gunpoint. They were more shocked than physically hurt… fortune, good and bad, finds us all along our path from cradle to grave.

Recoleta Barbers, CochabambaWill, an English Ski instructor who works 6 months and takes 6 months off, on his mission to make it a full 12 months, a year is in the bunk below me. Directs me to useful shops and cafes within walking distance and recommends a barber that gives a good straight shave. I’ve never had one before so I head there first thing in the morning. I arrive less than a minute before the young latin owner turns up to raise the anonymous-looking matt black shutters revealing what looks like an immaculate looking fifties style film set of a barber shop.

I recline in the chair and feel the warmth of the street wafting through the open storefront. The barber is young, maybe 25 with short black hair and golden skin, smartly presented and looking professional. The blade intimidates as it approaches my throat and the theme tune to the Sweeney pops out of my memory banks in a tenuous association with cutthroat barbers.

The blade doesn’t feel how I expect. It feels like a wallpaper scraper peeling ancient emulsioned woodchip off my face. A small nick under my lip makes me flinch a little but I pretend not to notice. This is the ‘man’s’ version of a pampering I suppose. The experience did feel good, and the result was a surprisingly smooth face plus feeling special for half a day.

World Cup Room, Samay HostelOver the next 10 days. I enjoy Marwa’s breakfasts and getting to know some of the travellers that pass through the hostel and following the World Cup qualifiers and the Argentina France match in the initial knock out stages with two Argentines and two French people.

Game of Thrones CafeOut and about revealed the opulent Recoleta area, with the gem of a ‘Game of Thrones’ themed cafe named the Coffee of Westeros.

Half an hour walk south of the hostel, the steel corrugated roofs of the Mercado La Pampa basque in the sunshine, beneath which resemble one of the hidden worlds from a Clive Barker novel – narrow passages lined with hidden treasures, magical potions and cheap tat. The longer I stayed, the harder it was to leave: either the hostel to roam the city, or the city to explore the rest of South America. It took a decision, a line in the sands of time, once crossed, no going back.

Samay Hostel Cochabamba, Front GardenAnd so, I found myself eastbound on Route 4. After a far too leisurely morning packing and then talking to a German couple that rode in on 150 Hondas from Chile. 3 pm and I was only just exiting Cochabamba with the sun on my back. Glancing over my shoulder the distant Cristo on the hill had his back to me. I didn’t expect him to wave, but still… I could have stayed longer, in fact, I wanted to but I’d hit my Night Out in Cochabambavisa limit in Bolivia in short enough time. 90 days a year, Bolivia allows tourists. 3 months in, 9 months out. I needed to save some time for the return trip… or take 9 months through Braazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina.

3pm. How far could I go? It would get dark in little over three hours.

Motorcycling BoliviaThe warmth of the sun was ebbing away as the shadows were lengthening and I was already feeling the cold whenever the road swept me into the shadow of the mountains. I felt more relaxed having caught the junction to Route 7, no longer worrying about missing it.

Luck was eluding me finding a camping spot between the farmsteads along the way. Exploring a riverside clearing drew an old man with the face the colour and texture of antique saddle bags, one cheek bulging with coca leaves.

“Puerdo el campar aqui?” my memory for the phrase had evaporated 2CDs ago on the audio course. The hombre’s black eyes stared blankly. I might as well have been talking to a llama. Our communications petered out and I mounted the bike hoping to find a less conspicuous place along the road before dark.

Wild Camping, BoliviaFive kilometres down the road, trees on a hilltop. A track leading down to the river between a roadside cemetery and the wooded hill. Turning right of the road thirty metres down the dirt track I veered into a clearing up the hill discovering a Plateau that was level and fairly hidden from the road and the view from the settlements on the surrounded hills.

Wild Camping, BoliviaI took off my orange jacket to make myself less conspicuous while I deployed the silver tent as discreetly as possible. Clouds were brushing the green peaks of the surrounding mountains. A farmer was burning fields further up the mountainside to my Northeast. I could make out a figure in the doorway of their farmhouse. Were they looking at me? No, I was in the shade of the tree and they would be busy with the fire. Dogs were barking in the distance, as they seem to all over South America. A continent of a continuous network of barking.

A dog had been here within a day or so. Its crusty turd holding the interest of local blowflies. I was far enough away to not accidentally tread in it moving around the tent. It would be unlikely anyone would come this way tonight. This place was a natural cul-de-sac. Nobody walked dogs here. Dogs were an independent life form, living within human society without the constraints of its rules, providing a greater level of freedom than that of us humans.

Even so, the Plateau was steep on three sides and the only access was from whence I came. A no through route. The dirt track continued winding around the hill down to the bridge a hundred metres below me and two hundred westward. Another camping possibility but a little more exposed to the eyes of the hills. The track was quiet and I heard two or three motorcycles pass by in the twilight. The main road was close enough to hear the trucks pass but far enough away to not be a disturbance.

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Cochabamba

Caracollo CampI AWOKE AT four unable to get back to sleep for the cold. Not as cold as Titicaca but still not comfortable and the sun was still more than two hours away.

The light came before the warmth. I lie in long enough to reach a comfortable operating temperature. The entrance to the tent faced further south than the sun rose but was just right for the rays to land on my feet. Going by yesterday’s progress, I should be in Cochabamba by three.

I packed away the tent and was on my way by half-past nine, leaving only tiny holes in the compacted earth where the tent pegs were hammered in. Leaving this excavation, I noticed a local man with a traditional sack over his back watching me from the other side. I ignored him and rode out to route 4.

Route 4 was under construction and I swung right onto the smooth new surface away from Corocollo and toward Cochabamba.

I had over half a tank of fuel on the gauge but wanted to top up to be sure of reaching Cochabamba. Instead of returning to Caracollo, there was a fuel station marked 14km down the road outside Caihuasi.

Route 4 is a half completed dual carriageway, one side a scar in the earth busy with construction machinery, the other, pristine slate grey asphalt. I could see no traffic in either direction as I carried my momentum up the earth verge and onto its surface. It felt like I was riding down an airstrip. During the night I heard the almost constant distant roar of trucks passing by but now, nothing.

I’m making good progress in the bright cool morning air. A sign up ahead “Desvio” and I’m diverted onto bare earth and rock. Once again trucks, slowed down by the coarse surface, whip up the Bolivian dust into my face and I pass them as quickly as possible.

Route 4 to CochabambaI pass through Caihuasi and spot the fuel station on the edge of the village on my right. Problem is, the access has been bisected by the carriageway construction. Even if I could cross it, the station is closed and unattended. It would be tight making it to Cochabamba with what my fuel gauge had to offer. It depended on how much up, down, rough, smooth and gear changing would be involved. All I could do was watch what happens along the way.

The flat plains are behind me now and I’m winding around the mountains, no sign of an end to the road construction as I roll on and off asphalt, earth and rock. Eventually, I would be over a thousand meters closer to sea level but if I was already on the descent, it was disguised by long winding ascents and fast sweeping descents.

The journey is an ecological education as I see black billowing diesel fumes belching out of the trucks struggling to climb the mountains and various selections of cans and plastic packaging flying out of bus and truck windows to the side of the road. I decide that the eco-warriors in Europe are onto a losing battle since from what I’ve seen so far, most South Americans just don’t care. The same as I noticed in Egypt and India. Egypt and South America not only have pyramids and sun gods in common, they also have discarded tyres, plastic bags and polluted air and water.

It’s past lunchtime and the fuel gauge is now below a quarter with 90km to go. It’s not looking good unless either I find a fuel station or I crest the mountains and find a long downhill gravity assisted freewheel down into Cochabamba.

At the crest of a hill, buildings line the road set discretely back allowing a generous flat verge. Shacks and ramshackle stalls that constitute a village, of sorts,s and I catch sight of a wooden panel ‘Gas y Deisel.’ No pumps, a simple sign leaning on a wall. I overcome my innate urge to press on and never go back and slowly make a U-turn and cruise a hundred metres back to the shack.

A woman in traditional costume replete with the traditional bowler hat comes out to ask if I want ten litres. No, five I say. Thirty Bob sounds expensive but it’s two per litre less than I paid in El Alto, probably because she ignored checking my licence plate for the international rate and inflated the domestic rate for her own benefit. Fine by me. She disappears behind the shack for a minute returns with a gallon can and a funnel and empties the fuel into my tank. I can relax now, my gauge now creeps to over three quarters as I accelerate out of the village.

I’m over the peaks now as I can see far into the east, the mountain peaks, islands in a hazy white sea as humidity… or smog… and I can see I’m now a lot lower than the snow line on the distant peaks. The air becomes noticeably warmer as the day progresses. The heat of the day is accumulated and reflected around the mountain passes and aided by gradually reducing altitude.

80km/h, downhill leaning the bike over round smooth dusty mountain bends, I’m home and dry and roll through the toll plaza into Suticollo, 35km from Cochabamba. The dual carriageway runs north through the town. Stationary trucks, a queue of unknown length, as I start to filter down the middle. The trucks become less organized and block my way. Doors are open and drivers are missing and I weave on and off the verge. Progress is slow and I notice a gap in the central reservation and pass through to ride down the opposite carriageway. A handful of vehicles pass the other way, southbound and I continue a couple of miles past the queue to another blockade and sit with the motor ticking over considering my plan. To my left is a restaurant, in the shade of the early afternoon sun and I turn off the road, park the bike under a tree and take a table on the patio in front of the restaurant, order some lunch and scroll through the map on my phone…

There is an alternative route across the hills. Retracing my route south to the gas station marked on the map, I take the left turn east into the cobbled street past the houses, under the security barrier, over the railway line and south onto the trail. The oncoming minibuses and trucks throwing up dust clouds confirm I’m on the right track. An impatient Hummer overtakes me and I follow it in the thinnest part of its rooster tail of dust to the turning to the zig-zag up the hillside. The track crests the hill and gently descends the other side. Boulders are strewn across the track from rockfalls down the adjacent hill to the left. Between the boulders are old tyres and trash. The trail appears to double as a refuse site, Household items and tyres, mainly.

Eventually, I emerge in Quillacollo and Maps.me guides me to the main bridge across the river into the town toward route 4 again. Another blockade. Minibuses parked on the bridge unable to cross. A crowd of people in a huddle and boulders rolled across the road. I turn around and continue along the river bank fifty metres to another dirt track. A pedestrian suspension bridge is to my left, maybe a metre and a half wide, wide enough for the bike but blocked by a flock of llamas and their shepherd at the entrance to the bridge. We speak but don’t understand each other and I turn back along the river, past the blockade to an identical pedestrian bridge. This one free of life forms. I ride up the path, up the ramp and over the planks.

A man joins the bridge on the far side and squeezes up to the side and I edge past with a tentative “Gracias”.

At the far side of the bridge is a recreational park. Families are scattered throughout enjoying the swings and roundabouts and I ease the bike down the slope next to the stairs to the bridge and down the assorted steps in the par between me and the road.

Route 4 through Quillocollo is busy but not congested making it fast and furious between traffic lights and I make good progress to Cochabamba. Avenida Heroinas is a different story. Four thirty pm is peak traffic. More traffic on a narrower carriageway. I blend in with the taxis and steadily progress east toward the Cristo de la Concordia, a big white Jesus on the hill, larger than the Rio de Janiero statue, clearly visible in the distance. I was bound for the Samay hostel a block away from the Cristo teleferico. I’d use that as a waypoint.

Five pm and I arrive at Samay cheating the one-way system to get to the front door. It’s been another hard dusty ride, a contrast to yesterday’s long boring, cold stretch along the straight, flat, Andean plateau. Despite the problems today, it was fun looking back. Journeys like this feel like a real achievement.

Cochabamba from the Cristo de la Concordia
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The Heights of El Alto

La Carretera Hostel, La Paz, ColombiaRATTLING ALONG THE cobbles, I had the sun on my back finally riding to Cochabamba. The warm dry morning eased my thoughts about camping out in the chilly nights of the Altiplano and I set my focus on the weaving taxis and buses as I threaded my way through them out of La Paz onto the escalating loop into El Alto.

As usual, the minibuses were jostling for position at the bus stops just beyond the toll gates and I cleverly weaved through to the outside lane only to discover a blockade, diverting the already congested traffic onto route 2 towards Peru.

The La Paz loop. route 3 to El AltoTrapped between the barriers of the dual carriageway, I noticed a coned off gap in the central reservation. Over the other side of the road, a lane filtering off into El Alto was congested by inbound minibuses. Cutting through the cones and past the buses exchanging passengers for pedestrians through their sliding doors, I found myself back on route 1 and the sporadic drag races from traffic light to El Alto, blockadetraffic light. The fuel gauge was nudging ‘E’. With the pressure off battling urban traffic, I could divert my focus to watching for a fuels station.

Refuelling involves the attendant looking at my number plate and, this time, checking my passport in order to fill up. Bolivia has two rates: domestic and international, which is up to three times more expensive for foreigners like me.

Route 3, El Alto, BoliviaPulling out of the Fuel station, heading south on route 1, the urban sprawl was slowly dissolving into flat plains. The air was noticeably cooler as my cruising speed was increasing through the heights of El Alto. With the disappearance of the city suburbs, the plains looked like desert but there was evidence of crops planted in vaguely marked fields. Dry and barren looking, I wondered how anything managed to grow under the radiant, parching sun and the ice-cool moon.

80km/h is the top speed of the Yamaha on a flat road but there’s no hurry to get anywhere. Whatever I do, it will take two days to make the 385km to Cochabamba so I wind back the throttle to the speed starts to drop in order to save fuel over the hours trundling down the straight black ribbon of route 1.

As the hours passed, the stiff knot in my shoulder revisited from being locked in the same position for so long. Rolling my neck and twisting my head from side to side bought me the pain relief I needed for the extra miles before seeing the sign for route 4 to Cochabamba. I had reached Caracollo, just over half way to Cochabamba.

It was early enough, at just gone three, to consider carrying on but I hadn’t eaten all day. Cold and Hungry riding through, three parked coaches in a huge dirt parking lot caught my eye as I approached the bridge, Puente Caracollo, I hung a U-turn over the bridge at the junction with route 4 and pulled into the restaurant next to the dry river bed, parking on a hard standing between the coaches and the restaurant.

The restaurant was a large spartan canteen, L shaped with columns between the red plastic patio furniture. I ordered a chicken sandwich and coke and settled down on a table in a square of sunlight beaming through the window so as to warm up while watching the Russia – Egypt world cup game. Still hungry and cold, I ordered “uno mas, por favor!” just one more…

Checking the map, I had already travelled nearly 200km and I had maybe 3 hours of daylight left, max, and another 185km to go. That would leave me somewhere in the hills overnight.

Carracollo wild camp, BoliviaJust over the river were two hostels: Alojamiento Panamerica and Pension Villa Puente. Too early to turn in and too late to set off. I decided to head to the wild camping spot a few kilometres down the road, apparently next to a giant gravel mound at a quarry. Turning off route 4 onto a farm track and travelling about five hundred metres across the flat featureless landscape, I came across a giant hole in the ground about a hundred and fifty metres long and a hundred metres wide, with a few farm shacks to the eastern edge. I rode around to that side and found nobody there. The place seemed deserted for miles around and the hard flat area surrounding the hole was a perfect pitch and I broke out camp right there with the tent’s entrance estimated to the part of the sky that the sun would rise.

Camping CaracolloThe afternoon was late but the sun was still about an hour off the horizon. The breeze was light but getting colder and I found sanctuary inside the tent – a perfect temperature in which to rest, warmed by the falling sun. Checking the map, I found I was only halfway to the marked wild camping spot. I could still see no mound or quarry. No matter, I would be gone early in the morning. I would stay here.

I lay back on the mattress to read for a while. I hear panting! a dog had approached the rear of the tent and I quickly zipped up the entrance. I had noticed increasing numbers of stray dogs miles away from anywhere, some laying by the side of the road. Some wandering alone, some in packs. There is no guarantee that they are friendly. I stayed quiet and listened for signs of its owner, or the sound of sprinkling on the tent. Nothing…

I was tired after the ride and fell asleep reading the Kindle and awoke in darkness to snuggle down into the sleeping bag.

Sunset, Caracollo, Bolivia
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Adventures in Bureaucracy

Higher Ground Cafe, Calle Tarija, La Paz,FINDING EXCUSES TO stay in La Paz wasn’t difficult. The WiFi drought in Coroico gave me some catching up to do online. The Higher Ground Cafe became a sanctuary of warmth, inspiration and productivity in the daylight hours. Even so, the evening cold was beginning to bother me in the hostel. I would kick off my boots tuck myself under the blankets with the hood up on my coat and either read, write, surf or watch a movie until I was tired enough to sleep.

My hesitancy for departing for Cochabamba was for two reasons. One was that my Aduanas Nacional permit was expiring in a week and the other was that the journey meant a potential night camping out on the bleak, cold, windy Altiplano.

A far easier choice to stay in La Paz one more night, and another, and another…

Mi Teleferico, NaranjaMy SOAT insurance from Peru for the bike had expired and a lead for renewal took me to Calacoto, on the advice of Mark from Higher Ground. I didn’t mind the journey since it was a series of legs along the Teleferico, Orange, White, Sky Blue and Green all the way to the end at Irpawi and a walk towards Los Pinos. If La Paz was a Monopoly board, Los Pinos would probably be in the Dark Blue set at the top end. Strangely, it felt warmer down this end too, the opposite side to the chilly El Alto.

After a fruitless search for the SOAT office, practising my Spanish with bank staff and doormen consoling myself with a cappuccino and chocolate cake, I discovered a helpful guy at a Yamaha dealer. Motorbike sales: he should know. Univida.s.a at Camacho back in the centre of La Paz. I’d go there tomorrow… no rush…

Univida S.A. La PazUnivida s.a. We had communication problems but hammered out some sort of understanding using language going back to the stone age. No international insurance possible for foreign vehicles, although he gave me a piece of paper that looked like cover in Bolivia until December. I’d check with the Embassy, tomorrow… no rush…

British Embassy. I press the buzzer on the gate. “Si?” “Habla Ingles?” “No!” A slight pause, the gate buzzes and I walk through and set off the alarm in the metal detector between the gate and the reception. The alarm is ignored by both British Embassy, La Paz, Boliviame and the security guard. After a conversation mentioning “no comprendo” and “Manchester United” I’m offered the reception phone and speak to an Englishman and get directed to the Vice Consul on the third floor. She calls La Positiva, the Peruvian insurance company, who tells her that I should arrange insurance online and I leave with a URL written on the back of her business card… it doesn’t seem to be a big deal since 30 days SOAT free immunity is granted in Bolivia.

Thursday comes and I attempt to renew the temporary import permit for the bike at Aduana Nacional, La Paz. “No, you have to go to the airport at El Alto.”

Friday comes and I take the Orange then Red Teleferico to El Alto plus a taxi to the airport. Nobody speaks English but I get the message: “You have to renew your tourist visa at immigration.” “Here at the airport?” “No, down in La Paz. Oh and we need to see your bike.”

Mi Teleferico Amarillo Qhana PataI walk three kilometres to the Yellow Teleferico on the rim of El Alto, which gets me closest to the immigration office, and pause for lunch overlooking the cityscape of La Paz. Does it really matter, spending all this time chasing paper? What else would I be doing? It’s all part of the adventure so not worth getting irritated about… these series of unfulfilled expectations. Embrace the uncertainty is what Susan Jeffers says in her book. Why not, let’s call it adventures in bureaucracy?

Migraciones is packed and my spirit sags a little with the prospect of an extended wait. I approach the information counter and the girl says “Renewal, go through that door and turn left.” “Now?” “Yes.” I see the keeper of the rubber stamp and answer a simple question with “Si. Turismo!” and within ten minutes, I’m back on the street with a new thirty-day stamp in the passport.

It’s 4pm by the time I get back to the hostel and wheel the bike out the door and I weave through the taxis and follow the buses pumping out black diesel fumes as they battle gravity on their way up the looping exit of La Paz to El Alto.

There’s no queue at Aduanas Nacional and the agent recognises me “where’s your proof of ownership?” “It’s online only. You go to Sunarp.gob.pe and enter the registration number.” No, not good enough and I get sent to the internet cafe in the airport terminal to print out the ownership details. “Yes, we have internet. No, we can’t print out anything.”

I locate the free WiFi zone and find the Sunarp page on my phone for the ownership details. Bingo, my name appears along with the vehicle details and I return, screen still illuminated, to explain to the agent the restriction in printing.

He’s not happy. I ask if we could use his pc to access the details to print. He thinks I want to come into his office to do it and says “No, cameras…”

I zoom in on the details still on the phone’s screen and show him and he takes out his phone to photograph my screen. That seems to solve that problem. The sun is setting and we’re at the bike looking for frame and engine numbers. Rubbing away the Bolivian dust reveals this hidden treasure and the agent’s phone comes out again taking a picture in the failing light and we return to the office.

Whatever the process is now, with the full set of criteria now satisfied, it takes an age for the agent at the keyboard to spew out a document. I sign three copies and I’m free with thirty days leave in my hand.

Starting the bike outside the office, the sun has long gone and twilight is melting into darkness. Darkness and peak traffic are situations I actively try to avoid. Peak traffic in El Alto means stationary traffic and drivers leaning on horns. I should turn left but only the right turn has space to move so I turn right and then left across the traffic line into the bustling backstreets. Filtering my way between taxis and buses, I eventually make the toll gates that mark the loop down to La Paz.

An hour from leaving the airport, I power the bike up the kerb and hostel step into the central hallway.

Two days to get ‘legal’ for the next thirty days. I deserved a hot meal and walked around the corner for an empanada, now able to relax together with the freedom to think how I was going to spend the next thirty days in Bolivia.

I would set off to Cochabamba Monday and spend this weekend in La Paz.

Monday arrived and I couldn’t face packing, it was already getting late and I was still cold from waking up. Instead, I stayed in bed all day, warm under the blankets, communicating online. I would go tomorrow, Tuesday.

Carretero Hostel, La PazTuesday came and I didn’t really feel like getting up and packing. I didn’t really feel like doing anything else either, so I stopped thinking about it and got up, showered under lukewarm water in the cold air, packed and stacked the bike ready to go.

Gabriella was on the second-floor balcony cleaning the floors and I went upstairs to give her a goodbye hug. On the way down I met my German neighbour, Jorg Berger, who writes a blog at www.http://wiedervoll.de/. We hadn’t really talked before but he was fascinated by the freshly packed bike. We shared notes about being chased by dogs and how to deal with them before I finally squeezed the bulging panniers through the hostel door and rode out into the cobbled streets of La Paz. I was on my way…

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The South Yungas Road

El Gecko campingBREAKFAST AND LOADING up the bike in the morning, I say my final farewells to Luis and Fernando, fine hosts who I’ll miss. Fernando seems to think I can make the hill up to the town, but I’m still doubtful. I roll down the hill to get a run up the steep cobbles. Keeping the revs up I’m fast across the rough surface and the bike attacks the base of the incline and jumps around the oversize cobbles up the hill. I’m standing on the footpegs fully committed now. Stopping would be a disaster and end in a El Gecko camping.certain spill at this incline on this surface. Barking dogs start the chase but give up about twenty metres later with the bike leaping over the boulder-sized cobbles. the engine note starts to wane but all I can do is hang on for the ride holding the throttle fully open. And I make the top with momentum and revs to spare. Reaching the El Gecko Hosteljunction at the top of the hill, I’m carrying on whatever ‘s coming. Parked cars were all there were. There was no round of applause from the onlookers watching me bounding up to the junction, but I got the impression that not many fully loaded 125s are seen taking this particular route and I cruised around the corner without bothering to stop.

On the outskirts of Coroico, the road degrades from block paving to dirt and the pale yellow dust rises into the warm dry air.

South Yungas RoadThe gloves are off; partly for the challenge of offroading across Bolivia and partly because my hands are warm. My jacket is packed away and I wear combat trousers and cotton top to enjoy the warm dry weather while I have it.

The traffic is light compared to European standards, mainly minibuses with a few large trucks tearing up billowing plumes of dust. I stop and get my head face down on the bike’s fuel tank until it passes and what breeze there is carries the cloud away.

I’m on route 40 that intersects the South Yungas Road, route 25. On the map, it’s a bright yellow wiggle joining Cochabamba to La Paz. Back home, this would imply a major route, paved. Not here. Gravel, rock, sand and dust is the order of the day.

South Yungas RoadThe track is often wide but sometimes narrows as it winds its way around the contours of the mountains, not as high as the North Yungas Road but every bit as dangerous. Speed humps are camouflaged by the dust in the villages but I’ve come to expect them and slow as a matter of course. Chickens scatter between the huts and lazy dogs lift their heads and sometimes move out of the way, sometimes not, as I drift by either side.

Puente Villa, South YungasEventually, I cross the bridge to Puente Villa. Despite Luis’ assurances that it is a good road to Cochabamba, there is no indication that it improves any past Puente Villa. I’m not certain Luis has even seen a paved road. I’m already beige with trail dust and taking half a day to travel fifty kilometres could mean taking a dirty and gruelling week to Cochabamba. I hang a U-turn and cross the bridge to pick up the westbound South Yungas road towards La Paz.

A loose and dusty surface, the South Yungas road, slightly smoother with more traffic, otherwise similar to route 40 to Puente Villa. The closer to La Paz I get, the more the surface changes. Asphalt, block paving and cobbles introduce themselves at random intervals. Picking up the speed and leaning round the bends into the descending sun had me hopeful I would be back at the hostel in La Paz before dusk. Grey scars down the side of the mountains had the valley looking like a quarry. There had been some severe landslides here and plant machinery was busy clearing the way.

Three workmen in the back of a pickup called out as I pass. Often I continue but this sounded important. The way ahead was blocked and they pointed up a steep freshly dug dirt track that zigzagged up the mountainside. A red pickup came bouncing down the track and around the corner, disappearing from where I came. I had noticed this track on the way past but didn’t take it seriously as a road. It looked like a farm entrance.

South YungasThe earth was red and loose with large rocks scattered along its surface. I had to keep the revs high to stay in the power band in order to climb the hill. Jumping and bucking over the rough ground, I made the first couple of slopes but, on the third slope, the engine bogged down on the steepest section at the top of the third slope. I stepped off the bike and left it resting for a few minutes to cool down. A minibus came bouncing down around the bend and rocked its way down around the last bend I managed and disappeared into the valley. Looking up, I could see where the bends were dug away. There were at least another four more, as the road climbed like a ladder up the mountain.

YungasOptions from here? forty-five kilometres back to Puente Villa, one hundred back to Coroico, five hundred to Cochabamba. The Coroico route was the only other to La Paz and it had already taken most of the day to get here. It would be dark soon. There was no other choice: this dirt ladder or nothing. After a brief rest and more contemplation, I fired up the bike and did the same as I did in La Paz. Used the engine as well as push at the same time to get the bike up to the apex of the bend. It’s a difficult skill to regulate either the revs or the bike speed without dropping it but I was getting the hang of it. I felt better past that steep section and on the more level ground at the outer apex of the bend and I rested and stopped to think a bit more.

A red minibus came bouncing up the hill and swung round the bend on full lock blocked by my parked bike and was forced to stop. Shrugging and complaining at me, I shrugged back. I started the bike and moved it another metre and a half. The minibus’s wheels span in the earth unable to climb any further, forcing it to reverse down the slope for another run-up and off he bounced around the corner, missing the bike by half a metre and bounding up the hill, only to see him reverse back down again followed by a convoy of four minibuses coming down the other way.

I decided to take off up the hill before he came back. Mounting up and taking a run up on the corner, I leapt up the incline. I’d worked out if I made it to the outer edge of the bend the slope was less severe for the turn and I had more room to gain momentum for attacking the next incline. When the engine started getting bogged down I’d quickly dip the clutch to spin the engine up and let it out again, popping small wheelies over the rubble before losing momentum and balance. I only had to get off one more time to push and, mounting up once more, I shot out from the last incline onto an established track that seemed parallel to the South Yungas road at a higher level. Or it could have been another section of the South Yungas that looped back to join route three, not far away.

Less than three hundred metres to the smooth black surface of route three. The sun was now dipping behind the rim of the mountains and I sped as fast as I could toward La Paz, which was 45km/h uphill to Le Cumbre.  The chill of the mountains was getting to me and I stopped at the roadside to unpack my jacket before reaching the cloud base.

Clicking between the gears, I was able to maintain 45km/h as I followed the road up into the clouds, each hairpin revealing headlamps descending out of the mist. Eventually, the road began to level off and the clouds began to clear before the descent into La Paz. The traffic was building as I was nearing La Paz but the sky seemed brighter although the sun had already set.

In the fading light, the city lights lit up the far slopes of the canyon and the potholes became harder to pick out of the streets. I followed the bobbing tail lamps of the busses and taxis. I fight my way through the gladiatorial taxis street by street, checking the route every few minutes until reaching the hostel. I drop my helmet into reception and power the bike up over the step and through the doors into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazGabby the receptionist welcomed me back and said “Your face, es negro.” I just said “Si, South Yungas Road…” Gabby nodded politely and gave me the same room I had before and I dragged my bags up and washed before going out to refuel on empanadas and a coke.

The day had been hard going right from the off. Slow, dry and hot through clouds of dust, battle against gravity and mountain cold, fighting city traffic in darkness squinting through dirty glasses and visor.

The uncertainty of it all wasn’t fun at the time but looking back on it at dinner, it was. Especially as my hands had warmed up and the memory of the damp, cold mountain air was now history.

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El Camino de la Muerte

El Camino de la MuerteAS THE TYRES left the smooth black asphalt of route 3 and crunched the gravel of El Camino de la Muerte, first impressions were that it was very similar to the Santa Teresa road in Peru, only higher and strikingly more beautiful. At a height of up to 800 metres (2000ft) above the river in the jungle below the mountains, it was a gut-churning experience seeing the road and mountain rush pass in relation to my motion and the distant jungle floor, being so far away, appearing to not move at all.

North Yungas RoadThe cloud was left far behind, clinging to the peak near the start of the road and I was warmed by the sun as I slowly descended. The road weaved in and out of the mountains, some edges having crumbled away revealing the vertical landscape. Cooling splashes from waterfalls that landed over the road and continued along and over the edges. So beautiful is the scenery that it distracts your gaze. With the road at as narrow as three metres in places, distraction wasn’t wise, with death a metre or two away.

El Camino de la Muerte Some way down the road, I was stopped at a toll gate, You pay to get in these days. like a fairground ride except you bring your own equipment. Further down: traffic. a tour group on mountain bikes, lycra clad adventurers on a briefing watched me and my luggage idle by and out of sight.

Reaching the second toll gate near the end, and a big wooden sign celebrating the monumental road gives the impression that the danger is over. It’s not really, there are still shear drops off the side of the road all the way on down to Yolosa just before and below Coroico. What’s more, the road surface turns from coarse rock and stone to fine sandy powder and dust. The front wheel feels the urge to move sideways away from the weight of the bike. Steering beyond a few degrees has diminishing effect and has to be slight and smooth as well as gently leaning around the bends.El Camino de la Muerte

The temperature had risen steadily as my altitude dropped along the road and I was now sweating under the same jacket that was keeping the chills away only a couple of hours earlier.

Now climbing the cobbles into the mountain village of Coroico, the bike had noticeably more power now as it was catching its breath. Through the bustling Coroico, North YungasPlaza and down the steep cobbles the other side, brought me to the gate of the El Gecko campsite. A family-run hostel and campsite with stunning views over the valley at the end of El Camino de la Muerte, North Yungas.

My tent was erected on the edge of the lawn overlooking the mountains. Warm weather, sand flies and mosquitos. You can’t seem to have everything. Pinpoint spots of blood on my arms revealed the presence of near invisible sandflies. Tomorrow, forty-eight hours of incessant itching would begin… I don’t know how that works, but I cover up from now on.

Coleman Rainforest 2Once base camp on the lawn was established. I collected my laptop and notepads together in a satchel and set about climbing the cobbles to the village. It wasn’t too far but still arduous. At 1700 metres, the altitude was noticeably easier to on the lungs compared to Titicaca or La Paz. I was out of breath but I could still carry on climbing.

Coroico is a beautiful little mountain village. Plenty of accommodation, cafes and restaurants but hardly any wifi, or even places with a spare socket for recharging. The opportunity to write, edit videos, blog and even read with the kindle app disappeared with the slow death of the battery charge.

“Free Wifi,” says the sign in the Cafe window and I order a coffee and sandwich. “No, senor, no WiFi.” Ah well, look out of the window then. Wifi in Coroico seems to be a marketing ploy rather than a technology. Time is yet to catch up with Coroico.

Coroico is the ideal honeymoon spot really since there’s nothing much else to do. There’s not much to do at the campsite either, so I walk to the church on the hill above Coroico and back. Hot and dusty, I sip water and rest in shade and explore possible escape routes for the bike should it not make it back up the steep cobbled street from El Gecko to route 40 through the middle of town.

Coroico PlazaI’d left my phone with Fernando to charge. I’d be glad of that later: no book, no light, no wifi or PC. I’d look forward to reading the Kindle. My equipment list needs some tweaking to accommodate ‘vida sin electricidad.’ A quartet of young French travellers had arrived and pitched their tents not far from mine. “Bonjour!” I call. They turn… nothing and they look away. What am I invisible? They stick amongst themselves and we share the campsite as separate factions. Me in my group of one and them in their group of four.

El Gecko HostelAfter dinner around the Plaza, I return to El Gecko about an hour after sunset. The French quartet are socialising around the table about fifteen feet from my tent. I secretly hope they aren’t going to be long, or loud, and I retrieve the phone from Fernando and retreat to the tent with my Kindle app, tucked up in my sleeping bag reading against the gentle murmur of muted conversation and laughter.

I check the map on the phone for tomorrow. I could not see the value for me staying another day in Coroico. Route 40 from here intersects route 25 and wiggles its way nearly five hundred kilometres to Cochabamba. I could head there tomorrow. In any case, I have to cross the river at Puente Villa fifty kilometres away first. A good opportunity to assess the state of the road before deciding whether to commit east to Cochabamba or west to La Paz. Where the faster roads are… Meanwhile, I bundle the blankets into a pillow and settle down into the sleeping bag to the lullaby of crickets, frogs and distant barking dogs…

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Escape From La Paz

La PazThe pure blue sky of La Paz hides a secret spring-like climate behind its weather statistics. On paper, the temperature and rainfall averages look similar to the UK. In reality, the brighter sun, clearer skies and lower humidity provide a radiant heat easier to contain beneath clothing.

Plaza Murillo, La Paz, BoliviaPlaza Murillo holds the seat of government and a bird feeding station. It’s thick with police, military guards and pigeons. The University staff with their shockingly loud fireworks for protesting for higher wages have intensified the police presence without doing anything about thinning out the pigeons. I have to find my way around this inconvenient obstruction. Mostly, the demos have been peaceful but the longer they continue, the more fractious they get.

Mi Teleferico Amarillo Qhana PataA real gem of La Paz is the ‘Mi Telferico’ Cable car system. There appears to be no practical map available for the system and how it all links together to be able to explore the city. By trial and error, I spend the day moving from one line to another until the whole system has been explored and I have an overview of how the city is covered.

The colour coded cars take you from the heights of El Alto along the canyon of La Paz to Irpavi and across the gorge from one edge to the other. It’s the best way to see the city.

Over the next 5 days, I explore La Paz and take advantage of the relatively fast WiFi at the hostel, reading, writing, studying life; that sort of thing.

Higher Ground Cafe, Calle Tarija, La Paz,Don at the El Condor and the Eagle in Copacabana gave me a tip to find Higher Ground Cafe. I find it easily enough: down Calle Tarija, just up from the purple Teleferico station that’s unfortunately not yet finished construction. Still, it’s not too far to walk down the hill from the hostel. Just harder getting back.

Calle Tarija is the next street to Gringo Alley (Sagarnaga) and off Linares. It means there are lots of English speaking tourists flocking together. The owner, Mark, is an affable Aussie and his cafe makes for a good place where I can pretend to be a Digital Nomad, a worker from cyberspace.

Gringo Alley: Streets of alpaca-wear stores and fake asian North Face outlets. European coffee drinkers, recharging iPhones, absorbed in the WiFi universe.

I check out some likely locations online to pick up a real paper book -in English- for when Kindle runs out of power. “Spitting Llama,” on Linares just around the corner: now a tour company with cafe. “No Senor, closed maybe two or three years ago.” Another address at 1315 Calle Mercado. Steel shutters. Shrugs from neighbours. Not the first time I find expired businesses still experiencing a zombie life on the world wide web. I give up the search and settle for a coffee.

“El Camino de la Muerte.” A poster of young adventures on mountain bikes. “The worlds most dangerous road,” the poster boasts, at odds with the holiday vibe of the poster.

Wednesday 30th May
Death Road, Groves Road, North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte… the road of many names…

Yes, I was nervous. I don’t like heights…

Since entering my awareness, Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ had become impossible to ignore: something I could not just ‘not do.’ Like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel tower, or going to Cusco and ignoring Machu Picchu. Besides, I had also read that Coroico is at the end of that road at an elevation of 1700 metres. At this latitude, that means warm weather, a summer break from the spring-like chills of the ‘city in the sky.’ All less than a hundred kilometres away.

El Carretero Hostel, Catacora, La PazI loaded up the bike and squeezed its swollen bags through the Hostel doors onto the pale sunlit cobbles on the lane outside. Checking the map, it’s simply a right turn at the crossroads and straight on over the hill to route 3. The cobbled road was steep and the bike steadily rumbled its way upwards before reaching the smooth bleached concrete slopes that became so steep that the bike could no longer grunt its way another inch.

I put my feet down squeezing the clutch front brake: not enough traction to hold the bike on the hill on the front wheel alone and slid backwards until I let the clutch out to stall the engine and lock the rear wheel. Steering and propping the back wheel against the curb, I stepped off the bike and started the engine using it to power while I pushed the bike up the hill, collapsing at the next corner to calm my racing heart and suck some oxygen out of the thin air at the corner in a driveway. I’d only gone about 20 metres and round the corner was another 30 metres, just as steep. Beyond that, I could only guess from the angle of the roof gables of the houses continuing up the slope.

I sat panting on the curb watching the cars revving their nuts off and honking at the corners warning of their commitment to their ascent. There was no way I was going to make it to the top with this gearing or engine size in this atmosphere. I’d have to retreat to the main road and head east to where the orange routes were painting themselves on the screen of the sat nav. The big trucks that make it into this basin city have to escape somehow. I’d find out where.

La Paz, BoliviaTurning the bike around and rolling downhill on brakes and low gear was easier but no less dangerous. The white concrete was smooth and with barely enough grip. Stopping would be a challenge and my prayers for no traffic were answered, at least until the cobbles where the slope eased off to manageable levels,

Continuing the wrong way down the one-way street was an uneventful but useful shortcut, as was turning into the traffic without any clues from the rear of the traffic lights. The other road users didn’t seem to mind and there were no honks of judgement or rebuke and I turned to go with the flow of the minibuses along Calle Sucre.

Using the direction of the sun as my guide brought me halfway out of La Paz on Route 3 before having to stop and check with the sat nav. The outward bound traffic was thinning. It felt like whoever travels to La Paz stays in La Paz.

Illumani, La Paz, BoliviaAt the city limits, there was me, a coach and two heavy trucks belching black smoke against the force of gravity; all making our way out of La Paz’s bowl in the sky, from 3700 metres uphill toward La Cumbre Pass at 4600 metres. There was little power available for overtaking and a maximum speed of 40km/h but I took advantage of the unnecessary outward bound speed humps and potholes to maintain my speed by standing on the footpegs to roll over the obstacles and get ahead to breathe diesel free mountain air, while the trucks were forced to slow for the speed humps.

The weather was clear and dry with a few wispy clouds wafting over the mountain peaks and tumbling down the mountainside into the valley below. But it was becoming noticeably cooler the higher I got and I was glad of the suns rays for its radiance.

The bleak mountains and stark jagged rocks sheltered the ice in the shade with a hint of tentative plant life clinging for its life onto any surface. 40Kmh, clicking down the gears to try and make some progress only saw the suffocating engine cough at six thousand revs searching the rarified air for precious oxygen. Patience was the only remedy. Entering the cloud base, brought a chill familiar to riding in the British winter. An icy dampness that found its fingers between clothes and skin.

Soon, progress slowly levelled out and then downhill. I was over the pass. This side of the peaks, the clouds were tumbling over the peaks and falling below the cloud base and down the mountainsides and across the road.

El Camini de la Muerte, Death Road , BoliviaLess than two miles in the grey foggy mist. There it was, the entrance to the Death Road. Heralded by a tired and solemn-looking information board and a sign instructing traffic to now pass on the left so the drivers are able to see how soon their wheels will be going over the edge.

I propped the bike on its side stand and walked to the edge of the junction to look down the sunlit valley at the thin yellow ribbon of road slicing its way through the trees and around the mountainsides into the mountain jungle below and to the east.

Watching the road for a few minutes, I could see zero traffic either direction. The Death Road’s new replacement was here behind me continuing into the grey cloud around the other side of the mountain. I saw no traffic here either.

After a quick drink from the water bottle, I slipped my helmet back on and started rolling down the gravel track known as the most dangerous road in the world…

North Yungas Road, El Camino de la Muerte, Bolivia
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La Paz

El Condor and the Eagle Cafe, CopacabanaThe bike started on the first blip of the starter button after 5 days of inactivity and I walked it over the steps under engine power into the street before loading up the bags. One more visit to El Condor and the Eagle Cafe to pass away the morning and I was off to Huatajata on the way to La Paz via the picturesque peninsular track toward Isla Del Sol.

Andes Mountains and Lake TiticacaAs usual, the track was rough to the point of requiring a flagpole to mark a particularly deep pothole. The afternoon, bright, dry and warm with dust hanging in the air stirred up by the balding tyres of long passed taxis.

One wrong turn is all it takes. South to the Tiquina ferry and I find myself at a dead end in a churchyard, dogs barking somewhere in the small roadless village. An unstable U-turn in a rocky garden and half a mile back up the track reveals the junction, half hidden by a bend, that switched back over the peaks and loops south to Tiquina again. Over a dusty crest and the smooth asphalt ribbon of the F2 around the hills to La Paz presents itself for more rapid progress.

The fully loaded 125 can only make 80km/h so I was able to lean the bike around the sweeping bends at full speed. With a good view around the bend, I could use both lanes too. I had to be mindful though, a blowout or something could cause me to slide into the drain one side or over the edge of a cliff the other. With the hill on the right, I’m on the inside track of the curves.

Tequina FerriesTiquina saw fleets of rectangular wooden ferries. Square bow, powered by outboards. Perfectly aligned with the height of the ramps, I follow a taxi and a camper van without having to wait. Three empty ferries patiently drift awaiting the ramp with no traffic behind me. I put the side stand down but stay on the bike to brace against the swell on the lake, as small as it was. Facing the stern I watched On the Tiquina Ferry, Boliviathe ferry flexing with the waves. The strait is narrow, probably half a mile at the most but it took a while, the poor outboards pushing the square bow wave across the channel.

The sun was descending to the west but almost deserted F2 meant I could push on to Huatajata about forty minutes down the road and remain fairly relaxed.

The road is being widened so the surface is new, the main danger being ramps and ridges of new asphalt.

Huatajata HostelMissing the narrow gravel junction to the tiny plaza of Huatajata, I turned back after about half a mile past and found nowhere, not even a campsite. Not only did the plaza appear deserted, it appeared abandoned.

Extending my journey to a hostel on the iOverlander app featuring a reasonable review, found it closed and abandoned. Wild camping was a possibility but all the land along the lake seems to have been claimed by farmers. Private land for miles on end.

The next possibilities were Huarina fourteen kilometres down the road and Batillas the same distance again. Nothing appeared on the maps apps or my field of view diverting through the streets on my way through.

The sun had almost reached the horizon. A half hour and it would be dark. I wanted to avoid riding darkness as much as possible. iOverlander had one hostel marked in Pucarani, another fourteen kilometres south but the map would not load due to no internet connection, iOverlander is not a purely offline map like maps.me but between them, I can divine its location.

The straight bright yellow line on the map between Batillas and Pucarani promised a fast smooth ride but delivered white rock and dust with long straight furrows ploughed by car tyres for thirteen kilometres. No grip and loose uneven surface in fading light made for a treacherous journey. At my top speed of twenty to thirty kph, it would be dark before I arrived. Farms and at fields,fl some waterlogged lined the rail straight trail all the way along. I was noting plan ‘Bs’ all the way. A walled cemetery here some grassland at the side of a bridge there.

Hospedaje with a ‘k’ sound for the ‘j’ is the word for hostel here. No, the locals directed me to the hospital. I was getting uncomfortably cold riding around in the dark and frustrated trying to communicate with the locals. Resigning myself for camping out on the plains somewhere toward the F2, I stopped at a cafe for some food to warm me through the freezing night of the Alti Plano.

“Hospedakhay?” “No!” Finishing my modified vegetarian meal of chicken and rice, the companion of the girl who I spoke to eventually said “Residencia?” and pointed down the road just around the corner from where we were. “Si!” I was saved. A smart looking hostel with secure parking for 30BOB, maybe only 200 metres from where it was marked on the map, but far enough to render it invisible in the terraced streets of Pucarani.

One small wrinkle, check out is 6am…“Seis?” I hold six fingers up to check. The woman says “Si, seis!” and made a sign resembling a tentative nazi salute to indicate I go pronto.”

I awake a couple of minutes before the five twenty-five alarm. Funny how that happens. I had slept in most of my clothes as the night and room was cold. And I was trying to start the bike a few minutes before six. The bike was undercover but it wasn’t a garage. The rooms bridged the garage doors that led to a large garden. Similar to old coaching inns. Still, the bike seemed too cold to fire up. The host came out and unlocked the garage door and I pushed the bike out onto the dark and silent street.

I looked around hopefully for the dawn and saw a shooting star across a hint of a silhouetted horizon. Sunrise would be a while coming yet.

I pushed the bike as far as the restaurant on the main road which was on the side of the hill leading up to the main plaza. Should I need to attempt a jump start, I’d have about 40 metres. I didn’t need it. Full choke and holding the start button and caressing the throttle slightly got the bike to a slow tick over before the battery lost too much power. The engine speed picked up and I reduced the choke over the next few minutes and slowly eased the bike east toward the F2, ten kilometres away.

The air was still but with me moving through it my fingers were quickly losing heat through my gloves and knees losing heat through my trousers. Five kilometres along and I stopped to warm up. Two dogs at nearby houses came out and started barking and nervously edged toward me. I fired the bike up and drove toward the most aggressive one to chase it away with the headlamp beam, which worked only while I was pointing toward it, and it resumed the chase as I realigned to the path of the road. I was just far enough away to gain speed enough to outrun it.

A few kilometres later, speed humps for another urban settlement. Two more dogs came from the right and caught me in second gear. I was still accelerating when the closest one caught my boot. I carried on accelerating until it let go and heard the barking recede behind me.

The sky was brightening by the time I reached the F2. Traffic was light, mainly with minibuses ferrying people to work. I stopped a few times to warm my hands around the exhaust and again for ten minutes, leaning against a wall in the bright pale sun full of light but little heat.

RN 1 El AltoA half-hour later, I was in El Alto. Low sun but now full-beam daylight. Traffic was building and becoming ever more competitive for the diminishing road space. This is what I wanted to avoid by planning to stop in Huatajata, arriving in LaPaz in peak traffic.

El Alto and LaPaz are pretty much one big urban sprawl. El Alto occupies the flat plains at over 4000 metres elevation and the road spills over the lip of the canyon along with the buildings hundreds of metres into a crater-like valley of La Paz. To get to La Paz, I needed route F1.

La Paz from El AltoThe junction to F1 toward La Paz remained undiscovered as I found myself diverted into the Centre of El Alto by traffic flow and one-way signs.I was thrilled, once I had discovered myself actually on the F1 but in the wrong direction. Hanging a U-turn at some traffic lights I was riding into the Sun toward the giant loop that descends the crater that is La Paz.

Carretero HostelThe next mission: to find an affordable hostel that can accommodate a bike. I’d read a few reviews on iOverlander and by chance found myself close to the Carretero, all be it thirty metres the wrong way down a busy one-way street. I parked up and walked to it and found it perfect for my needs. I wasn’t risking losing myself around the one-way system so the next gap in the traffic I rode down the street and powered the bike over the tall step and with a helping push into the lobby.

Carretero Hostel, La PazThe journey from the ferry had been riddled with uncertainty. Cold, dusty, obstructed by the language barrier. It wasn’t fun. In ‘hindsight’ I would have been better off staying on the main route to El Alto and chance my luck with the evening peak traffic.

La Paz Mountains IllimaniNow I was here, I could unwind and look back at the journey from a warm and comfortable perspective. I hadn’t been happy about leaving at six but the side benefit was now it was only ten. I had the whole day to explore La Paz and stepped out into streets now bathed in strong, warm sunshine.

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Isla Del Sol

Copacabana Bolivia3AM, Cold enough to wake the Zombie White-walkers of Game of Thrones. The fleece blankets had slipped off the Teflon-slick polyester sleeping bag and needed constant readjustment to maximise heat retention.

The jacket I had been using as a pillow was now donned and zipped up inside the sleeping bag for extra insulation and arms deployed as alternating headrests and switched as they became numb. I dozed on and off listening to the waves gently calm and become quieter in the stillness of the night.

Wild Camping TiticacaI awoke before sunrise, cheered to see the shadow of Senor Yamaha’s front wheel and mudguard cast on the tent wall. If not yet warm, I could feel the morning chill receding. I nestled down for an extra hour or two’s bone-warming sleep.

Titicaca ShoreThis time of year, the night temperature drops to between 2 and -2C. Back in the UK, Everything would be dripping with condensation. Not here, I couldn’t even see the mist of my breath. Everything felt as dry as it had been in the daytime. I squatted at the waterside with my toothbrush, unsteady over cricket ball sized pebbles and football sized boulders. The water was like liquid glass, completely clear, sparkling in the bright Andean sun. It tasted like spring water as I washed and cleaned my teeth on the sunlit beach. I expected the water to be icy cold but it was about the same as the sea in the UK but of course without the salt. Plastic bottles and litter lined the shore, as bad as anywhere I’ve seen here, even along the roadsides. I picked a few bits up, maintaining my policy of leaving a place better than I found it but it made little visual impact.

I wasn’t really hungry so I relaxed around the tent for a couple of hours before packing away and bucking and weaving the bike along the shoreline towards the town in search of a hostel, I’d need my fix of warmth, electricity, and WiFi for catching up on things tonight. Frankly, blogging wasn’t working as a portable income but I still feel compelled to keep it going: a mission independent of finance. It’s work, but not as we know it.

Copacabana TiticacaI rolled into Hostel Gabriel at Avenue 6 de Agosto. Saloman speaks as much English as I speak Spanish and between us we communicate quite well. He gives my bike a helping push up the high kerb and the bike idles into the lobby. The tarrif is 30BOB (£3.36) a night, for a shared room or 40Bop for a private. My shared room up on the first floor has two beds and there is no sign of anyone else here. For my 5 night stay, I have the ‘shared’ room to myself.

There are two issues with camping. One, at this altitude I need an arctic grade sleeping bag. Two, I need a regular source of electricity in order to keep up to date with my reports.

The curtained window in my room faces out to the hall which facilitates the walkway to the other rooms as well as a communal area. Its transparent plastic roof provides a warm area for the day I saw no one else when I was using it. Almost like I had an apartment to myself.

Cerro CalvarioOut front and squinting up at the peak of Cerro Calvario, the crosses of the monuments give the impression of a cemetery: boot hill would be my nickname for it. The short but steep climb takes probably twenty minutes to half an hour up irregular stone steps. The altitude challenges the lungs. The intention is to take some pictures of the sunset over the lake but ignorance of the fact that Bolivia’s time zone is an hour ahead of Peru puts me an hour too early and a leisurely hour and a half is spent at the summit in meditation and contemplation while the sun slowly drags its warmth and light below the horizon.

Down the Avenue toward the lake on the left is a cafe called El Condor and the Eagle. A fascinating Irish cafe run By Don, from Ireland and his Bolivian wife. He makes his own bread which makes for an irresistible breakfast sandwich. Don is full of local information and gives me tips on local bureaucracy, residency, La Paz as well as Isla Del Sol. There is a stack of handwritten notebooks where customers are invited to share their wisdom, experiences, favourite books, poems and song lyrics. It becomes the ideal office for planning the day…

Avenida 6 de AgostoClosing the door behind me entering El Condor and the Eagle, I assume I’m the first customer of the day since they open at 7 and it’s still well before 8. Don, explains a bit about the blockade at the northern part of the island. Which was a blow, as I had planned to land at the north port and hike the ridge path to the south. Not currently possible. Something to do with the inland community not getting a share of the tourist profits. Even so, at the ticket booth at Copacabana harbour, I ask for a ticket to the north. The vendor says nothing and ticks the south box on my ticket and I wander along the wooden jetty to join the queue for the boat.

The wooden ‘bus’ boats are wide, basic and slow, powered by twin outboards. It’s a ninety minute cruise to the island which gets us there shortly after ten. Stepping ashore, a local man collects a 10bob fee in addition to the ticket, just because he can… This is not publicised well but Don had warned me about it.

Yumani Inca StepsThe Isla Del Sol port of Yumani is an area about one hundred metres wide by thirty metres deep between water and Inca Wall. To the right are the Inca steps which lead up to Yumani Pueblo nearly two hundred metres above the lake. I hoick my backpack containing only water bottle and jacket onto one shoulder and stride to the steps. Some young German girls were laden with full touring kit, were occupying the full width of the path bent forward step by slow step and I quickly skipped around them on the steps, as they gasped for scarce oxygen with the effort, and I steadily climbed into the village.

The last sign I spotted was for the path to the north, which I would have been walking down if not for the blockade. I guessed I didn’t want that one now and continued straight on, losing myself in the labyrinthine back alleys. Returning from the edge of a gorge too deep to cross to the viewpoint I clearly see less than a few hundred metres away, I encountered another lost soul.

Isla Del Sol, BoliviaMax was Portuguese but sounded Italian. He was fifty four but looked a lot younger and we shared similar philosophies for life and travel: mainly a preference for solitude but in this case an exception in sharing these stunning views over the lake and distant mountains. It made for a pleasant change.

Isla Del SolFor the return cruise, I nabbed a seat on the roof. High altitude, full sun reflected by the lake, people were breaking out the sunscreen. I just pull my hat down further and covered up with long sleeves. It turns out I’m in a group of four Brits and an Aussie. An hour and a half break from struggling with the
Spanish language. The Aussie had taken the Isla de la Luna option, which left not enough time for enjoying the Isla Del Sol. “Not worth the time you lose,” was the verdict: a bare island with some small Inca ruins but largely a nature reserve.

Stepping onto the Copacabana jetty, I invited Max for an evening drink at around six thirty. He said he’d meet me at my Hostal. I never saw him again.

I had planned to leave for La Paz the next day but the hostel was warm with good WiFi so I stayed one more day. I think I stayed one more day twice.

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Titicaca Nights

Lake Titicaca at NightI had based my original estimate of 400Km a day on smooth roads and big bikes that could sit happily at 120 km/h and even 180km/h, not that you would like to hit one of the unmarked speed humps here at that speed.

The cafe I’d earmarked for breakfast in Puno was closed so I skipped it heading south through town to pick up highway 3S again. Losing track of the shore, as it diverged away from the road, I’d also lost track of the days, Friday, I think it was. I turned left off the bypass into Ilave for breakfast just as the chill was Ilave SOATgetting to my knees and fingers. Ilave rang a bell. I had prepared my documents earlier ready for the border ceremony, into Bolivia, and checked the insurance details. La Positiva, There was a La Positiva across the road at the Yamaha shop which was closed. Well, well, if it wasn’t the exact same place as the address on the document. I still had three weeks to run on it so not worth hanging around for, besides it appears it can be done online decoding the Spanish notes.

Fish Farms on TiticacaThe farms weren’t solely confined to the land. Cresting a rise on a bend, Lake Titicaca once again presented its full fresh water blueness in the early afternoon sun, supporting floating frames far along the shoreline with fish farmers in their boats tending to their trout cages. I pulled over in a layby for a while, sitting my cold carcass on the ground leaning back on a rock absorbing the sun’s rays.

Yamaha YB125When my blood temperature rose above reptilian levels, I set off to Copacabana. It was only 45Km away so I would be there early afternoon. Time enough to get across the border and find a reasonable hostel. It was too cold to camp.

Titicaca BootsToday’s ride was decorated by the proximity of the lake under a deep blue sky over a deeper blue water. The anonymous-looking unmarked junction east to Copacabana almost slipped by unconsciously, disguised by a shanty looking town. I only recognised it by the curved triangle that each lane made with the main route. Checking the sat nav I doubled back the twenty metres plus braking distance.

Pomata LighthouseThe border town of Kasani was a handful of Kilometres and I was at the border control by 2pm. Two offices required my visit to depart Peru, one for me and one for the Yamaha (Khamakha, they confusingly pronounce over here.)

The place appeared abandoned but for the uniformed agentics and me, their only customer. Emerging from the Sunat traffic office, the chain that had been draped across the road had mysteriously dropped and Senor Yamakha and I idled across through the tentative arch on the hill that heralded Bolivia.

Bolivia Peru Border, KasaniThe border complex resembled an abandoned barracks with assorted militarised looking individuals meandering as if searching for significance in their lives. I viewed them as sharks in a pool. If I showed no fear they might not feel the need to justify their existence and attack.

Office one: Migraciones, Passport. “Occupation?” (Restricting the temptation to say Journalist or Wizard) “Computer Engineer “(always a safe bet.) “How long are you here?” (quick think of a number) “Two or three weeks” where are you going? (What’s best, near or far?) “Copacabana.” “Fill in form. Mesa aqui!” “I fill in the form with a plastic pen secured to the plastic table tethered by plastic string. Stamp! Vamonos!

Office two: Aduana Nacional. Senor Yamakha! “How long are you here… etc.?…Will you go to La Paz?” “No, just Copacabana.” (I don’t know why I said that, even I don’t know my plans”) “I give you one month!” “ Gracias, Adios!” I have 30 days to explore Bolivia… still, I’m not rushing. I’ll probably go to La Paz.

Office three: Policia (I don’t know why). The office is cool and bare with a shrine to Santa Maria in the corner with a candle hissing its last moments as the wick approaches the melted remains of its predecessors. A small shaggy white dog lifts its head up half disinterested and puts it down again. The officer behind the battered wooden desk reflects the same attitude. There are no computers here, the only item giving away which century we are in being the cell phone the officer glances at as it buzzes a message.

“Buenes Tardes,” I say as I offer my passport without him having to ask, holding crash helmet and fresh documents from the border experience in the other hand. He’s a friendly guy and smiles at my broken Spanish accent. My passport indicates Hannover as my birthplace “Allemagne?” he asks “Nein, Inglaterra… Great Britain.” I reply. “Ah, Gran Brettagne.” “Si.” I nod “Manchester Hunited!” he exclaims excitedly “Si.” I smile. He opens a hardback ledger, similar to what hostels and campsites use and fills in the hand-drawn columns using the closest pen to hand. I am now fully written into Bolivia, I exit the office, cross the deserted square and mount my iron horse, drifting out onto the high plains on the Bolivian shores of Titicaca, thinking of Clint Eastwood and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Even John Wayne gets a couple of brain cells.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m rumbling the Copacabana cobbles, so close to the border that it is. Still early I turn left down the bouldered surfaced road down to the beach. There’s no doubt that this place exists for tourism; the floating water busses moored in the bay, cafes lining the harbour. I turn left away from the harbour to explore the camping spots marked on ioverlander.com, a great app that Nikita showed me while buying the bike.

Titicaca ShoreI buck and swerve along the lane a couple of kilometres past camping ecolodge and Kasa Cultural as far as I can go: a mound piled across the road as it continues along the shore out of view. The sun still looked a way off the horizon, too early to pitch up for the night so I return along the shore earmarking flat patches of grass suitable for my tent.

Sunset at TotaraAfter dinner at Totara’s roof terrace watching the sun plummet toward the horizon, chased by the invisible chill of night, I delicately ride across the dust and boulders lining the shore back to where I hoped I remembered. Dogs leapt unseen out of the darkness under the trees, barking and chasing the bike almost knocking me over. One bit my leg and got a mouth full of shin protector before letting go and disappearing somewhere behind. Ignoring dogs is my only strategy for staying upright, so far it’s working.

Moments later I found a deserted spot on the lane with a patch of grass big enough for the tent. It was flat and smooth and best of all, silent apart from the waves lapping at the centuries smoothed boulders on the beach. The lights of the town shimmering across the surface of Titicaca.

Wild Camping TiticacaWithin half an hour the tent was up with the interior decked out for a good night’s sleep. Annoyingly, the thin pole for the door shelter broke leaving the porch limp and forlorn, not that there would be rain tonight. The sky was a pure indigo with a bright crescent moon above a Venus on full beam, the distant horizon lit by the fire of the sun. Inside the tent, it didn’t feel so cold but then, the night had only just fallen.

Peace on the lake seeped into my heart.

Lake Titicaca at Night
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Life on Mars

Cabell Hostel CalcaThree days later, I checked out of Hospedaje Cabell and rode into Plaza de Armas for a final omelette and latte at the cafe on the Plaza and hit route 28B down the Sacred Valley of the Incas through Pisac and down route PE3S toward Ayaviri, 268 km south-east closer to Bolivia and a thousand metres further away from sea level.

The longer I rode, the thinner both the traffic and the air got. The sun got hotter and the wind got colder, letting me know my altitude was increasing, eventually peaking at 4300 metres. The road along the valley was much straighter than through the Ayaviri, Perumountain passes around Ollantaytambo and became straighter the further south I went. The scenery changed from steep alpine rocky giants left and right creating a natural channel, to rolling wispy grass hills and wide open, flat plains. It didn’t seem like planet Earth at all. Arriving in Ayaviri felt like landing at a moonbase. I had an option of campsite here or hostels. The air felt so cold, even in this clear blue sky with the suns rays irradiating me, that I opted for the relative warmth of a building rather than nylon shelter.

Ayaviri Bus Terminal, PeruWalking around the town and looking at the landscape, it wasn’t the moon I was on, it was Mars. No vegetation apart from thin grass lining the hills, dust stirred up by the three-wheeled motor rickshaws and a sky bluer than I’ve ever seen. It was noticeably harder to breathe simply walking about. Mars has a thin atmosphere too. The altitude here is just short of 4km above sea level. Staying in the sun to absorb the warmth through my jacket, I grabbed an early dinner at a Polleria and retreated to the hostel.

I lay on the bed with my jacket on and hood up typing up my recent adventures wriggling my cold feet still encased in their boots. I’m on the Alt1 Plano, a giant plateau stretching cold empty miles between Peru and Bolivia. It’s not going to get any warmer, I imagine this is how it’s going to be until I’m finished in Bolivia.

Ayaviri Hostel, PeruAt half past six, the warming influence of the sun is subtracted from the day’s equation, I get ready for bed. My urine is dark amber, reminding me I need to drink more water if I am going to avoid a dehydration episode like I had in Bogota. I climb into bed still wearing my jacket with the hood up. There are three thick blankets and my feet soon warm up. My room is cold, as it’s on the side facing away from the afternoon sun. If I’m lucky, I’ll catch the early morning sun’s rays through the windows. I’m going to need some windshields for my hands on the bike and start wearing my rain gear for insulation. Tomorrow I’m bound for Puno, only 167km, or if it’s going well, Copacabana 284km plus a border crossing on the Bolivian shore of Lake Titicaca. We’ll See…

Wednesday 16th May
The sunlight beams through the frozen gap in the curtains that I open as wide as I can. The sun brings plenty of light but little warmth. The people I see out of the window are clad in heavy coats and hats and the moon-buggies travel up and down with their modified car alarms attempting to emulate a siren for ensuring optimum progress through the meagre traffic.

The shower had two faucets: one labelled Frio for cold and the other labelled Caliente for just as cold. I skip it. I notice some itchy bumps on elbows and knees. Wherever the insects were, they weren’t out in the cold. Their home was probably in the thick warm, woollen blankets I buried myself in last night.

This morning, I am not hungry. The water out of the tap tasted fresh and clean so I topped up my bottle and took a few gulps. The bike was already packed just as I’d left it fully loaded in the lobby. Full choke was needed to start in the cold, thin air and soon I was off through the city centre of Ayaviri and onto 3S south. The road was laser straight for Kilometers on end with little change in altitude. The cold was getting to my knees. Puno, I would stop in Puno.

The stark landscape slowly transformed into rich farmland, trees began to appear and some undulations and bends in the road began to bring interest to the journey. I was back on planet Earth.

Puno, PeruThe roads began to curve and undulate and suddenly, Puno presented itself in its full mediocrity while rounding a bend over a rise and descending into the suburbs. The beauty of the place was wholly dependent on its proximity to the lake. Peru’s version of Skegness or Margate, with its fairgrounds and sparse, ramshackle attractions.

Hospedaje Sol, Puno, PeruI cruised along the city’s coast and spotted a hostel sign among many I ignored. “WiFi y Aguas Calientes” Perfecto and, with permission, I rode into the courtyard reception and unloaded the bike. My room was upstairs. The WiFi only worked outside and I was in the shade which made it a short and chilly session. I tried the shower: cold dribble. The duchas calientes were not included in my ensuite, they were in a block downstairs past the building site that was pouring concrete into vertical wooden cases laced with steel rods, making columns. I skipped it, I wasn’t sweating in this climate. I’d keep…

Hostal Sol Secure ParkingMy room was room No 1 at the back, away from the road but next to a fairground that would spark up Gangnam Style and La Macarena as soon as the sun went down. Ah well, what else to expect from previous experience. The bed was warmer than the one in Ayaviri, with its 5 heavy woollen blankets and apparently uninhabited by creatures other than me. The double bed meant I had two pillows so was able to sit comfortably and type up some notes. The ambient temperature was warmer than last night too… and I began to get comfortable, which had been a warning Puno fairground, Titicacafrom mother Ayahuasca not to settle for, and I abandoned the temptation to stay one more night. Anyhow, Copacabana was only 145Km away. It doesn’t sound much but the bike is slow. Even on a loaded YB125 that does a maximum of 80km/h on a level road and an average of 50km/h, it means sitting 3 hours in cold wind.

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Into the Valley

Santa Maria, Machu PicchuSaturday 12th May, The Aussie chatter in the morning woke me early before the sun had a chance to warm the tent. I doze and wait for the sun to smile on me.

A bright fresh morning for tackling the cliff road back to Santa Maria. Earlier, brighter and drier along the road it looked less foreboding. There was more traffic which stirred up clouds of dust out of the powdery track.

Route 28B Abra MalagaThis time I drive straight through Santa Maria and continue toward Ollantaytambo. Abra Malaga wasn’t quite as wet and cloudy at the peak but it was bloody cold. The road was drier too and I felt more confident leaning around the 61 hairpin bends without fear of sliding under the barrier and down a couple of thousand feet of vertical rock.

Arin, Cusco, Peru 28BI checked the maps.me app. Arin. That’s where one of the people lived I was planning to hook up with. A friend of a friend. I rattled my fillings over Ollantaytambo’s coarse cobbled roads and out onto the asphalt to the east toward Arin and Pisac.

The smooth straight southeasterly 28B contrasted with the winding mountain pass over Abra Malaga. Rolling along the valley floor without undulation felt like the high mountain walls were directing me like a ball along a gutter.

Museo Inkariy, Calca, PeruI rolled into Arin just before 4pm and I was hungry. Stopping at a cafe, I looked for accommodation on the apps on the phone. Campo Verde Pitusiray was just down the road just before the Inkariy Museum. I’d stay there. I finished my coffee and got back on the bike.

Arin, Campo Verde Pulling into Campo Verde, it didn’t look like a campsite. I rode up the grass lane to the farmhouse, the family were out with their harvest of Maize spread out on tarps in the field looking at me quizzically. The youngest woman approached and I showed here the camping emblem asking if this was ‘aqui’? She pointed at the peak of Pitusiray and said no motioning over the peak. Apologising, I got back on the bike and started to leave but hesitated after glancing at the gathering clouds. Rain was on its way. Grey streaks painting the sky between the peaks sandwiching the valley. The direction I was riding.

I parked the bike and went back up to the family asking if I could camp along their drive for S/5. The woman happily agreed and I put the tent up as fast as I could. The wind picked up while I was attaching the rain cover, which became a wrestling match. The rain arrived not long after the gusts just as the pegs were going in and I dived into the tent before getting a good soaking.

I was in a field at the foot of a mountain. When the rain stopped, the young woman came to warn me that water can come gushing down the mountainsides and I should move. There was a bungalow down towards the entrance. I put my tent up on the porch.

The concrete was harder than the grass under the mattress but I was sheltered well and tired enough for a good night’s sleep.

Calca Plaza de ArmasSunday 13th May, I woke at dawn, cold even with the two fleece blankets over the sleeping bag. I buried my head to minimise heat loss and waited for the sun to warm the tent. I opened the flap of the door to help dry out the condensation. The family drove a few head of cattle by the tent toward their maize field, I waved and bid them buenas dias. When I emerged from the tent I could see the cattle had already set about eating the stalks and leaves left from the harvest. In a way, this seemed a backward way of life but at the same time, so much more holistic than what I knew back in the UK. No unemployment, fewer rules and regulations, the family happily working together, they had everything they needed, Self-sufficient, like.

The sun was clearing the mountains now and beaming down on me. I spread the tent on the drive to dry it out while I packed the bags and strapped them to the rear rack. By the time that was done the tent was dry and packed away on the front rack.

I rode back to Arin for breakfast at 9.30 but found nowhere open. I didn’t realise it was Sunday until I arrived in Calca further down the road. I caught sight of a desperately needed ATM in the main plaza and an open cafe opposite, perfect. Around a table in the porch were half a dozen Aussies, Rucksacks piled on the footpath nearby. They were talking loudly and I’m sure they were part of the group that was at Santa Teresa a couple of nights ago.

I asked them if they knew of any WiFi nearby, I needed to find a campsite or hostel without randomly riding around Peru. “We haven’t had WiFi for ten days.” boasted a rather loud young blonde girl. I inferred a ‘no’ from that response. It also suggested that this was part of the group from the campsite at Santa Teresa.

After breakfast, I rode around the town looking for accommodation. A hostel that was indicated on the map was in the middle of a Sunday street market so inaccessible by moto.

Cabell Hostel CalcaThe campsite on the map couldn’t be found where it was indicated, one hostel was S/80 a night and three other hostels were closed. It was Sunday. I rang the bell at Cabell on the main road through Calca and was answered by a young woman who spoke excellent English. The room reminded me of a Cornish cottage, low ceilings, small window looking out into the garden and polished wooden floorboards. The bathroom was next door but there was no-one else on the same floor as me so was almost an ensuite. It was perfect.

Calca is a plain town with no tourists except for stray hikers. I had a comfortable private room with good wifi for catching up on blogging and videos. The cafes were cheap and the days warm…

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Lost City of the IncasThursday 10th May. Nobody warned me of the enormous queue at the bus station. The hundred metre line hadn’t moved for twenty minutes until a convoy of four buses arrived at the same time. A flurry of activity and we were soon tacking up the hairpin bends up the mountainside for the next half hour towards Machu Picchu. There was little information or apparent organisation at the gate. A long queue at the entrance was confusing the issue but when I asked one of the guides about Machu Picchu mountain, he pointed for me to edge around the crowd and I bypassed the queue into the site. He advised I should go to the toilet before the tour but also that I wouldn’t have time and I should hurry if I was going to make it at all. So “why mention it,?” I thought.

Aguas Calientes BusesAsking the way a couple of times ensured I was hurrying my way up the right set of steps alongside the citadel and up to the checkpoint where I signed in at 7.45. With relief, I paused for a minute to recover from the climb and catch my breath. Up ahead were a couple and their guide about 20 meters up the steps. I caught them up and asked If I could tag along. Kalwant and his daughter, Laura, from Florida were finishing up their four day Inca Trail experience.

Montana Machu PicchuThe Inca Trail is an exclusive selection of guided treks throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas and has limited numbers, which creates a long waiting list. You can’t just turn up a and walk the trail. Kalwant and Laura had booked this trip seven months previous in October. Kalwant at seventy years old was a comparative gazelle moving up the mountain. It would be hard to allow myself to appear feeble in such company. Laura confessed they were training for months on fully inclined treadmills but were unable to simulate the thin atmosphere. Me? I trained for nothing. Adventure itself was my exercise.

The climb was a relentless series of uneven rocky steps, sometimes steep, sometimes narrow, sometimes both. We met a few early risers clambering back down. Not everyone made it to the top but those that did said they couldn’t see anything because it was all was shrouded in cloud.

Sacred Valley in the CloudsAbout halfway up, we began to catch glimpses of the citadel below through breaks in the cloud. The weather was perfect for the climb, the cloud shielding us from the heat of the sun. I frequently removed my hat to wipe the sweat from my forehead and allow the high mountain air to cool me in the shade. By the time we had reached the peak after the two hours climb, the morning sun had burned away the cloud, leaving us a perfect view.

Montana Machupicchu SummitAt the peak, there is a thatched shelter and wide viewing areas. There were already about 15 people up here in various stages of taking selfies and getting in the way of each other’s panoramic video sweeps. Kalwant gave me a bag of trail mix and we took photos of us all around the summit.

Descending the steps was easier on the lungs but harder on the knees. Many more people were climbing the mountain now making the descent somewhat busy and frustrating on the narrower sections. They were climbing under full sun but at least getting good views on the way up.

Machu Picchu Mountain SummitWe signed out at 11.15. Three and a half hours after starting the climb. Machu Picchu Mountain is 650 meters higher than Machu Picchu Citadel, which itself is 400 metres above Aguas Calientes.

Following the guide into the citadel, we turned left along one of the terraces passing some Llamas busy keeping the grass trimmed. My colleagues had a flight to catch so had to hurry around the citadel while I rested in the shade enjoying the view and a half melted chocolate bar before embarking on the trail to Inka Bridge.

Inca BridgeThis short trek is not for the fearful of heights: a narrow path with sheer drops and no guard rail. It was a personal challenge which I could not let beat me. Seeing some people standing on the edge looking straight down turned my stomach. I passed those sections close to the rock face head turned away from the drop, trying to focus on other things.

There are a number of guides on Machu Picchu and I quickly tagged onto an English speaking one leading a group of six Brits. Machu Picchu is a fascinating place that has an energy about it and where every stone tells a story. I was conscious that this was Debs dream and I was in it. If she was alive, the mountain climb might have killed her.

I had intended to walk back to the town but the 400 metre descent was too much to think about after scaling Machu Picchu mountain so I bought another bus to save my knees from a further hammering.

Huillca Wasi Hostal, Machu PicchuThe shower in my room had a hot and cold tap but left me only a selection of cold left or cold right. There are hot springs on the edge of town from which the town gets its name Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters). I borrowed the hotel’s towel and marched up the hill to the thermal baths.
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Hot Springs Machu Picchu“Eases muscle aches and gets rid of toxins,” the sign says as I soak in the warm waters. “Where do these toxins go?” I wonder looking at the dozen people in this murky greenish water. The warm waters certainly ease muscle aches and pains and I felt refreshed heading back into town for dinner.

I had been puzzled when I first walked through Plaza de Armas in Cusco, about all the massage services being relentlessly touted. I can see why now; so much hiking and sightseeing around the Sacred Valley. There would be a lot of stiff muscles and joints around after a day at Machu Picchu and various trails.

Check out was at nine. I was out at eight thirty for coffee and empanadas before treading the sleepers along the railway back to Hydro Electrica. There seemed to be even more people hiking the railway today; both ways. Unless people were already grouped or paired, no one spoke to each other; not even greetings.

The Gardens of MandorA couple of kilometres along the track is Jardines de Mandor. The name was written in my notebook from recommendations I picked up a while ago. I paid the entrance fee and left my bag in their storage room and meandered around their gardens. A small river of pure crystal mountain water runs through the Gardens into the Urubamba. The river Mandor, barely bigger than a brook with crystal clear water too good not to taste. Pure cool mountain water with a natural sweetness.

The Gardens had a natural feel that fostered a sense of peace and tranquillity, Not so much cultivated as curated… Returning to reception scratching unexpected mosquito bites, the owner encouraged me to visit the restaurant where I bought an unnatural Coka Cola and sat in the garden overlooking the river resting my stiff back and contemplating life.

Vendprs along the Machu Picchu RailwayCollecting my backpack and crunching along the loose ballast along the track back towards Hydra Electrica, I was back at the Inti Watana restaurant within a couple of hours for rest, refreshment and another two nachos and blob of guacamole.

Descending the path through the trees to the siding, a train looked all set to go with its big diesel polluting the silence. The car park was alive with groups of hikers and fleets of minibuses. “Collectivo?” I asked. It was half-past two. No collectivo until tomorrow morning. A taxi would be S/20. I decided I would walk. What would I give for a 10Km ride? S/10 would be OK so as I walked, I held out a S/10 note in my hand to tempt any passing vehicles; there would be many judging by the car park at Hydro Electrica and the single road access from Santa Teresa.

Two minutes later the first minibus stops and accepts the offer. Three Peruvian looking workmen were smiling and chuckling, maybe at my unconventional ruse, I don’t know. This was a private vehicle and I climb into the front passenger seat, arm out of the window admiring the scenery as we followed the river back to Santa Teresa.

Inka Tours, Santa Teresa“Aqui, por favor!” the bus stops and I step out and cross the road into the Inka Tours campsite. The tents were out again and crowds of twenty-something Brits and Aussies were milling about. The WiFi was on but there was no internet connection. Not an environment I was keen on hanging around in.

Checking the offline app, Maps.me, I located the hot springs to the North of Santa Teresa.and hopped on the bike for the 4km ride for another long soothing soak. The trail was wide but rough following the path of the Urubamba river

Hot Springs Santa TeresaThese springs were the same temperature as Aguas Calientes, around 36C, but were crystal clear, flowing from one pool to the other, finally overflowing into ornate showers where we could use soap and shampoo before the water drained into the river. This site was far bigger and more natural with a large cafe area where groups of hikers were chilling out. I stayed for a couple of hours. I hadn’t realised there was a campsite here. Much quieter than Inka Tours.

Banos Termales de CocalmayoDarkness had fallen by the time my wrinkled fingers dressed my cleansed and soothed body and then sipped a Pisco Sour listening to the blend of the sound of the river between the mountains and the murmur of conversations around the baths. Returning to a tent just here would have been the perfect finale to the day. I could have been tempted to relocate but I was off tomorrow anyway.

In the darkness, I followed the shuddering headlamp beam back over the rocks and grave back to Inka Tours. Gangnam Style was blaring out of the solitary PA speaker and the elevated chatter and whooping of the gyrating hikers had upped a couple of notches. There was still no internet connection so I retreated to the tent to read some Terry Pratchett on the Kindle before being effortlessly drummed, cheered and whooped to sleep.

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Machu Picchu Basecamp, Inka Tours Campsite, Santa TeresaWednesday, 9th of May, after a sleepless night, listening to the kindergarten crowd shouting along to Gangnam Style, La Macarena and various blaring popular banalities, I emerged when the sun began to warm my tent to find a deserted campsite with the staff packing away the tents. Presumably, the hikers were now nursing a hangover through the Sacred Valley, Gangnam Style.

Today was the day to head to Machu Picchu. I had wanted to bike to Hydro Electrica where I could walk along the tracks. Two issues held me back. One: find a safe place for the bike with my worldly belongings strapped to it. Two: packing everything away again. So I decided to leave the tent and bike where it was and walk the 10 Km to Hydro Electrica and maybe get the train from there.

Collectivo bus from Santa Teresa to Hydro ElectricaI packed the basics in the rucksack and stepped out of the campsite to follow the road that followed the river toward Machu Picchu. A car pulled up next to me and asked where I wanted to go. He wanted S/30, about £8. I declined the offer and the price dropped to S/20. No, I’ll walk. I crossed the river and the sun beat down on the pale shadeless track. After a kilometre, I rested under a solitary tree for a drink of water. Putting the bottle away, I noticed a bus coming round the corner. I watched it approach and stood up as it pulled up next to me. The driver asked “Hydro Electrica?” “Si, quanto es?” Six Soles! Result. I climbed aboard.

The road resembled the narrow track I had travelled on to get to Santa Teresa on yesterday, narrow, dusty and twisty yet not so far above the valley.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationHydro Electrica was not what I expected: something like a mini Hoover dam in Nevada. It’s actually a car park at the end of a railway siding with a few buildings scattered along the valley and a railway siding lined by cafe and souvenir stalls. I could hear the horn of a train echoing around the mountains, followed five minutes later by the train itself.

Hydro Electrica Railway StationAfter watching the shunting and activity at this make-shift station, I headed down the track ignoring a sign next to a rail-side hostel that pointed out a pathway up through the woods to Machu Picchu. I thought it easier along the tracks and continued around the bend following a pair of Swedes until we came to a dead end. It looked as if there had been a landslide some years ago and it was left here abandoned on the tracks.

The main line to Machu PicchuBacktracking the 200 metres or so to the footpath, the ascent through the trees emerged on the main line and I turned left to follow the sign to Machu Picchu. Passing another cafe, Inti Watana the menu caught my eye “Nachos con Guacamole” followed by soup and a main course. S/10 bargain. Not what I expected. Two nachos ‘con’ (being the operative word) guacamole… Still, there was plenty of soup and a decent main course.

Inti Watana Menu, Hydro ElectricaEntrada Nachos con GuacamoleIt was gone 2pm by the time I set off. The 10km walk is reckoned to take 2 hours. It’s not a lonely trek, this one. The walk to Aguas Calientes is a popular one saving $33US each way for a 10km ride. There were a lot of people walking towards me. Presumably the Machu Picchu morning crowd on their way home.

The heat of the day was tempered by the valley’s forest canopy arching high over the tracks. The railway follows the river round in a horseshoe shape around Machu Picchu which remains invisible from the valley floor. It remains about 3Km away as the line circles it yet constantly out of sight. No wonder the Spaniards didn’t find it on their South American looting spree.

Vendprs along the Machu Picchu RailwayScattered along the railway are food shacks and vendors, campsites and hostels. Everything you’d normally expect along a roadside. It’s a bizarre arrangement but it works well to regulate tourism and preserve the site.

Rail Bridge between Hydro Electrica and Aguas CalientesA few trains passed me both ways on the single track. A delicate act of scheduling, I imagine, so as they cross at the very few passing places.

It was gone 5pm by the time I strode up the incline to Aguas Calientes past the surprisingly opulent hotels. The steep mountains enveloping the town seemed to bring on a premature twilight. I was glad of the earlier collectivo bus that stopped to pick me up else it would have been dark a couple of hours before my arrival and my stiff back would have been so much stiffer.

The road between Machu Picchu and Aguas CalientesI ducked into the first hostel I found to try my luck at finding a dorm. The young receptionist could not understand my Spanish or English but worked out I wanted somewhere to stay the night. Presumably, as I was standing at the reception of a hostel. “S/30?” I agreed and she beckoned me outside, leading me to the main square and up an alley to another hostel, Huillca Wasi. A private room with a view out to the mountains and ensuite. It was more than I hoped for and only about £8 a night.

Huillca Wasi Hostal, Machu PicchuThe girl helped me check in and led me to the bus station kiosk to buy tomorrow’s bus ticket up the hill to Machu Picchu and then to the ticket office to the attraction itself. Walking to Machu Picchu is a 400m scale up rocky stairs, taking about one and a half to two hours. I wanted to be fresh at the site so opted for the S/40 single; more expensive than the hotel.

There were three options for Machu Picchu:
1. Machu Picchu Citadel S/150 ($46)
2. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Machu Picchu Mountain S/200 ($61)
3. Machu Picchu Citadel plus Huayna Picchu S/250 ($77).

I’d heard of Huayna Picchu and that it was popular and often crowded despite limited ticket numbers so I opted for number 2 not knowing anything about Machu Picchu Mountain.

Schedules are tight and my ticket time was between 7 and 8am. Just to make sure, I’d be out of the Hotel by 6am for the half hour bus ride up to the entrance. I was set, ready and booked for the big day. I could relax and have something to eat before resting in a comfortable bed after two weeks of camping. I wasn’t even going to come here and had no interest when Debbie had told me Machu Picchu was her dream but I found myself in Cusco that I wanted to honour her memory more than any personal desire to see it. I thought of her a lot along the way; during the ride across the mountain pass of Abra Malaga, the narrow cliff road to Santa Teresa, the walk along the railway to Aguas Calientes. This was a pilgrimage in her memory and, already, I’m glad I came…

Debbie
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Ollantaytambo Plaza, PeruOver the next two weeks, I explore Ollantaytambo, mainly the coffee shops and tackle the rugged Pinkuylluna walk I chickened out of crossing the narrow, cliff path to the triple gabled granary to the south and instead explored the one on the northern promontory.

Pinkuylluna GranariesThe views are stunning, even as the dark clouds bring flecks of rain over the southern peaks and threaten a storm.

Saturday, 5th of May, Sitting at the Coffee Tree Cafe a few days later, I think about motorcycling to Machu Picchu but glance up at the Ruins on the walk. It bothers me that I didn’t cross to the triple gabled granary. This is unfinished business. I had the time, finished my coffee and set off once again to climb the Pinkuylluna walk. Tomorrow was Sunday and I decided I would be off to Santa Maria on the bike so this would be my last opportunity.

Pinkuylluna viewsOnce I had arrived at the point that my jellied knees convinced me to quit before, it didn’t seem quite as bad as I remembered. Looking straight ahead and filming with the phone, I strode ahead. At the ruin, I met Andrew from York, an ex-soldier enjoying a day off by climbing over rocky crags. He said he was going up to the ruin overlooking where we were, was I coming. How could I refuse? It was a challenge for completion.

At the ruin, there was red tape strewn over the rocks behind. A path seemed to continue and the tape was easy enough to step over, so we explored further, discovering a cave tucked under the crags at the termination of the path. Somebody had built a fire pit and probably stayed the night there but no one else was here now.

Andrew left to explore another path but I spent 20 minutes admiring the view, relaxing and shrugging off early symptoms of a migraine, probably caused by coffee and exertion at high altitude.

Sunday, 6th of May, the sunrise warmed me out of bed and I prepped the bike but decided, “Nah, I’ll go tomorrow.” It’s been like this for the last 5 days but previous factors were poor weather forecasts that failed to deliver the storms they promised.

Monday, 7th of May, I packed up the Tent leaving a yellow rectangle in the green lawn – a sign of being here too long. Strapped the bags to the bike, and walked into Ollantaytambo Plaza for lunch, there was no rush.

Ollantaytambo Plaza looking toward PinkuyllunaI found a place full of locals the food, good and cheap, before heading back to the campsite. The bike was all set so I said farewell to the proprietors, Ed and Laura, and rattled along the giant cobbles out on to the highway. Maps.me indicated a Fuel station not far to the west but I couldn’t find it and did a U-turn at the hotel at Phiry. There was no way I could make Santa Maria with the fuel I had in my tank. I pulled into the plaza in Ollantaytambo intending to interrogate the tourist office. A guy approached with intention of getting me to move my bike which saved me getting off the bike. Either 20 minutes east or 5 minutes west. As it turned out, the fuel station was about half a kilometre further from the point I turned around.

Abra Malaga Mountain PasThe road was smooth and swept through the Andean valleys in and out of the shade of the afternoon sun. The gentle incline was peppered with hairpin turns as I climbed further towards Abra Malaga. I didn’t know it at the time but the road is quite well Biking Abra Malagaknown. You can read more about it here at Dangerous Roads.
Eventually, I reached cloud height and everything became cold and damp. I lifted my visor in order to see the edges of the road in the gloom only for my glasses to mist up. Looking over my glasses with natural but slightly blurred vision was the best I could see for the last ten minutes. The road became rough and pockmarked and I was riding over and around harsh potholes.

My water bottle bounced out of its restraining bands which gave me an excuse to stop. I was cold and damp, yet now over the peak of Abra Malaga and descending slowly out of the cloud.

Below the clouds, I began to dry out and see through my glasses. Sunny spells returned to the day. I found myself tailing the fuel truck I had passed earlier. I had no desire to overtake it now, I was admiring the scenery, I felt like a pilot descending, looping around the hairpins. Dusk was falling by the time I reached Santa Maria, It was a long haul to get here, in endurance rather than distance.

I found a hostel around the back streets and booked into what turned out to be a private room. Access was back out of reception onto the street and a walk around the block. I settled in and returned to reception to the intermittent WiFi. It seemed pretty quiet until a bus-load of white-water rafters invaded the reception for the WiFi. I was famished, Maurice, the proprietor, escorted me to a fine restaurant that served dinner for 10 Soles (£2.50).
I found out they did breakfast at “7 or 8 or whenever you want” were his words.

Cockerel headMy room had a small glassless window. Fine because it wasn’t cold or raining but useless for shielding the sound of the cockerel next door that started crowing at 3.15 and every hour after.

Tuesday, 8th of May: I laid in bed sleepless until about 8.30 and packed the single bag I’d taken off the bike and tottered around to reception. Closed. I tottered further up to the restaurant that served breakfast from ‘7 or 8 or whenever you want.’ It looked closed, at first glance, but a door was open enough to see all the chairs standing on the tables. “Abierto?” I called inside to someone I spotted out back in the kitchen. He went to ask the proprietor who I guess recognised me and beckoned me in: the only customer in the cafe, chairs being deployed around the table of my choice.

It was gone ten by the time I recovered the bike from the garage of the hostel and headed out to Santa Teresa. It was a good job I had passed the junction, last night, when curiosity foolishly tempted me to tackle the cliff road in the dark. This morning, a food vendor had set up in front of the road sign to Santa Teresa, obscuring it with a beach brolly.

I was on my way, over the bridge and through the ghost town I explored yesterday’s twilight before finding the hostel. The high, shear ‘death road,’ someone called it on a forum, had been a worry but I was now distracted in keeping the bike straight on the rough marble like rocks and learning how to set up the Go Pro to record the experience.

Inka Tours, Santa TeresaThe campsite I noticed on maps.me is called Inka Tours and while it seemed a quiet corner of paradise, it later became a constant barrage of minibuses of hikers: hence the name, I guess. Hikers resting during their exclusive Inca Trail excursions over the Andes and through the Sacred Valley. S/10 a night felt a bargain. “Can you tell me the Wifi password?” “Si, five Soles…” “Is there anywhere to charge my laptop?” “Si, One Soles…” Took the shine off the place.

Machu Picchu Basecamp, Inka Tours Campsite, Santa TeresaThe weather is warmer here, what with being half the altitude of Ollantaytambo. Sandflies made their presence felt only after getting their fill of blood and escaping to bother others. Shorts and flip-flops were a poor choice for sitting at the bar watching my GoPro videos crawl up the narrowband internet pipe to Youtube

Once the tent was set, I spent the rest of the day wrestling with video editing. A new field for me, especially with Kdenlive on Linux that likes to crash the PC at random intervals. Patience seems to help: do nothing else while encoding.

As night fell and the last of the youtube videos were uploaded. Bus after bus of caucasian 20 somethings rolled in whooping, cheering and clapping. Shots of Inka Tequila piled high on the bar.

Something told me I’d rolled into the wrong paradise…

Read more about how to motorcycle to Machu Picchu here.

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Pununa Wasi, Arcopata, CuscoI’d been at the hostel so long that I felt at home and not that motivated to get moving. I’d been trying to mentally figure out optimal packing of the bike with my gear and the new stuff that came with the bike. I couldn’t do it without physically giving it a go and getting it wrong so that was the plan: experience was my best teacher. I packed the bags and pushed the bike out onto the street to start loading. The Motorcycle Diariessun was already high and hot and the effort of lugging and repacking the bike in the hot thin atmosphere was parching my throat. I had already packed away the water, mental note for next time. First stop? The store a hundred metres up the road to quench it my thirst.

Maps.me isn’t the best navigator out there but its better than nothing and works offline. I figured, once I’m on the road east out of the city then I’m set on my way. I push the starter button and the motor rumbles into life.

The road is smooth and fast and pretty soon I’m through Anta. The valley is wide and doesn’t give me the impression of the sacred valley. Pulling over, I discover that it’s not.

Zurite junction route 3SUp ahead is a right turn to Zurite, a track cuts across through Zurite to the road to Ollantaytambo. Packing my phone away and donning my gloves I turn along a shale track. Zurite isn’t too far off the main road but looks like a village from the third world. Laid out in a grid, the village is laced together with mud tracks and a suggestion of a central square.

The Yamaha bounces along the dirt track out of the top of Zurite and around the foot of the hills to the northeast.

Huarocondo is half a dozen kilometres up ahead and I can join route cu-110 to Ollantaytambo. Over the cobbles of Huarocondo and through the narrow streets brings me to an asphalt T junction and I confidently turn left and sweep down the hill. I use traffic a sign I am on the right route. There was none here, which subconsciously raises a doubt on whether I’m on the right track.

Three minutes later, it begins to rain, something I had been betting against since pulling on my jeans and jacket. I didn’t bother with the knee and elbow pads as I was keen to just get packed and going. The rain began to team down and I began to feel it penetrating my jacket. The terrain was rocky and mountainous. I was praying for some trees and I settled for some spindly specimens next to the river. Hurrying its way over the rocks down the valley.

The trees succeeded only into marshalling the raindrops into rivulets and poured them over me and the bike. Looking up and down the road, I decided I could get no wetter and head off onto the shiny black road surface peppered with rocks, fallen from the bordering cliff side.

Up ahead, the road turned grey which I took to be more shale. No this was bone dry asphalt with the edge of the shower painted as a sharp line across it. I was into dry, warm sun on a dry, smooth road.

A mile winding around the valley and I arrive at what looks like a construction site entrance. “Pare” means stop. The other signs I didn’t understand apart from closed but it had a list of times posted too. A car came past into the dusty entrance, disappearing around the corner.

It was early afternoon and it was sunny. I guessed this route was only closed at night and I slowly edged along the dirt track where the road used to be. This must have been a huge landslide as there was nothing but dirt and rock, harbouring the odd construction vehicle and shack for about a mile.

I follow an un-named river, that doesn’t even appear on Google Maps, crossing the railway between Cusco and Machu Picchu a couple of times and didn’t see any more asphalt until I arrived at the Urubamba river.

Huarocondo to OllantaytamboCu-110 had degraded into a gravel track and I stop and remove my jacket to dry my jacket and me in my Tshirt, off in the sun. The satnav app tells me to turn right, parallel to the Urubamba river, the opposite direction from Ollantaytambo. The track takes me a quarter of a mile to a steel bridge and a T junction that was buzzing with tour buses and taxis: the main road between Cusco and Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu beyond. Turning left, I joined the flow and tried to keep up, watching the more aggressive vehicles gain in my mirrors so I could wave them pass without a battle.

Arriving in OllantaytamboAbout 10 minutes later I was bucking over Incan cobbles behind a Coach rumbling into Ollantaytambo. I coast through a quaint square bristling with souvenir shops, cafes and tourists. Just past the square I turn left into Estudiante and judder along the coarse cobbles to the Casa Quechua campsite. My moto and I are welcomed through the back gate into the garden and I set about unpacking the bike for the first time. I’ll need to do better since the whole load had shifted forward but not far enough to foul the moving parts of the bike or me.

Coleman Rainforest 2 Tent, Ollantaytambo, Casa Quechua CampsiteThe tent was still in its original packaging, mainly a cardboard box, wet where the rain had penetrated the stitching of its outer bag. It’s a Coleman Rainforest 2, and comes with instructions in English, although the diagrams are self-explanatory. The tent was up in ten minutes, a record that should now easily be broken.

Camping at Casa Quechua, OllantaytamboWhen I bought the tent, I was disappointed I couldn’t find a 2 man but now I was thankful as the luggage now took up quite a bit of room. I had the appetite of a Paris – Dakar competitor. I had skipped breakfast and lunch due to the packing earlier and was keen to shovel some food past my cracked lips and dry throat. Riding at altitude appears to be more dehydrating than normal, as well as exhausting.

Entering the square after tidying my bags away, you might call throwing them in the tent, I was ushered into a cosy looking Pizzeria with welcoming smiles of the family members but no customers. Once in, it’s hard for me to make excuses and leave. I was the only customer and had the feeling I was about to be fleeced and wanted the reassurance of the herd, other diners to validate the value.

I settled into my new sleeping bag and tent around 9pm.

I awoke to voices. They weren’t there when I went to sleep. The camping community, as few as they were socialising in the communal area about ten feet from my tent. It’s nice to here young people fully expressed and uninhibited, as long as it’s not too close to me. Another ninety feet might have done the trick.

Sleep is punctuated by bouts of waking up gasping for air. An internet search reveals that I’m not dying, not yet anyway. Carbon Dioxide in the blood controls breathing. At high altitude, the body senses both low oxygen levels and high carbon dioxide to stimulate breathing. The breathing reduces the Carbon dioxide in the blood low enough to switch off the drive to breathe. When the Carbon dioxide rises again it switches the drive to breathe back on again, often with a gasp… and the cycle continues.

Sacred Valley of the IncasI emerge not long after dawn, grey formless clouds drape the Andean peaks. The morning air has a Celtic chill. No-one else stirs, all is quiet and there appears to be nothing to do, I retreat to the tent and scan for the absent WiFi signal while trying to keep warm.

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Sacred Valley of the Incas: Pisac

Pisac Butterfly PeruSun 15th April, 6 days after buying the Motorbike. It’s difficult to gain access to the passageway and wheeling the bike over a plank down the steps, so I’ve been reluctant to move it again until its time to leave. Cusco is a charming city and I have no time pressures so hanging around here is not a bad option. As I get to know my way around, it starts to feel like home.

Rosalie will arrive tomorrow and I’m just kicking back in the hostel dorm. I seek some solitude on the sunlit roof patio overlooking the Cusco rooftops. I’m disappointed to find two people already settled in both seats. Evan and Daniel an American and Argentinian on the patio were drinking Matte through a combined spoon straw, the like I’ve never seen before. They offered me some, breaking through my tacit resentment. The ornate cup is packed with leaves so I couldn’t see the liquid, I gave it a stir with a spoon and asked: “Do you eat it?” Apparently, it is a faux pas to touch the spoon and you simply drink the tea through the flattened handle that was also a straw and pass it around. Kind of a tea version of a bong. Offence may have been made but I noticed the sun was still out and the world was still spinning. There seemed to be no serious side effects.

JCs Cafe Cusco, PeruMon 16th April, JC’s Cafe is at the end of the street. One of the best cafes I’ve ever visited. Needless to say, It’s the first destination for the day for breakfast and coffee. Abierto 8:30. Which means opening time randomly between half eight and nine. This morning I delay my breakfast and order a coffee anticipating company, Engrossed online, I’m suddenly swamped by curly hair and a warm hug. I had my back to the door and hadn’t noticed Rosalie’s arrival.

This is a stark contrast to the time I voted against her joining Pantelisa back in Martinique. This is the third time fate has brought us together since then. Aloha Ke Akua, Nuevos Horizontes and now Cusco. For today, breakfast is a shared pleasure as we exchange our individual experiences since we’d last met.

Rosalie had booked an even cheaper hostal than mine in the heart of San Blas, a bohemian collection of narrow cobbled streets full of cafe’s restaurants and Peruvian souvenirs. I thought of relocating there but my motorcycle anchored me to Pununa Wasi. And, anyway, Rosalie was only here for 5 days and I’d also be on my way shortly after.

Wednesday Morning 18th April, I meet Rosalie at her hostel and we walk a few blocks down to the collectivos, shared people carriers and minibuses. We wait for a while for more passengers before a third joins us and we’re off, along the twisting road along the Sacred Valley of the Incas to Pisac, a small town east of Cusco in the sacred valley. I had skipped breakfast so first stop was something to eat and a coffee in a small square of sunlight in the courtyard of a coffee shop on the way to the Plaza de Armas.

Pisac has a relaxed and laid-backPisac, Sacred Valley of the Incas vibe. The market is huge, full of Peruvian colour, but apparently not many customers. Rosalie asks the Tourist Information official about the free options around Pisac. There are two: a Community Museum and a Botanical Garden. We walk up the hill along the cobbles until we get to the ticket office at the foot of the mountain path. 70 Soles for a 2 day ticket along the Sacred Valley. Rosalie emphasises we are only here for one day and, after a pause, the ticket clerk offers us a two for one deal, no one will check tickets on the trail, and we start to climb the path to the Inca ruins of Pisaq Old Town in the mountains.

Pisaq Old Town Guide, IntiA few minutes up the dusty path, we encounter a young Peruvian with his backpack sitting on a rock in the shade of an outcrop. If this were a movie, it would have been an implausible introduction to a new character. It was almost as if he was placed waiting for us. Inti speaks fluent Quechua, Spanish and English and happens to be a tour guide on his day off. He invites us along to Pisaq Old Town with him and points out places of interest along the mountain path. The Incas built their settlements high in the mountains, the Spanish built theirs in the Valley. The Pisac we see in the valley is a small town of Spanish origin.

Further east along the river is a small suburb, separate from the main town. Apparently, an expat community of Europeans. Expats being people we label back home as immigrants…

Inti gives us the option of ascending to the watchtowers and over the mountain peak above us or skirting the mountain to Pisaq Old Town. We take the easy route, the level path, east around the mountain. I have a fear of heights and the mountainsides become sheer and the path narrows. Rosalie and Inti are up ahead so I focus on them as we approach Pisaq Old Town. Inti is here for meditation and ceremony and invites us to share. We sit down for meditation and listen to the sweet sound of his flute.

Pisaq Old Town, Lost Valley of the IncasThe ceremony ends after about 10 minutes and we part company, promising to visit his shop on the way back to the collectivos. Rosalie and I climb the steps to Intihuatana and then further on to the peak and gazebo with the view of the terraces. Over the stream, behind the terraces in the cliff face there appear to be doorways in the cliff face with no pathway up or down to them. It looks like a vertical community but it turns out it’s an Inca cemetery.

This was the end of the walk, according to the map and we return, skirting the large peak, with its gazebo, and taking the route via the watchtowers overlooking the gridded streets of Pisac. We were both now hungry and dined at a vegetarian restaurant before cramming in a visit to the local community museum and then arriving at the Botanical Garden Gate just as the caretaker was closing it.

No matter, we noticed a quaint coffee bar and hostel on the way that had a balcony overlooking the gardens. We squeeze past some weathered hippies obstructing the balcony doors and enjoy a pretty ordinary coffee. The setting was the thing: birds in the trees, a hummingbird sipping nectar from the blossoms. A perfect break before heading back to Cusco.

We had promised to visit Inti’s shop and we headed to the collectivos, circling via the riverside where he said it was. We never found it. The sun was dipping below the horizon indicating an ideal time for abandoning the search and calling it a day.

“Cusco?” An eager Peruvian stepped across our path indicating a full collectivo ready to roll and pulled out into the street as soon as we squeezed ourselves aboard.

Cusco at Night, PeruDarkness had fallen on the sparkling cityscape of Cusco. The intention was to end the day with a craft beer at Eusebio & Manalo, except it was closed. Instead, we shared a litre of Cusqueno Trigo wheat beer back at Rosalie’s hostal.

 

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The Road to Cusco: Cusco

Plaza De Armas through the window of Paddy's Irish Bar.I chose the shortest route from Lima to Cusco via Nazca. Fear mongers related stories of bandits holding up coaches in the Andes where there is no cell signal available for calling for help. The last reported case I could find was in 2013, 5 years previous. Being held up looked extremely unlikely, to me, despite sensational internet reports.

Dusk fell by the time we made it out of Lima and not much could be seen out of the windows. It would be daylight before we reached the mountain passes and until then I tried to sleep as best I could.

The Road between Lima and CuscoWith the light of the dawn, the mountains presented themselves in their majestic beauty. The road lay like spaghetti dropped down mountainsides into the valleys. Pressing my head against the window, I could see traffic ahead and behind. the route is not as deserted as I expected. Any bandits would have a hard time remaining anonymous, at least at this time of day.

Flores bus break on the way to Cusco from LimaThe excitement of stopping for breakfast was brief. I wasn’t hungry and the coffee I looked forward to did not exist. Instead, I kicked over the car park gravel, warmed by the early morning sun until the bus driver was ready to thread us through the Andes again.

Pununa Wasi, Arcopata, CuscoThe bus rolled into Cusco Thursday afternoon at 3.30pm. Tour guides thrust leaflets into our hands. “Cheap Hotel 70 Soles?” I wanted cheaper. “40 Soles?” that was OK and I was escorted to an eager taxi and ferried to the hostel Pununa Wasi on Avenue Arcopata.

Pununa Wasi Dorm“Lo Siento,” no room. Dorm for “15 Soles?” Perfect, about £3 a night. The dorm was spacious but basic with painted creaky floorboards, 8 single beds and some ill-fitting raggedy curtains limp at the window failing at masking the daylight and the sound of tyres rattling along cobbles of Arcopata, and the random honking of taxis and buses. There appeared to be no more than 2 people currently staying. I later learned that that meant nothing since backpackers arrived at all hours by air and bus for Machu Picchu, stumbling around looking for mains sockets for phone chargers before settling down to sleep.

Plaza De Armas, CuscoI skate across the polished volcanic cobbles in treadless trainers toward Plaza de Armas, the main square, at noon the next day to meet Nikita. He didn’t recognise me since I hadn’t updated my facebook picture since I had opened my Facebook account 10 years previous. We walked to where the bike was parked and gave me a ride up to Temple de la Luna where his AirBnB overlooked Cusco. Anastasia made me muna tea and we talked about the motorbike before taking it for a test ride.

There was paperwork involved and we resolved to tackle that Monday. Until then, I had the weekend to myself.

Cusco, Capital of the Inca EmpireCusco lies in a long valley at 3,400 m (11,200 ft) elevation and has t shirt weather in the day with a British spring-like chill during the night.

 

Monday came and I waited at Migraciones at 10am for Nikita. He was fifteen minutes late due to queues at Sunarp where they register the owner of the bike.

Permission to SellNow we needed a stamp in the passport from Migraciones. The queue eventually delivered us to a Spanish speaking official that told us that a stamp was not necessario and pointed to a notice at the front of the office. We should go to the Nacional Bank and pay 16 Soles where they give us a ticket of code numbers for completing an online form.

The bank was heaving with multiple queues winding back and forth normally only seen at US airport immigration terminals. There were counters to the left and the right and aline at each. We split up to stand in each queue. Nikitas was far faster and I joined him before my queue rounded the bend into the third tier from the front. Within 20 minutes we were strolling down the road to the nearest internet cafe with paper slips in hand ready to complete the form and print out the paper.

The straightforward form only failed at the security ‘captcha’ script that asked to type in a series of distorted characters to make sure we were human and not hacker’s programs. It took several attempts to validate mine and print out the resulting document but Nikita’s was firmly refused. Eventually, we noticed that the bank clerk had missed three digits out of his passport number.

Nikita marched back to the bank but the clerk was unable to retrieve the data from the system. I returned to the Notary while Nikita walked back to Migraciones to try and sort it out. The notary insisted that we needed the passport stamp from the Migraciones so off I went back to Migraciones to double check. Twenty minutes queueing and happily finding an English speaking official confirmed that the notary was mistaken. The printed document was all we needed.

By now, the sun passed its noontime zenith and the Notary closed for lunch until 3. Anastasia had a class at three so she departed after we enjoyed a Peruvian lunch together while Nikita and I returned to the notary. We inherited a new clerk who accepted our documents without insisting on a stamp but told Nikita he needed another form from an office around the corner. I waited at the Notary while this new hurdle was overcome. 20 minutes later Nikita returned, fairly irritated. They told him that the document he was asking about was only required for cars. Motorcycles didn’t need it.

Fingerprints and signatures were submitted, indicating progress and all looked well until it came to light that Nikita had bought the motorcycle after his marriage date which necessitated his wife’s signature also, even though her name does not appear in any documents. Anastasia had been sitting here at the Notary for over an hour that morning and now she had gone to her class. We had reached a five-minute impasse. Eventually, we made it clear that the ‘M’ indicated in the passport meant gender ‘Male’ not marital status ‘Married’ and so the confused clerk overlooked the pointless marriage rule and completed the paperwork.

Motorcycle Diaries4pm, not a bad days work and now I was the owner of a Yamaha YB125 in Peru. I was set to go. After returning Nikita home, I rode back along the cobbles to the hostel and parked the bike along the passage next to reception.

Cusco RooftopsRosalie was coming to Cusco next week so I thought I’d hang around and enjoy a brief reunion. As it happened, I liked Cusco. There is a lot to see and it has a nice laid back vibe. Besides, the hostel was a quiet place to look into establishing an online income and between bouts of procrastination and idleness, I set about prodding around with that possibility. I soon found out that long periods online sap the spirit and whichever way I was going to go, creating an income without lapsing back into a slave existence was going to be a long haul.

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The Road to Cusco: Lima

Crossing the Ecuador border was straight forward after the half hour queue. “Occupation?” “Computer Engineer,” after reading a tip that saying writer or journalist can be problematic.

Straight on a bus to Tulcan bus terminal, after some language ping-pong with the ticket clerk, the bus I wanted was for Quitumbe, the South terminal in Quito, which was due in fifteen minutes. No breakfast for me then, and I bought a bottle of water while I had the opportunity.

The bus climbed into the mountains along wide smooth dual carriageways, something that Colombia lacked. The driver sped around the sweeping bends causing me to hold tight to the seat in front.

The landscape was mountainous but more barren than Colombia. The towns appeared more prosperous and reflected some influences of the United States with its currency and KFCs. Somewhere along the way, we crossed the equator, my first ever venture into the southern hemisphere. There was no fanfare or even sign that I noticed, and technically I went quietly from spring to autumn.

The bus pulled into Quitumbe shortly after 4.30pm and the hunt for the Cusco bus began. As was becoming the way of things, there wasn’t one. As usual, I was told I had to get to the border, cross in a taxi and get another bus. A ticket to Huaquillas, wherever that was, was $15 and due to depart in 10 minutes.

After 6 hours on one bus, there were to be 12 hours on this one. There was not much to see out of the window in Quito since the city was shrouded in grey drizzly cloud. ETA was 5am.

Taxies were waiting at the stop in Huaquillas. $5, I don’t if that was too much but I took it. Tired, you see. The taxi driver produced some Peruvian currency “Soles, Soles.” Typically they give an abysmal exchange rate and I had no dollars anyway so declined his optimistic offer.

Immigration was quiet and I was through in no time. Another day, another rubber stamp on a piece of paper. The next taxi was $10 which I thought was steep but I found the rate posted on a tariff board and it turned out a 20km journey and I only just managed to scrape the change together for it.

At the terminal, there was no bus to Cusco. Go to Lima and change. 90 Soles, departure at 8:30am. My visa card was rejected by the official and I walked about a mile to the ATM in the town. 6am and the Tumbes traffic was just honking its way to life. Drawing out the soles, I made my way safely back to the terminal and waited.
“Quanto Tiempo a Lima?” I ask. Twenty two hours journey time…

Tumbes seemed to be a purely commercial town like Ipiales was. I grabbed some street food for breakfast. Empanadas and a milky, porridgy drink, so nice I had another.

On the bus, through the Tumbes rush hour and we were soon zipping along the Panamerican highway. the land was flat and barren, reminding me of the Sinai, which led to thinking about Deb. Deb and I used to pick up cheap flights and go to her apartment in Sharm el Sheik for a month in the winters. She told me one of her dreams was to go to Machu Picchu. Cusco was the tourist springboard for that. Now she was dead there remained only memories and ‘shoulds’ and my attention resumed to the passing scenery.

The spindly bushes were adorned with discarded plastic bags that once drifted in the breeze. Scattered between were half buried plastic bottles resisting their decomposition by sun and sand.

It is warmer here near sea level and this bus, unlike the others, does not engage its air conditioning. And unusually had opening windows.

In the seat in front of me, there is a pleasant Peruvian lady sharing food and drink with her son, joyfully tossing plastic bags and wrappers out of the window. Ecological consciousness is not yet universal.

The Panamerican highway changes from dry shrubs to barren hills to flat plains and rice fields. The Pacific shore comes and goes in and out of view and the straight smooth asphalt degrades into gravel track and back again.

This is probably the oldest and most basic bus I’ve been on so far, with no power or wifi, but the journey seems less tiring without the constant sharp cornering and changes of altitude. The straighter roads make for faster speeds and there’s a real sense of making progress on the thousand kilometre journey to Lima.

People board and alight at stops along the way and I sometimes have the luxury of stretching out on a double seat. Even penned in, I still manage to sleep using a folded jacket as a pillow.

We arrive in Lima at 5am and we’re hustled bleary-eyed of the bus to claim our bags. The ticket desk officially opens at 6 but there is already someone at the ticket desk “Cusco Economico?” I ask. 5.30pm. The VIP service leaves at 1.30pm for a tenner extra. For that, I save four hours and gain a bit of luxury and perhaps some wifi. I say ‘perhaps’ as the route is the notorious Nazca route where bandits have been known to hijack buses while they are out of cell phone signal.

I devise a cunning plan, I notice a Hostel on the maps.me app on my phone not far from the terminal. It’s a 5 minute walk past the stadium and military barracks to an unassuming narrow entrance tucked behind a tree. I ring the bell and a short Peruvian appears rubbing his eyes and yawning. Normally, check in is not until the afternoon at these places but he shows me a double room with ensuite. Perfecto. It has a strong wifi signal as I’m right near the router.

The room looks like a prison cell. Looking up at the ceiling reveals daylight around the edges. This must have been an open courtyard at one time. It doesn’t matter, it’s not raining and I have the benefit of fresh air and the full volume of background city noise of horns, car alarms and the whistles of the traffic police. My single pair of socks are beginning to smell so I give them a wash in the sink and drape them over the electric fan, which also acts to mask the noise of the city and the audio from the Peruvian soap opera entertaining the receptionist in the foyer.

While charging my laptop and phone, I contemplate going to Cusco this afternoon, I’d still get nine hours rest but decide there’s no rush and decide to stay the night instead.

On my education in Amazonian plant medicines, I learned that Mambe and Ambil make a good combination for writing. Ambil, a tobacco paste used by the Witoto tribe for prayer to the spirit world, apparently provides the wisdom and Mambe provides ‘Sweet words.’ Discovering that the Ambil had gone missing wasn’t the best start to the day. It must have rolled out of the bag while it was under my seat. I now have sweet words but no wisdom. It could have been worse, it could have been wallet or passport.

The climate in Lima is not too hot and I take a walk across one of the parks to a shopping mall to get something to eat and withdraw some cash. I’m surprised to find Uncle Sam’s footholds: Pizza Hut, Popeye’s and Chili’s. I used to love going to Chili’s when my father and his wife were more receptive to my visits to Houston. Sitting down and browsing the menu was a stroll down memory lane.

Now, a Mango and Jalapeno Margarita doesn’t sound too appealing but it was one of the most delicious margaritas I’d tasted. A perfect accompaniment to the chicken tacos and watching Real Madrid beat Juventus on three flat screens hanging off the walls of the restaurant.

I wasn’t expecting to like Lima but it was more modern than I anticipated and there was everything anyone could ever want within five minutes walk of the hostel. The city seemed civilised but there was always a question mark on why some of the small stores were caged in with vendors serving and taking money between the bars. Less so in the centre but common in the suburbs.

Wednesday morning dawned through the spaces between the roof and the wall and the horns and whistles built up with the density of the morning traffic. I enjoyed my first piping hot shower for weeks. The on-demand appliances attached to the shower heads only seem to succeed in taking the chill off the meagre dribble needed to give the water a chance to snag some warmth on the way through. This was a proper immersion heater job. I kept the bathroom door open so that the draught from the sock drying fan kept the condensation off the mirror.

I was out of the hostel and into the cafe around the corner by 10:30.

I arrived early at the bus Terminal to make sure I got a seat as I noticed it was busy already yesterday when I arrived before dawn. The bus wasn’t until 5.30. It was 1.30 so I made myself comfortable in the cafeteria for the next four hours…

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The Road to Cusco: Ipiales

2pm. We pulled into a services for buses. Pulling out my phone and looking at the maps app, we had only covered a small portion of the distance in this 6 hour leg. My info had the journey as 10 hours total.

“Manana Manana,” The driver replied when I asked him when we would arrive. I spotted a couple that I had noticed before at the Bogota station boarding the bus in front of mine. That bus was going directly to Lima. I could have got that one if it had appeared on the options I found on the internet.

Meanwhile, I checked my wallet, I only had about $12000 cash which is about £4. If I were an extra day on the bus then I would have to make that last. I blew $3000 on an empanada and a coke. The internet access had been dire all the way from Bogota, although there must have been sporadic connection since messages would sneak through while I wasn’t paying attention. I’d booked the hostel in Ipiales on false travel information and I was kicking over the volcanic stones in the car park thinking how to alert them of my twelve hour delay when the driver returned to allow us to reboard.

At 8pm, the cabin lights flickered on as we pulled into another services. I had no plans for feasting on the high fat carnivorous menu with my remianing $9000 but I was glad of the stop as I didn’t want to go into the toilet on the bus. Despite the low temperature, the smell of overflowing urine began to pollute our breathable atmosphere.

Daybreak revealed a beautiful sunlit landscape as the road followed the gorge towards Ipiales. Reading lonely Planet about Ipiales told me that it was an uninspiring commercial town and Pasto was much better. We had already passed Pasto in the dark just before dawn.

Arriving in Ipiales wasn’t much to write about apart from being a relief to end the 23 hour bus journey. Small and dirty was my first impression, which I revised a little later. The town was bigger than I thought.

After collecting my bag and blowing another $3000 on breakfast at the bus station I marched up the hill toward the hostel. The air was pretty thin as I was at over 9000ft altitude. my lungs were clutching at the petrol fumes and scraping as much oxygen out of them as possible but not fast enough to prevent me having to stop to catch my breath.

Walking along Calle 13, I stopped at the marker that indicated the hostel on the satnav. Nothing. Checking the email for the address, the numbers suggested it was further down the street – yes, there it was, a narrow doorway like an unread and forgotten book on a bookshelf squeezed between a closed down cafe and a sex shop.

Jose answered the door and welcomed me into reception. Jose spoke no English but I hammered away at my best Espanol and secured a room for four nights totalling £18. The room had no window but the door opened onto a balcony over a covered courtyard. It was perfect.

This week was Semana Santa hence the stopover for four days. For Colombia, a country with a Catholic population of 90%, this week-long Easter celebration is the most important religious festival of the year. The whole country mobilises for a national holiday. Shops closed, Churches opened and regular services thrown into uncertainty. Which was why I was here in Ipiales: to sit it out. Today was Wednesday. Thursday and Friday were the big days.

One of the other guests told me about Santuario de Las Lajas, about the only thing worth seeing in the area. It was getting late so I noted it for tomorrow, Thursday.

The mornings at this altitude are cool, like bright April mornings back in England. Full jacket and jeans was the dress for the day. Walking down Carrera 6, I dipped into an unusually large supermarket to stock up on peanuts, my emergency energy supply. The cashier said something and held out her hand, I gave her some money. “No, documento.” She wanted ID… for peanuts… so I fished out my passport and watch her type some details into her register. It may have been a membership deal but I didn’t know and wasn’t really interested. It was amusing and I complied only to get my nuts.

Not far down the road, I hopped on a passing collectivo. A collectivo is like a taxi that waits for a full load before moving off only this was a bus with the word ‘Collectivo’ written down the side.  It stopped about a mile and a half short of Las Lajas but I could see the sanctuary almost straight away from the road, way down below me in the gorge. The road gently descended the mountainside sweeping around the contours which made for an easy walk. A block paved path eventually forked away from the road and quickly got steeper, scaling down the side of the gorge.  I’d lost sight of the sanctuary but the increasing presence of more and more vendors selling nik naks from selfy sticks to plastic virgin marys and religious candles confirmed the route.

Local intel told me there is usually no-one here on a weekday but this was no ordinary week; this was a holiday, a religious one at that. Families milled and sauntered between vendors making progress difficult. They have a knack of walking both slowly and into you at the same time.

I had the usual meander around the attraction, buying nothing but an ice cream and climbed off the path to record a quick Youtube video before making my way to the cable car station I’d happily noticed on my arrival. Teleferico, they call it here. I was hauled high over the deep gorge up the mountain and returned to near where the bus drop-off was, relieving me of the thought of that long high altitude oxygen depleted climb back up the mountain nursed in the back of my mind all the way down.

Flagging down a collectivo outside the teleferico station, I asked for Charco, and with a nod from the driver, sat down and watched the scenery pass by out of the window.

Charco is on the outskirts of Ipiales. It had a mention in Lonely Planet and looked pretty and colourful from a distance with the multicoloured houses stretching up the hillside. But the centre was nothing special apart from restaurants having some kind of rat on a spit over charcoal. It was cuy, later revealed as guinea pig. There wasn’t much else available for lunch here apart for a chicken place around the corner.

Between leaving the spit and arriving at my table, The cuy appeared to have been opened up and hammered flat. Flipping it over revealed kidneys in tact below a rack of ribs and either side of a thin spine. The skin was tough with the texture of leather but the flavour of pork rind. I threw that to a dog and watched it struggle to chew it into small enough pieces to swallow.

Back in Ipiales, restaurants were uninspiring enough to avoid going out, battling with the holiday crowd and I stayed holed up in the hotel for the rest of the day, snacking on peanuts.

Friday was a disappointment as I ventured out. Almost everywhere was closed. reminiscent of how Sunday’s used to be in Britain in the days before commerce steamrollered the laws protecting the Sabbath.  I retreated to the WiFi at the hotel.

Night time was disturbed by lots of drumming and marching in the street and later, boisterous guests disturbed my sleep lumbering along the wooden balcony and unmoderated chatter and laughter.

Saturday, all the shops were open again and, after breakfast, I spent the day writing. Overdoing it to the point of feeling tired and fed up before turning in early.

Sunday, I awoke early due to the noise of early rising guests through paper thin walls and lay in until 7.30. The internet wasn’t working which prompted me up for an early shower and to pack for Quito and beyond. I packed and left the Hotel and headed for the frontier taxis via La Taverna for breakfast but, even though the door was ajar and there was activity in the kitchen, it was not yet open. Too impatient to wait, I decided to postpone breakfast until the bus station at Tulcan, just over the border in Ecuador and strode around the corner toward the frontier taxis.

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The Road to Cusco: Bogota

Helping build the cabana was hard work and it was highlighting my lack of fitness. Bending, lifting and climbing was physically draining although regular water intake and mambe helped fuel me for the workday.

Thursday saw the arrival of Vladimir and Daniel. Daniel was experienced in cob building, He arrived just after we had been talking about cobbing the walls. Luis said people magically appeared just as they are needed. What seemed like magic to me seems like hard reality for Luis and Miguel.

Though the work was hard, working with such a group of positive people was fun and fulfilling.

By the time Saturday arrived and there was to be no work to be done, I missed the physical activity and the camaraderie shared in working on a shared project. Tonight was to be an Ayahuasca ceremony held as a farewell to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were ready to move permanently to Nuevos Horizontes.

Miguel asked me if I was drinking [ayahuasca] and I replied that I was in two minds as I didn’t feel the need. He told me that they hadn’t had a ceremony since I was last here and that I happened to have arrived at the right time, so reflecting on my philosophy of following signs and omens I accepted the invitation.

All of us would be staying at La Palmita but I would continue to San Gil the next day to embark on my journey to Cusco, so I packed all my things together with pillow and blanket and took them with me.

It was a long lead up to the ceremony as people arrived at La Palmita throughout the afternoon and into the evening. I gathered some firewood from down by the river. I felt hungry and thought about how close we were to San Gil and its restaurants. Did I really want to feel nauseated throughout a restless night camping out on ayahuasca when I could be tucking into a pizza and some wine followed by a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed?

I felt nothing this session apart from the laxative effects the lasted the following day. I slept a little but felt tired and a little nauseated. I enjoyed spending time with the people around the fire but felt disappointed that there were no messages or revelations. I awoke early but it was after dawn, maybe 7am. All was quiet and I thought everyone had left but discovered people tucked up sleeping all over the place.

It was lunchtime before we were ready to leave and we were all hungry so arranged to make our way to Gringo Mike’s for burritos. I dropped my bags at El Dorado and enjoyed the company of my Finca Family for the last time before heading south again. Tomorrow was to be a bus ride to Bogota with a connection of unknown time to Ipiales.

The food was plentiful and satisfying and we retired to El Dorado. Me for my last night, Bree, Connie and Daniel for a taxi back to Nuevos Horizontas.

I wanted some chocolate to take with me and the local supermarket was closed. Bree told me about the mall and huge supermarket across the bridge I had never seen before. There was no local chocolate but peanuts would keep me energised for the journey.

I awoke before 8am and spent some time online before packing. The plan was to catch an early bus to Bogota for making sure of arriving to open ticket offices there. It was gone lunchtime before I finished online and ready to head to the station. In fact, I thought maybe I could stay at El Dorado just one more night and go in the morning but decided to be proactive and just go. There’s a bus every hour to Bogota and I’d missed the 15:00 by four minutes but a fifty six minute wait isn’t too bad, even though it put the departure at 4pm. It’s six or seven hours to Bogota so it was looking like a midnight arrival.

The bus was late and we set off at 16:40. No use worrying about the connection. Just have to see what happens when we get there. My patience has been tested and been found to be resilient.

The ride was comfortable and not too crowded. It was too early to sleep so maybe a night bus might have been a better decision but then what about the mysterious connecting bus? Shut up, mind, relax and go with the flow.

It was past midnight as we rolled into Bogota Terminal. The arrivals building is long and narrow with vendor’s stalls along one side. On its own, it’s almost as big as some bus stations in the UK except that I knew from my previous visit there was another part somewhere else that was at least the size of Waterloo station. Although it looked like a dead end, zooming in on Google maps revealed the northern end of this part of the terminal turned left down a passageway and joined up to the bustling departure terminal. The passage was like a mall with vendors kiosks lining the edges. Emerging into the hall, most ticket offices appeared manned and cleaning staff were busy ferrying polishing machines up and down the tiled floor, while itinerant travellers lugged their bags between cafes, benches and toilets.

I picked a random Kiosk and asked “Autobus por Ipiales?”
“No, Bolivarteras!” She said pointing to the far end of the terminal. There were three large halls here, all bristling with ticket kiosks.
“Escribe?” I asked, and she wrote out the name and off I wandered to match the text on the paper to the text on the signs.

Bolivarteras was tucked in the corner next to the departure gates annexed to the last hall and there was a lonely looking official enclosed in the kiosk like an attraction at a zoo.
“Uno por Ipiales”
“No hasta las ocho y media.”
“Si, Uno por favor.” trying to make a sign for one-way resembling a nazi salute.

It was now 00:30 and the bus was due at 08:30. ‘This too shall pass’ came to mind and I sat down for an hour until my decreasing body temperature urged me to go and look for a coffee. It was a long night serenaded by cleaning machines and distorted announcements by the various transport companies.

I still nursed the laxative effects of the ayahuasca but fought the urge to visit the toilets at one thousand pesos a throw. I broke out the tablets that Thomas gave me that combats that sort of thing. It might not act that fast but I didn’t want to be vulnerable on the bus either. I managed to only piss away two thousand pesos…

It was a slow sleepless eight hours as I watched the daylight slowly chase the darkness away and crowds gather for the various buses pulling into the bays. The bus to Ipiales was packed and I was behind a family with three young kids. My fingers were crossed for a peaceful journey. I quickly visited the bus toilet, as I was intent on saving another thousand pesos by avoiding the services in the terminal, and then settled in my seat hoping I wouldn’t need to go again looking at the state of it.

Ten hours, according to rometorio.com, and I would be in Ipiales. That’s about 6.30pm. The Senorita to my right helped with the WiFi password as I had no clue what the driver was saying and I logged onto Hostelworld.com to look for hostels in Ipiales: nothing. Booking.com? Success. Hotels but at hostel prices and I booked a room for 5 nights for under a fiver a night. I estimated check-in about 9pm to give me some leeway and I sat back in my seat to while away the hours as the bus pulled out into the peak morning traffic under the low, grey Bogota sky.

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La Familia

I’ve been out of the company of good friends for a while so feel like some camaraderie. I like solitude but it can get too much sometimes. “Don’t go for comfort,” Ayahuasca told me. Solitude is often comfortable for me but not long term.

Now that Cartagena was out of the way, what are my options? Well, there is a motorbike for sale in Cusco, Peru. Peru has fewer restrictions on bike ownership than Colombia, so it would be easier to get one in Peru. I like the sound of biking around South America but I also want to return to the UK for the Summer. Where would the bike go in the meantime? Perhaps better postponing that one until Autumn but will I return? These are the ramblings in my mind at the moment. These savings aren’t going to last forever either but my new spiritual wisdom tells me not even to worry about that. Focus on the moment we have now.

The bus pulled out of the terminal at 17:45 with three of us aboard. Bonus, I could stretch out and scatter my laptop and cables across the seat next to me. I awoke in Barranquilla in darkness with crowds of families clambering aboard with flapping blankets and bulging bags. I gathered up my belongings allow space for a man and his rucksack and squeeze myself up against the window. Barranquilla, only 14 hours left to San Gil. I slept as best I could and read my kindle books between times while my knees began to ache with lack of space for movement. WiFi connection was strong to the router but internet wasn’t connected from the bus to the outside world. Read Kindle.

I awoke with my head resting on my shoulder, dribble on my jacket and a neck pain that warned me not to straighten up too quickly. It was daylight and I recognised the valley from the trip before. 7Am, we were just North of Bucaramanga. Gisela lived here, I should have checked whether she was back here or still at La Finca Nuevos Horizantes near San Gil. We get on well despite the language barrier, neither of us speak each other’s language. An opportunity for accelerated learning, perhaps.

The mountain ridge extends from a few hundred feet above sea level to over 6000ft and the smooth ribbon of asphalt winds along the mountainsides along the crest and down the other side. Bus drivers like overtaking, even on apparently blind bends and we power pass straining trucks and lycra clad cyclists pumping stringy legs up the endless inclines. I try not to look out at the sheer drops just over the other sides of the barriers but I’m compelled to check through squinted eyelids.

San Gil is familiar ground to me now and I catch the bus from the terminal into the centre. I needed internet for checking out hostel options so settled for a breakfast burrito at Gringo Mikes. I had been to El Dorado before and the phrase “Don’t go for comfort” echoed around my mind. All the hostel’s looked comfortable. I felt I should go somewhere new but I remembered I was hungry for Familia: community. El Dorado was the meeting point for the La Palmita/Nuevos Horizontes folks I had left behind so settled for that.

I walked in and Melina at the desk said “Paul, you’re back!” with a welcoming smile and I noticed Mitch and Steve catching up on Skype calls. Mitch had returned from the UK only yesterday and we enjoyed a mini-reunion at El Dorado. It was good to be back and absolutely the right choice to come back to El Dorado. It feels like home. Mitch asked if I was going to the farm. “We are drinking Ayahuasca tonight.” No, I didn’t feel the call and, anyway, I was still processing from the last experiences. I’d stay at El Dorado…

I shouldn’t have chocolate or coffee since they are migraine triggers. The coffee here is free and delicious. Bogota, Medellin or Cartegena do not seem to have decent chocolate like San Gil. Santander chocolate is world class and seems to be only available locally. I crossed the square to the minimarket and gave Melina some of my chocolate biscuits on the way back in. She said she had the same room for me, a 3-bed dorm with no other guests. I spread the contents of my bags out onto the neighbouring bunk intending to sort through the dead weight that I no longer needed but then left it until the morning. Last minute, as usual.

It’s warm enough to sleep without covers here so I laid on top of the bed in shorts and Tshirt. When I got up and tidied my things away, the room looked already made up. The laundry was in and I was packed and ready for a ride to La Finca. Mitch was due sometime today.

There was an email from Nikita in Cusco, Peru. He is selling a Yamaha YB125 cheaply since he has completed his South American adventure and ready to go to Africa. Riding around the Andes appeals to me and I investigate the journey to Cusco. Nearly 4000km and 4 days bus journey.

I settled into the hammock with my laptop and waited for Mitch. I had all day to catch up online so it didn’t matter when I was to be picked up.

Later, Luis and Miguel arrived at El Dorado: Sunday is their day off and they kicked back to watch a movie. Miguel told me there was a problem with the car so Mitch wouldn’t be picking me up. “Maybe Tuesday.” I booked another couple of nights at El Dorado and walked next door to Gringo Mike’s for a quiet dinner for one.

Monday. My schedule was clear, which usually invites overwhelm as to do lists start to condense into the empty space. Blogging; what was it going to be like retreading old ground? I thought to myself “If I’m going to become an interesting writer, I need to be doing interesting things to write about.” I emailed Nikita to say I was interested in his bike and I would leave San Gil Monday to travel down to travel down to Cusco by bus. Imagination filled in the uncertain future story with scenes of bandits chasing me through the jungle and landslides washing me off the sides of mountains. Yes, it would be exciting but not in the way my mind paints it.

Tuesday morning and there was a knock on the door. It was 8 am but I was already awake. It was Mitch “Are you ready, we are having breakfast at Betty’s on the corner if you want to join us then we’ll go to the Finca, yeah?” “Yeah.” I got up and dressed and walked down to the cafe on the corner…

We stopped at La Palmita on the way to pick up some things and noticed Michael from New Zealand was there. He was part of my Aloha Ke Akua family and had arrived in San Gil yesterday. Miguel was staying at La Palmita so there was plenty of space for the Finca supplies, Mike and me.

Walking down the track from the entrance, I could see the guys had been busy. there were a number of new structures and the tents were now under cover since the ultraviolet rays cause them to leak after a time in the sun.

Connie was there laid out in the Maloka. She was reacting badly to the Kambo treatment and returned to San Gil with lack of energy and swollen lymph nodes. It seemed like a viral infection but she wasn’t sure. As the days past, her energy returned and she made a steady recovery.

There was steady activity in one of the new structures with new bamboo uprights being erected under a plastic roof. I helped Mitch with some cross members and retired to the Maloka after lunch while it rained. At the end of the day, there were 2 new sturdy bunk beds assembled and ready for guests, not realising that this was for me and Mike.

I felt very grateful but a little guilty that I didn’t put a little more effort into the assembly. All in all, I felt like I was home again.

Over in the trees, I noticed a bamboo framework of a new structure. This was going to be a permanent cabana for guests. This looked like an interesting project and I decided to commit myself to help with the construction while I was here. After all, it would only be three or four days work before I have to leave for Peru…

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Medellin: City of Eternal Spring

After the third day of rehydration, I felt strong enough to get moving although the headache was still with me. I ate an early breakfast but then made the mistake of going back to bed. It was approaching 11 when I awoke again. I had made up my mind to go to Medellin.

What’s there? Warm weather, that’s what. I wanted recuperation without the need for insulation. I could call myself a climate tourist now I guess.

Monserrate had been on my itinerary for Bogata for a while but today, I couldn’t be bothered only for a nice view. An extra 1500 ft elevation on top of this headache? No, I can google it later.

I packed my bag and arranged for an Uber ride to the bus terminal. I was out of here. The bus was due at 15.30 and I had no idea how long it would take to get to Medellin. It didn’t matter. I had a couple of hours at the bus station, long enough to down a couple of empanadas and a coke. Surprisingly, my headache had disappeared sometime before the arrival of the bus. Remembering a previous experience on a freezing bus I picked up a fleece blanket from one of the stores in the terminal. I felt better already.

The bus crawled its way through the Bogota traffic and into the countryside. The daylight was fading and we ascended into low cloud shrouding the Andean peaks. It was a grey-green Tolkien-like scene as we wound our way around the contours, westward toward Medellin behind groaning trucks hauling their load uphill or restraining it from running away downhill. The scenery was beautiful. Palm trees in a misty Welsh landscape would be the best way to describe it. I managed to get some sleep between the same old boring Vin Diesel movies dubbed in Spanish.

We arrived at the Medellin terminal shortly after 2am. It was warm enough outside just to bed down on a bench in the terminal for the night but the Cattleya hostel I had booked online during the journey was only a few km away. A cheap Uber trip later found me resting on cool white sheets over a soft bunk.

The proprietor had cheerfully put me in with a British couple that had only just gone out for food (at 3am). It would be a relief for easy conversation without grasping for foreign words and phrases for a change.

My roommates arrived with their takeaways and drinks seemingly less than impressed to find a new companion sharing their space. These Brits turned out to be a pretty glum couple and were not interested in introductions or social interaction and so I drifted off to sleep under the smell of cold pizza and muted youtube soundtracks on iPhones.

There’s nothing special about Brits. Personality has no affiliation to nationality. The cool atmosphere was enough to get me up and out of the hostel as soon as possible. I was up at first light for a good warm shower as it had been a few days since I had either the energy and the pleasure. It was still too early to hit the street so I went back to bed for a bonus nap.

Awaking with the sun shining more insistently through the curtains, I quietly packed my bag and left my slumbering companions with a quiet click of the door latch. The morning was like a perfect Spring day in England, warm and bright with the dappled shade from the trees lining the Colombian avenues and I soon settled on a corner table on the patio of a street cafe a block away.

I was up too late for the breakfast menu so opted for a long brunch of chicken and rice plus a couple of thick Mango juices. I actually felt hungry for the first time in days.

After a short walk, I was at Enso hostel, cheap but roomy with a large common area. It looked like a party hostel but didn’t seem too noisy. Mike was the gregarious proprietor, an ex-construction worker from Britain who had been here 9 years and taken over Enso in the last few months. He pointed to the Metro map painted on the wall and told me about the cable cars and Comuna 13, the site of the bloody “Operation Orion” drug offensive of 2002, basically a two-day war on the streets.

Enso was cheap, in a good location with a free breakfast. The communal area was a bright covered patio area ideal for catching up on my online work.

I already felt better in this climate. I didn’t do much the first few days apart from catch up on some blogging and revive the book I had started after the collapse of my marriage all those years ago. What was ahead of me? Mainly Thomas’s boat move from Martinique to Sardinia. I needed to get there for him next month so it was time to look into sorting that out.

The original agreement with Pantelisa was all flights paid so I contacted Toni to talk about a flight to Martinique. He felt offended I should ask and argued that I had decided to stay in Colombia. Apparently, ‘it doesn’t work like that.’ I guess it works how whoever says it does. An agreement is an agreement. They are either honoured or broken.

It doesn’t matter, I would have done the voyage anyway.

I contacted Thomas to ask what his arrangements were and he told me that work and home commitments now prevented the voyage. So the trip homeward bound was off. Like any unmet expectation, a gaping hole in my schedule had suddenly opened up. What was I going to do now? It is still cold back in the UK so I wouldn’t be going back before the April. There is time to think. Colombia is a cheap place to live while making plans. It would be easy to think “I’m stuck here.” But I’m not really. I simply found myself at a junction in time, with Medellin being not a bad junction to be. “What else is possible?” my friend Greg asks; a trick question since any answer becomes a limitation. That door remains open to see what opportunities roll by.

`Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ Alice speaks to Cheshire Cat               
`That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
`I don’t much care where–‘ said Alice.
`Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.
`–so long as I get somewhere,’ Alice added as an explanation.
`Oh, you’re sure to do that,’ said the Cat, `if you only walk long enough.’

The world is my oyster and I know not what I want. “Your path is infinitely long and wide,” Ayahuasca had told me “Do what you want.” Good, I’ll hang around the hostel for a few days then. There is no need for haste.

Enso hostel was proving to be annoyingly noisy. Not volume wise but quantity. How can anyone watch a movie and listen to rap at the same time? Hence the move to Samarian.

Samarian is a smaller and quieter hostel and promoted as a digital co-working venue with good WiFi and plenty of workspace. Just what I wanted. While there was a TV no-one used it while I was there and there was no music either. I indulged myself in reading, editing and writing.

Tanya, an attractive, petite and competent Colombian receptionist welcomed me with a smile and functional English. She ran the place almost single-handed every morning, cooked a nice breakfast and made really thick Mango juices. I ate eggs and avocado with Mango juice every morning.

I stayed at Samarian a week. The Atlantic voyage was off which left opportunities for the future but there were a few loose ends in Cartagena: bits and pieces I had left behind that Michael had kindly offered to take care of for me while I was away.These odds and ends were the only reason left for returning and, in hindsight, a mistake to leave behind.

Looking at the Metro map, Caribe station was right next to the bus terminal and Floresta was a short walk from Samarian Hostel. Trip advisor indicated the bus at 20:30 but I thought I’d get there early.

“16:30” said the ticket vendor. It was already 16:15 I boarded straight away. Fifteen hours later I was pulling into Cartagena in the morning rush hour.  The traffic was busy past the bus stop outside the Transport Terminal. Through the noise, I overheard a bus conductor say ‘Manga’ on a passing bus and I hopped on as it crawled by. Pantelisa was moored at Manga. I could find my way to the marina easy enough from there.

Michael was already aboard and Toni arrived a few minutes later Greetings were cordial but I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Pantelisa looked good and had some nice interior restyling. Toni and Michael went about their business while I gathered my things and returned to the bus terminal.

I bought a ticket to San Gil, it will be good to be amongst friends after this period of solitude. Now that these ties to Cartagena were tidied up, I relaxed back into the orange plastic seat at the bus station feeling a new level of freedom.

 

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Bogota: Fire and Ice

Six days later I check out of El Dorado under £30 for 6 days. If Wiltshire Council hadn’t changed the rules in their favour and started charging Council Tax on empty properties then I could afford to live here almost solely on the income of my flat. As it is, I’m paying off the banks and the government and then bleeding away my savings in order to survive. After a Mango smoothy at the market, £0.65, I flip-flop my way up to the bus terminal and board the luxurious Berlinas bus to Bogota. Power and WiFi means I can liaise with my AirBnB host along the way.

The bus stops at Vado Real, rocking across the shale covered car park leaving a dust cloud in our wake. The passengers start to disembark after the driver says something in Spanish but I stay behind. Later, he beckons for me to move. It seems he is on a break and I absorb some of the sun’s warmth to take back into the airconditioning when we board later.
In the cafe, I spot Mike and Melissa. They are on their way back to San Gil. The small world feels smaller with each chance meeting.
With the driver suitably refuelled, we all clamber back onto the bus. The route to Bogota has views of the towns and countryside only normally seen from aircraft as the bus winds its way through the Andes.

5pm arriving on the outskirts of Bogota, the traffic is slow and the grey clouds low in the sky threatening rain. Only the clouds are not so much low as the city is high, eight and a half thousand feet above sea level.

The rain starts to fall and crowds of motorcyclists dismount under the bridges to don their waterproofs. The dark wet cityscape is reminiscent of cities in the higher latitudes of Europe: Cold, wet and busy.

Two hours later we were pulling into the bus terminal. The rain had stopped and left a sheen on the roads reflecting the city lights in the spaces between the traffic. My taxi driver “No habla Ingles,” and I no Espanol. I’m learning Spanish enough to be able to say “My name is Pablo and this is my grandmother’s horse,” but not much of anything useful. I show him the address on the AirBnB page on my phone. Clicking the link opens Google Maps and message “Address not found.”

I find the location by deleting the word ‘piso’ out of the address and the driver borrows my phone to home in on the marker on the map. He drops me 100 metres past the address and points further down the road. I start to walk the other direction and a barrage of Spanish comes forth which abates when I turn the other way crossing the road saying “Gracias.” I wait round the corner of a bakery until he drives away and resume my original course toward the marker on Google Maps.

My host opens the door and I’m shown to the studio on the 4th floor. It’s self-contained and comfortable but access from the street necessitates ringing the doorbell which puts me off going out. It’s 8pm and hunger takes me out into the street for a Pizza and coke (No cerveza) at the corner bakery I was hiding at less than an hour before and return satiated to settle down for the night.

I’m in Bogota without a plan. Sightseeing is not my thing and I wonder what I should do next…

Awaking at 6am as the airlines resume their departure and arrival at the airport next door, I check the time and nestle under the covers for warmth. It feels like an early spring morning in Britain.

Estefania is picking me up at 10am. This is her mother’s house so I’ll be moving to Estefania’s 12th floor apartment for the following days. Estefania arrives with her husband Edwin and we communicate via Google translate. I suggest that I want to buy a hammock and it is related to me that foreigners get charged top dollar and that we should all go together and negotiate local’s prices.

I don’t like shopping in company and, anyway, I’m not in the mood, so I decline for today and opt for some online work in the apartment while Estefania and Edwin go out for a few hours and I lock myself in as instructed.

The apartment is new and modern. Security is tight which prevents my return into the complex without the company of the hosts, should I wander out. I expected a bit more freedom and independence but the family are friendly and accommodating, which makes up for it.

I settle down and catch up a little on writing but start to feel more tired and cold. Bogota is not known for its warmth, and I snuggled under the blankets.

The next day, I’m not feeling right. Fatigue and a fever. Burning hot above the covers shaking with icy chills under the blankets. The happy medium is balanced on an unattainable knife edge

Estefania brings me some food and a small glass of water. The language barrier is a heavy one. I’d like some more water but the effort to ask is too great and I fall back to sleep instead. Everything stops, I have no energy and spend most of my time sleeping and my AirBnB time slowly dwindles away.

A search of hostelworld brings a nice looking hostel in Usaquen, Rua 116, and Edwin helps me organise an Uber ride. I’m on my way. Yesterday, I felt I was getting better but today, not so much. Even so, It felt better to be up and moving than dissolving in a hot and cold bed.

Rua 116 is in a quiet back street and I sign in at reception: top bunk in a dorm on the top floor. If I have altitude sickness, this won’t help. The stairs are an effort to climb and I pile everything on the bunk and take advantage of my current mobility to go back downstairs and wander around the block. I find a coffee bar on the corner of the main road. This could be a ‘Costa’ or ‘Starbucks’ in any city in the world. I could be in London. I’m cold: the only person wearing shorts and flip-flops. It’s 13C. Normal for Bogota, and I take my Latte upstairs to work out my game plan. I have no energy for shopping or sightseeing. I want to get warm and get some energy but I don’t feel hungry.

Back at the dorm, I burrow beneath the covers and shiver myself warm before falling asleep. Each time I fall asleep, I enter the same dream world, if I dream a particular way, it is shared for those around me. I don’t understand it but the dream and its world feel every bit as real as this waking moment. I awake in the dark drenched in cold sweat, bound in clammy sheets: a dolphin caught in a fishing net.

There has to be a cause for this and Google comes out. Yellow fever, no. Malaria, no. Dengue, no. Trawling through the fear-mongering sites, one needs a tough mental constitution to remain buoyant…

Altitude sickness? Bogota is at 8,600ft elevation, the fourth highest capital city in the world. It shouldn’t be a problem as San Gil is 4,500ft. I never got altitude sickness from Cartegena (sea level) to San Gil (4,500ft). I was already over half way up. No, the symptoms weren’t a match. Dehydration? Although fever wasn’t mentioned, the other symptoms coincided.

I backtracked through my recent movements. AirBnB, I had a few small glasses of water but had always been thirsty for more. The bus from San Gil, no water for six hours. Thirty minute walk to bus station in the sun; I had a mango juice for that.

Eldorado hostel, the water filter broke a few days before leaving and I was drinking the free coffee but not much water. The Kambo session at Nuevos Horizontes. I had plenty of water during but after?… not sure.

The firefighting? I gave up my water bottle for the cause and didn’t see it after that. Perhaps visits to the hose with a glass had been fewer than I expected.

Yes, it was all adding up. A steady decline in water intake over a long period. Perhaps this was the reason for being drawn to Bogota. I had no real interest in the city. The sudden altitude increase bringing my condition to a critical head. Coincidence that I was bedbound directly across the main road from the hospital. Even so, a list of rehydration items was compiled and I shuffled my way to the supermarket near the hostel for: coconut water, sea-salt, bottled water, bananas, yoghurt and strawberries. And sweated my way back to my drying bedding. It may be cool here but things dry out quick; including humans.

I optimistically quaffed and munched my way through my remedies, slowly getting sick of the flavour of yoghurt and coconut water. I felt nauseated but a little better apart from the relentless neuralgic headache that seemed ever present, and appeared immune to paracetamol.

I awake from a hallucinogenic nightmare. There are times I’ve dreamt I’ve died and been relatively happy about it. Not this one. A multicoloured hell and so many things left incomplete. It was becoming light and reality was slowly re-establishing itself in my mind to my relief.

The expected improvement from my rehydration wasn’t forthcoming. I was perhaps feeling slightly worse. My physical strength was quickly deserting my limbs. I lowered myself out of the bunk and made my way down the four flights to breakfast. At reception, I changed my bed to a lower bunk in the same room and asked about calling for a doctor. The receptionist called straight away and told me two hours and $100,000. Wow, this sounded like the states. XE.com told me $100K Colombian was about £25. The doctor was ordered.

The doctor could speak no English but my dorm buddy who was there securing dual citizenship for his one-year-old son thankfully agreed to translate.

I had severe and extreme dehydration plus signs of an early throat infection. Heart and blood pressure were good. I was prescribed some concentrated electrolyte-rich coconut water for three days and a concentrated antiseptic gargle. I was to sip small amounts of this special coconut water every 5 minutes in order to absorb the nutrients. A three-day mission. Each day I poured 10 or 15ml amounts into a small cup and downed them one by one and set a 5 minute timer between each. The bottle was 400ml so it was a three to four hour task. I felt good about that as it kept me focussed and felt I was optimistically on the road to recovery.

Day by day, I felt a little better and strength returned to my limbs. I had to remember to drink water too. The tap water in Bogota is clean enough if a little over chlorinated. By the second night, I felt well enough to go out to dinner but could only manage half the Thai Green Curry. Not cheap by Colombian standards. Still, it was some nutrition and fluids all in one.

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El Dorado

Feb 14 Wednesday

7am and I had remembered I had volunteered for Kambo. Why? I didn’t need it for anything in particular. Said it, do it!

Three yoga mats were spread down by the river bank. Graciela was next to me. Three points burned into my arm. “Put your hand up if you are going to faint OK?” I passed out last time, about a third of people do, apparently. “OK,” I nodded.

Greg was playing the guitar, and that with the sound of the river flowing over the rocks was soothing for the soul. Ryan said he was going easy on me OK? OK. Six cups of water were hard to down and that in itself already had me feeling nauseated. My stomach as full of water to the point I felt that drinking any more would come up my throat and leaked out my ears. The Kambo was applied and ten seconds later, I felt my heart beat harder and heat rise in my face. Hands started to tingle. Head swimming. It was a long time before purging. I kept sipping water and then it came. Such a relief, so much easier coming up than going down. I sat for a short time while the effects slowly wore off. I looked across at Graciela, her head was down, she didn’t look back. Greg quietly strummed a calming song as we passed through our experiences. Almost a lament.

After some reflection and a prayer of thanks, I stood and emptied the bucket into the bushes and went for breakfast feeling cleansed, happy and energised. I’m glad I participated, it was easier than last time. I knew what to expect and it truly felt healing. I thanked Greg for the music and he said: “I watched you die, man.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded like a nice compliment.

Steve asked how it went and I said it was good, better than my first time although I nearly passed out. Ryan said “Actually, you did. You were gone for a couple of minutes.” I had no recollection of that but it made sense of what Greg had told me: “I saw you die, man.” Nothing in my memory, dreams or otherwise. It was like two minutes had been cut away and life seamlessly spliced back together so all I experienced was a blink.

After breakfast, we sat around the table in the new Maloka for a final gathering as there were so many of us leaving. Greg gave me a gift of tourmaline quartz, as he was so moved by my Kambo session. I was honoured.

I took a final bath in the river and got my bag ready for leaving for the town
Fabian arrived in his 4×4 to take us to San Gil and we piled our bags onto the bike racks on the roof and rocked and rolled our way down the track into town.

Dropped off outside El Dorado. It was about lunch time so we all walked a few doors up to Gringo Mike’s American style restaurant for a farewell lunch, before Ryan, Rike and Greg left for Aloha Ke Akua.

Living simply out in the countryside with wonderful fresh food is beautiful but eventually, small things become luxuries, like chocolate, cookies and even dry crackers and it’s easy to overdo it landing back into so-called civilisation. And so:, onion rings, veggie burger, fries, frappe and 70% chocolate brownie was scoffed to the point of nausea.

The next few days, people I knew came and went while I caught up on some writing. El Dorado is a hub that our little community seems to use as a meeting point while in town. I like it like that. Quiet enough for space for myself with healthy amounts of social contact. El Dorado is only about twenty metres from the central Parque Principal of San Gil but the street is relatively quiet.

Out in the park, families mingle and children play. Police are on the streets but they are there quietly watching their community rather than for issuing fines and penalties and generally milking the public. there’s a safer feeling here than back in the UK. The people appearing more friendly and generally happier.

Mika joins my dorm. It turns out he knows Mike and Melissa and is aware of some of the places I’ve experienced lately. As large as Colombia is, it’s a small world.

Stepan is from the Czech Republic and has lived in Colombia for three of four years. Paul my tocaya (namesake) from Chicago arrives and the three of us enjoy some time around the Mambe table. A mambe circle is a sacred and special gathering. It’s what going down the pub promises to be and fails at.

Ambil is a tobacco paste and we honour its spirit, the spirit of grandfather tobacco before taking it. Ambil is masculine and gives clarity of thought. Mambe is feminine. Ground Coca leaf and brings sweetness of words. The combination brings respectful communication in both speaking and listening.
It didn’t taste great at first, but then again, neither did beer.

The next day at 10.30 Stepan takes me to his studio on the back of his bike and treats me to a Shiatsu massage. The suite in his villa looks out into the Santander hills and the sound of birds and crickets sweeten the warm mountain air. The massage is unusual in that some preparation in cleansing the energy is attended to first and I take some rapê to relax the mind.

The process is holistic and attends to mind, body and spirit. At the end of the session, I fell asleep on the mat. It’s hard to tell how long I was there for but I was ready for lunch when I got back and headed to La Balcon for a Pizza.

Connie joins me at El Dorado later. Connie is German but sounds South African because she lived in Botswana for years. She is an inspiration and on an intensive Kambo treatment. She was a powerhouse at the farm carrying 5 metre long bamboo poles down the mountain down to the camp, inspiring us guys to try and keep up, making short work of the stack of 200 or so.

Connie suggested a great Pizza restaurant around the corner for dinner together. I didn’t mention I had already had one for lunch but just said “That sounds good.”

I’d not had pear and blue cheese on a pizza before but it was really rather tasty. I was surprised to find the proprietor and the man sitting behind me was communicating in German, adding to the many German speakers I had been encountering so far from Europe.

I could have been speaking German by now if I wasn’t working so hard on Spanish. I find learning another language difficult. English is bad enough. Bree, at La Finca Neuvo Horizontes, gave a grammar lesson which helped make sense of the verbs. Why have 5 different words where one would do, and why do words have a gender? It’s going to be a long haul with a language that has the same word to mean either Pope or potato.

Any comments, feedback or suggestions are gratefully received. Please add one using the comments link below.

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Scorched Earth

Feb 11th Sunday.

Day of rest. In the morning, we could see isolated plumes of smoke rising out of the treeline above us. Small fires that looked like evidence of campfires rather than a broad forest fire. We took shovels and water up the track to the ridgeline and made our way into the forest. The brush beneath the trees was black and charred along fifty percent of the forest floor with pine trunks charred up to two metres high but the trees had resisted catching fire.

My foot slipped and my left flip flop broke. I was bare-foot with pickaxe and water container. The charred floor was cool underfoot except where the sun penetrated the canopy. My built-in sensors for detecting underground fire. We spotted a few small plumes on top of the ridge and doused them with water. As small as they were, the heat was intense and the charred roots and branches hissed and steamed a long time during their dousing taking surprising amounts of water. The bigger plumes were down the steep sides of the mountain. Peter had already set off down the side to find the source of the biggest plume and various people went to help.

I continued to where the black ground seemed to end abruptly on the ridge and go no further. I’d doused the few smouldering spots I could see and made my way back along the ridge. Luis was now at the top with a dustbin of water. It must have taken some effort to drag that up there. I joined the chain of five men down toward the source where Peter was and passed buckets of water down the line from the bin. Over the next couple of hours, we put out all the fires that we could find and returned back down to the camp.

The view down the valley was apocalyptic and the mood was muted but I was optimistic. The fire had not damaged any of the tents or living area and cleared swathes of land that we were cutting back with strimmers. On top of the soil was a healthy black layer of charcoal. What wasn’t certain was the fate of the trees as the fire spread through the forest floor. To me, it looked like a miraculous event: a purification, a reflection of my internal purification of yesterday’s Temazcal. A clearing for new growth. A fresh start. A rebirth

Peter had turned the original charcoal pit into a pond by putting a spring water hose into it and we gathered some of the smouldering logs around the orchard and dumped them hissing into the pool.

The rest of the day we watched the hillsides for signs of fire and Joni, an energetic young Colombian, raced up the ridge with water and machete to deal with any we discovered.

We had done as much as we could do. The day was hot and dry and we were lucky that the wind was light enough not to breathe life into any embers that might still be smouldering up the hillside.

Luis left to go on holiday to Ecuador and it was left to those of us that remained to pray for rain. I took my scepticism to bed to listen to the guitars drum and singing which lulled me to sleep. I don’t know what time the rain woke me but through the snare-rattle of the rain on the yurt roof, I could hear cheering and singing as those that were still up were celebrating the steam rising out of the woods as the rain was quenching the remaining embers of the fire.

Coincidence? There were too many happening since my odyssey from Turkey to Colombia and the spiritual path I was now exploring. And does it really matter what you call them? Since the retreat at Aloha Ke Akua, I was being constantly exposed to miracles in life that I previously had closed eyes to. Shown how ungrateful I had been in the past and how I’d taken for granted all that I gained and lost throughout my life. Clung on, far too long, to assumptions and judgements that no longer served me. Now I was happier observing and witnessing what was happening in the moment. There was far more value for me, now, in observation and acceptance than assumption and judgement.

Feb 12th Mon At breakfast, there was no more evidence of smoke or fire but half the hillside looked like it was now entering Autumn with the leaves turning brown. It looked as if some of the trees were not going to survive the blaze. I didn’t really know if they would or not.

Miguel arrived and didn’t speak much about the fire. What could we do about it anyway? We had practical issues to attend to like moving 200 bamboo poles down the slope from the top of the ridge to the new Maloka that was being built next to the kitchen.

Connie is a slight woman of 59 who went about it with gusto. She was here for the Kambo for treating a serious health issue. She was already off her medication and a good way through several Kambo ceremonies and up and down the hill hauling 5 metre, 15cm diameter poles on her shoulder. She and Graciela who were pulling poles out of the hut and dragging them to the steepest part of the track like a freight train were showing us up. I made a bridle for tying two poles to drag down the hill after bruising my sides by wedging the poles under my arms the first dozen trips. The bridle worked well and it was easy to transport two at a time without damage to me or the poles.

The shale and gravel were sharp under my bare feet and as the sun rose high in the sky, the blackened earth began to burn my soles and I surrendered to the kitchen and the river with the thought of finishing off tomorrow as we had already brought down at least half of them.

After lunch, the clouds sheltered us from the sun and the ground cooled down. Connie was back up the mountain track again, bringing poles down making us look bad so I padded my sore feet up the gravel track to help finish off the job with the help and inspiration of Steve, a young fitness fanatic. I was out of my league, fitness wise, but I discovered a secret weapon from the family here: Mambe and Coca leaves. That gave me a turbo boost and the initial fatigue I had felt in the morning had disappeared by the afternoon. It didn’t do much for my bruised sides and sore feet but the job was now done. This freed up tomorrow for whatever else.

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Fire and Water: Temazcal

Feb 10th Saturday

On the outskirts of Baricharra, Jorge has a Temazcal a Sweat Lodge in his Garden: a bamboo framed tent about four or five metres diameter and a metre high. I planned to sit in my briefs since I lost my swim shorts somewhere between Santa Marta and Aloha Ke Akua but the dress code demanded shorts so I emptied the pockets of the canvas shorts I was wearing and removed my Tshirt. I was ready

Our community from La Finca Nuevos Horizontes sits in two concentric circles around a fire pit. The pit is loaded with volcanic rocks that glow orange in the dark. Herbs and plants are scattered upon them and fill the space with thin smoke and thick, sacred aromas. The door is closed and water is splashed over the rocks and the moist heat builds rapidly. I feel claustrophobic as the hot humidity closes in upon me in the blackness of the lodge, and sense panic rising within. I have the urge to escape but I choke it down with reason: for fear of looking bad.

I had been in saunas before bit I’d never attended a sweat lodge. these are not the same. There is no ceremony to a sauna and you can move about and leave when you want, and there is light. In a Temazcal, you are there for the duration of the ceremony…

How long would I be trapped in this oppressive heat and darkness? I trust that I am safe amongst friends and resolve to endure it as long as necessary. Part of the ceremony is to introduce your self and your parents out loud and state your intention. My intention followed on from the recent Ayahuasca experiences: to maintain connection to the great spirit and gratitude to the ancestors. 4 songs are sung one after another to the beat of a drum. The sweat drips down my bowed forehead off the end of my nose onto my thighs. My canvas shorts are already soaking from the rivulets rolling down my torso. The earthen floor feels cool and it’s tempting to lay down. The songs finish and the door is thankfully opened and I blink in the light and gasp at the cool air that drifts to meet my skin.

More rocks are introduced and we are again consumed by darkness and more heat but the initial fear has now melted away into the darkness, the lodge is representative of the womb of our mothers. The thought makes the experience less uncomfortable and something to welcome. More songs, the heat consumes me. When the door is opened, I relent and lie on the floor next to my companeros. The cover is lifted at the back of the lodge to let a breeze through. It feels so good, even though lying down feels like succumbing to a weakness. We resume our positions when the third set of rocks are introduced. More plants smoulder on the rocks and fill the lodge with wild fragrances.

Mitchell seems to be struggling with the heat and moves away from the rocks pushing me against the wall. I feel OK in myself now, engaging more in the process,  and at the start of the fourth round, I exchange places and move into his space in the inner circle. There is heat here radiated off the stones as well as the steamy convection circulating around the lodge. I face the stones resolved to keep focussed on my intention knowing that this opportunity will soon pass. I’m here now and, whatever I do, I will emerge from the lodge whenever the ceremony is complete in time – I may as well give it my all.

The fourth session completes more quickly than expected and we emerge into the Colombian breeze drenched and muddy. Edward, the young 18-year-old from the UK had been laying down and looked as if he’d just been dug out of a potato patch: King Edward.

Whatever my preconceptions were of the sweat lodge, I emerged filled with peace and gratitude. This was more than a ceremonial sauna, it was a spiritual rite and I felt even more bonded to this community, La Familia… I took a shower and washed the mud off my canvas shorts and hung them up in the breeze as long as possible, and wandered around in my t-shirt and underwear, while eating fresh pineapple and Strawberries, before experience the chill of putting damp canvas shorts back on. They aren’t cold for long. Things dry fast in this part of the world.

There are strangers in the headlamps as we approach the entrance to the farm in the valley below. There is an exchange in Spanish between Luis and the stranger. There has been a fire. It’s dark and we cannot yet see the extent of it. Below the mountain track down to the camp, I see the glow of what looks like a charcoal fire but it’s not in the location of the charcoal pit that Peter had been using down by the river.

The air smelt burnt but cool. When we reach the kitchen, we can see little damage to the camp but the surrounding brush is thinned and blackened and two or three isolated fires can be seen flickering in the trees up in the mountain near the pines at the top of the ridge. There is not much we can do in the darkness. Peter is distraught.

His charcoal burning was the source of the blaze which caught the tinder-dry grass not far from the charcoal pit. There had been no rain for over a month; this was the dry season. Luis lit a cigar and prayed for rain to come before the cigar was finished. I was Skeptical, as usual, even after all the spiritual ceremonies I had immersed myself in. Before the cigar was finished, it started to rain. Coincidence? The timing was immaculate but admittedly the rainfall wasn’t heavy enough to douse the fires. We went to bed trusting all would be OK. Although the power of Peter’s remorse kept him up and checking the mountains in the night.

Odd! We are all away for a day to be purified using fire and water and returned to a purification of another kind on the land. What was there to be concerned about?

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Ayahuasca: Nuevos Horizontes

Feb 8th Ayahuasca 3

It was a late start and, despite earlier discussion, the clearing for the Maloka was ignored as the venue for this Ayahuasca ceremony and we huddled around the fire normally used for cooking next to the kitchen. There felt more of a chill in the air this evening and I edged my chair closer to the fire. Everyone is quiet with an introspective look in their faces as they glow orange from the flickering flames in the night.

It seemed like hours before we were called to the altar although I didn’t mind. Sitting around the fire in a silent group has its own mystical power.

The cup was small and the flavour more pleasant than I remembered. The flavour is irrelevant, this is sacred medicine. I returned to my chair and felt my body starting to cool despite the heat of the fire. I went to the tent to fetch a blanket to wrap myself against the evening chill. It took a while for the medicine to kick in and I felt almost drunk. The earth beneath my feet and the coals within the fire took on geometric shapes and the flames flickered blue, green and yellow.

I remembered I should ask questions that I wanted answers to. Once again I asked, “What is my path?” The answer came as a feeling and a thought: “This is it. You are on it here and now. The path is infinitely wide and infinitely long. What you are looking for is a limitation…” This reminded me of what Miguel and Luis told me before the first ceremony. “You are already on my path, let happiness be your guide.” I didn’t get the answer I was looking for. I wanted that ‘limitation’ for giving me a direction. Without it, I was a ship on an infinite sea without a compass, but I felt liberated by what was revealed. This answer told me that my ship had a rudder and I could steer anywhere I wanted. I needed better questions for getting specific answers but I had not prepared well enough.

I had no more questions but felt relatively content and accepted the moment as it presented itself. I relaxed into the experienced and felt great warmth for those around me, this community of courageous souls, this family. Keely was to my left, still and silent in a chair enveloped in blankets. She was like a temple with doors closed, I couldn’t tell what was going on inside. Rosalie laid down on the floor beside me, her fingers caressing the soil. She reminded me of Deb and I felt Deb’s spirit was around me. I was not alone and experienced great peace and tranquillity. I felt I was no longer there for me. I was there to share this space with others and I watched these souls as they moved through their own experiences, prepared to help but not to interfere. I experienced very little nausea this time and did not need to purge or feel a need for a second cup. This night was easy on me.

The moon rose over the mountains to the east judging the crescent of the moon, the sun not far behind. and as the guitars came out, I went to bed, sung to sleep by the voices around the fire.

Feb 9th Ayahuasca 4

The day after an Ayahuasca ceremony feels different to a normal day. There remains a spiritual connection and I’m fascinated by other people’s experiences. I found out that Rosalie had missed the first two ceremonies at Aloha Ke Akua and that last night was her first. It was really none of my business but I was glad she had had a good experience.

The remainder of the day was fairly restful. I spent some time down by the river and thought about some questions to take to tonight’s ceremony. I slept a little in the afternoon. A fire was lit in the new clearing for the Maloka and people had already arranged their mats for sleeping outside. I claimed a chair near the fire and brought a blanket even though it didn’t seem as cold as last night.

On the opposite side of the fire, 5 people sat cross-legged on yoga mats. We were silent, faces reflecting the glow of the fire. I had forgotten my notebook but remembered most of the questions I had written down so decided to leave the notebook in the tent. Keely was to my right and Carlos, a middle-aged Colombian who I had never met before but had arrived that night was to my left wearing distinctive red sandals.

After taking the medicine, I got comfortable in my chair with the blanket wrapped around me. The medicine made me feel cold so I edged toward the fire and wrapped myself tightly in the blanket. I was shivering and I leaned forward to lie on my thighs half curled up wanting to lie down and go to sleep. I was thinking of the questions I had thought up earlier. I looked at my feet and saw Mayan or Aztec style patterns in the soil and faces carved within them and a message came to not go for comfort.

In a dream when I look away and look back, the patterns change. Here when I looked away and looked back, the same faces were still there. These were representations the anscestors; all the souls who had gone before. They told me I had the gift of life. It was mine now and I was the bearer for all that preceded me. I felt both gratitude for that and guilt that I had not been grateful for the gift of life I had been given up until now. Ultimately, my life was up to me I should do whatever I want and listen to my heart and the clues and signals along the way, my intuition.

Then my negative traits were shown to me: judgement and resentment. I felt uncomfortable but the answers to my questions began to come. This must have been a long time because Bryan brought his guitar to the fire and the music started to play. My resentment was highlighted as I wanted the silence to concentrate while the answers to my questions were being delivered. What are my talents? “You are already using them.”

I felt the discomfort and curled up in the chair. “Do not go for comfort” echoed in my mind. I fixed my eyes on Carlos’ red shoes; an anchor in my experience drifting in a sea of discomfort in front of the fire. How can I best serve with joy? “You serve by being joyful, everything else follows.” Carlos sat like a rock, immobile in his chair, feet firmly planted on the ground, the faces of the ancestors continued looking up at me. Immovable stoic stone faces in the earth and in the corner of my vision. Carlos’ red shoes planted into the ground.

How do I find my ideal partner? “She will appear when you are ready, do not be attached to whoever comes…” That used to be an important question for me but had since become a simple curiosity as I came to appreciate myself…  but this answer was a clue to my failed relationships: attachment, to own or belong to… it had been the undoing of my relationships, that and ingratitude.

My biggest lesson of tonight was that of Gratitude for all those that have gone before: people and events; for they truly have given us the world we have now. I don’t really need anything else apart from gratitude, my questions highlighted all my ingratitude that went before. I was done but stayed by the fire wanting peace but thinking I should be enjoying the music.

Eventually, I stood up and made my way across the grass toward the toilet. It seemed like a long hike into the wilderness and I felt happy in the cool night air away from the fire and the music. Again, there was no purging and the medicine stayed inside me. I filled my water bottle at the hose and went to sit in the kitchen in the dark and to experience solitude for a while before going to bed.

I didn’t know what the time was but the moon was not yet up so I guessed earlier than last night. Luis came by and shared a few words, then Bryan came by to pack away his guitar and shared a few words too. Lying in my bed, my mind flickering colourful flames of thought, I cast my mind back to the hours wishing for sleep while bent over in the chair. “Do not go for comfort.” The message had said and I stayed with that all night. And here I was, now comfortable, yet unable to go to sleep.

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New Horizons

Saturday 3rd Feb,

Luis and Miguel organised a ‘minga’ for the weekend; communal work on the new farm, La Finca Nuevos Horizontes, where friends and family gather to help out. I was in and joined a Fabian and Lara in their car to bounce along the mountain track to the farm.

Although the farmland follows a ravine, it is still 1100 metres above sea level which keeps the temperature very moderate. Descending the hillside from the parking area down to the river, we look down on a grove of Banana, orange and Papaya trees and further up parallel to the river to the encampment.

Apart from the compost toilet, the kitchen is the only structure yet established on the land: a bamboo shelter with a black polythene roof with two tents one side and a yurt and tent the other. Crystal clear mountain spring water flows constantly from a pipe resting on the river bank and is extended to irrigate the bananas, Oranges and papaya. Facilities are basic but it’s all we really need. Nothing else is required. The water needs no filter and tastes cool and sweet straight out of the ground. The flow is persistent and the unfamiliarity of watching the flow looks wasteful but is the epitome of abundance. Nature provides all we need and the water never stops flowing.

The water tastes clean and pure and keeps us energised throughout the day. I take a machete and rake to help mulch the trees with fresh cut grass from around the grove and the cutting activity clearing the overgrown land further up the river bank. My ankles itch despite frequent application of the insect repellent that I’m trying to ration for lasting the weekend.

After lunch, it’s “river time.” The land levels out under some trees near some rapids. The water here is fresh and cool spilling over time-worn boulders singing its song of relaxation to the people lounging in the hammocks in the trees on the bank. It’s a long break after a delicious lunch and I grab an extra 20 guilty minutes sleep in the hammock when everyone resumes work. It was much needed and I took a little more energy to my tasks.

The people here are half my age and twice as energetic. Steve and Mitchell are from the UK. Steve, an ironman enthusiast and Mitchell both attending regular CrossFit sessions in San Gil, as well as physical labour. There are some people from Bucaramanga here too that don’t speak English but we all work together happily

5pm comes and we knock off work retiring to the kitchen shelter.

The tent needs no mosquito net, the bugs that cause the problems are strictly daytime pests and my ankles drive me crazy until I fall asleep.

I’m awake at dawn but lie in until the breakfast bell at 7.30 and resume raking and watering. The sun does little to help dissipate my generated body heat. I drop down to the river bank where there is a flat boulder about 2 metres by 1 where I can strip off and plunge into the river.

I don’t need a towel, the sun and air are warm and dry and I sit on the rock to air dry for a couple of minutes and get dressed. My ankles don’t itch now but the bites were looking angry.

After lunch, it is river time and no more work is done for the rest of the afternoon. We pack up and load up the Jeep to go back to La Palmita. It’s only 12 Km but it takes half an hour as the track is so rough. My right ankle is swollen and painful and I duck out of going back to Nuevos Horizontes the next day.

Sunday, I take to the hammock under the maloka reading Neale Donald Walsh’s “Conversations With God” napping in-between times. I feel a bit guilty for not helping at the farm. The residual effect of decades of work-a-day conditioning even though there is no pressure here to do anything.

My swollen ankle is painful to stand on and needs some respite from the sandflies. I keep it elevated for most of the day.

Monday, the swelling has gone down and the itching is not so bad. It’s a half hour walk to San Gil and I look for an outdoor or camping shop. Nothing! The adventure capital of Colombia does not cater for the adventurer. I return in my flip flops with insect repellent instead of hiking boots and socks.

After a day in a hammock at La Palmita, I was back at La Finca, legs sprayed up with deet. It was quiet and there is no pressure to work but still, a lifetime of ‘employment’ conditioning to look busy when the boss was about is hard to shrug off and my mind lugs my tired body over the land.

Feb 7th, More people arrive now, mostly from the Aloha Ke Akua retreat a week or two back. and we clear a square for the new maloka, Many hands make light work and within an hour or two, a square is cleared…

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La Palmita

I awake before dawn in the sweaty Cartegena air and lay still in Pantelisa’s cockpit watching the sky slowly brighten behind the lights on the dockside cranes.

I feel relaxed but there are still jobs to do on the boat. I help Rolf troubleshoot the sticking sail sliders with a workout on the winch, hauling and dropping the mainsail a few times, while the sun turns up the heat in the marina.

It’s still uncertain as to when to move Michaels boat from St Kitts to Colombia so I pack my rucksack and walk into the Old Town with the intention of catching up on some writing and making my way to San Gil via the bus terminal while I have the time.

I pass Papa’s barbers and go for a haircut in an old 1950s barbers chair. It felt like a film set and I got a good old-fashioned trim including ears and nostrils for under £3.

Espiritu Santu is a cafeteria in the heart of the old town. It’s a wide and deep hall reminiscent of a school refectory although it is waiter service. Fillet of fish with fries and coconut rice with a salad and two juices for £5.50. Not as cheap as outside the city but still a great deal. The hall is busy and reverberates with boisterous latino chatter, too much for concentrating on writing so I browse the internet on my phone instead.

It was hard to get a handle on where the bus terminal was as the results are scattered all over google and the map of Colombia. Approaching a taxi on the rank outside the city walls, I accept the price and hop in, confident I will make the bus on time. There is one bus a day to SanGil from Cartegena and I arrive at the terminal an hour before the 17.30 departure.

The Expreso Brasilia bus is modern with the most comfortable chairs that recline well back. National Express in the UK could learn a lot here. The air conditioning was set for maximum cooling which is not so bad sitting with the sun coming through the window but with the onset of nightfall, arctic conditions ensued. Outside the city, the fun started, horn blaring and trucks being overtaken in the dark along highway 90. It reminded me of the journey along the Sinai from Sharm el Sheik to Cairo. I turn my focus to updating my blog until my battery dips into the red at 5%.

At Barranquilla, I had the driver retrieve my bag so I could get my jacket but I had nothing for covering my legs and feet. I glanced across the aisle at the guy in lumberjack jacket and balaclava nestled under his blanket. He had local knowledge, I can’t expect conditions to improve. I discover a socket outlet between the pair of seats and power up my laptop; bonus. I can get a lot of work done here as I expect the journey to be over 12 hours and the computer gives a little warmth for my legs. At 2am I get tired and curl up to stay as warm as I can and grab a couple of hours sleep. With a blanket, it would have been perfect but the cold kept me from decent rest.

At daybreak, we follow the valley looking at the rapids in the river below and start scaling the mountains, overtaking heavy trucks lugging their burden up the gradients. The roads are smooth, the view spectacular and the bends sharp with long drops the other side of the concrete barriers. I’m all typed out on the blog and instead enjoy the view of the sun bathed vista the other side of the window, legs curled under, sitting on my feet.

I think of how to ask the driver how far San Gil is and remember I have data for checking maps.me. This town is not San Gil. It’s Bucaramanga 60km north. We’ve been driving for over 15 hours and we have at least another hour and a half to go.

The bus pulls into the San Gil terminal dead on 10am. I’m hungry and thirsty since I brought no food and my body relied on my excesses at Espiritu Santu. There are food booths at the terminal and I ask for a vegetarian pastry “Tiene sin carne?” “Con pollo?” Chicken, as close to vegetarian as I could get, except it had some sort of chorizo in it as well. Vegetarian seems to be an alien concept in local circles in Colombia. I was hungry though and it refuelled me for the half hour walk to the centre of San Gil.

“The adventure capital of Colombia,” Lonely Planet tells me as I walk by industrial units and garages along the main road, aromatic with spent engine oil. The sun was burning away the bus induced chill and I dispensed with my jacket as I crossed the bridge into the city centre. Google maps paints a street grid on my screen. Is this plaza the city centre? Gringo Mike’s restaurant is across the square. Likely, being a gringo, he should speak English and would know and I head across the square.

I hear a call “Hey Paul!” Mike, Malissa and Bryan from the Minca retreat approach from across the square. They had just arrived in town from Finca Palmita and were on their way to the market so I tag along. This is indeed the city centre. After a refreshing natural smoothy in the market, we share a taxi back to La Palmita. Miguel and Luis were at their new property working and Mike gives me a tour of the place and I’m shown my bunk on the first floor of the Maloka.

At the foot of the garden is the river, cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough to bath in. It has none of that fertilizer smell that runs off the land into British rivers. I strip off to cleanse myself in the pure cool water and stay well below the surface while a whitewater raft drifts by full of whooping adventure seekers. I wait until they are flushed away before shaking off the water, getting dressed and settling in at La Palmita.

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Ikaro

Santa Marta is a grid system of streets: Calle x by Carrera y so it’s easy to guess a route to roughly where you want to go. Ikaro is in a pedestrian precinct near Parque de Los Novios on Calle 19. I leave the bike at the side of Calle 18 and walk around to Ikaro and up to the counter. I spot Helmut and Inka out the back of the kitchen and stroll around and treated to a nice cup of Mate Green Tea. No sign of Jason. I book into the hotel across the road and flick on the air conditioning and spend a cool couple of hours online.

When night descends I emerge into the street to buzzing activity, music and crowds. This place is busy. I fetch the bike off the street and push it along the precinct and park it in the well lit Plaza next to a cleaner looking bike and go for dinner at Ikaro. It was good catching up with Inka and Helmut. They had been upstairs in the double suite above my dorm at Aloha but our paths never really crossed.

I awoke early and continued updating the blog to the point of arriving in Colombia about 2 weeks back. I was living my life faster than I could write about it. I went for breakfast at Ikaro before the 10.30 cut off and checked out of the hotel before the noon deadline then hit the road to Cartegena. Carrera 4 led me south straight onto highway 90 along the isthmus that had been visible from Aloha. The Cienaga outskirts are depressingly run down and polluted. A contrast to the beautiful sunsets seen from way up in the mountains.

The air was hot, even along the shoreline. And the bike was humming along at 100kmh keeping the air flowing around me to cool me as much as possible. Without riding with a group, I could find my own pace and not push it too much with the traffic. Overtaking was easy on the long straights and sometimes along the generous hard-shoulders when the oncoming traffic was busy.

It’s about 200km from Santa Marta to Cartegena with Barranquilla in the way. I found the Barranquilla ring road for the easier route away from the congestion.

There’s a volcano near Cartegena. I passed a sign: Volcano 18km. It was the only one I saw and I soon found myself at the Cartegena City limits just as rush hour was starting. I wasn’t going back now. I got my bearings and used the sun as my beacon for finding Club Nautico in Manga.

The Cartegena rush hour is frantic, tight and noisy, elbow to elbow with motorcycles, taxis and buses. The licencing laws ignore motorcycles under a certain size which results in swarms of 180cc and below bikes. As soon as the dock cranes become visible, I know I’m home. I see Mike and Toni on the way to the bike wash so they get to see Minca mud rather than a pristine bike.

I have dinner and a few beers at Toni’s boat and eventually follow Michael to Pantelisa squeeze between the baggage in my old cabin on for the night. Compared to Minca, Cartegena is hot and sweaty and I go up to the cockpit at 3.30am to sleep in the slight hint of an intermittent breeze.

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Rio Elemento

I awoke before lunch, hungry but with a feeling of profound contentedness. That ‘never again’ feeling was now a distant memory and I was looking forward to tonight’s second ceremony. It was to be lighter, focussed on celebration with a later start.

Naturally, a good part of the day was spent sharing experiences. It turned out that last night had been one of the most intense yage ceremonies ever experienced by both Aloha and the facilitators. Being my first time, I thought that this had been ‘normal,’ if there is such a thing.

The previous day after the herbal bath Tim had told Miguel and Luis he had had a vision of the indigenous ancestors and consequently the dose was scaled back to half.

Miguel confessed that I had slightly more as the medicine put more of itself into my cup, which cleared up the mystery of how everybody else seemed to be able to walk unassisted. It was a perfect introduction for me and the learnings came for many days after this night.

We spent a good deal of time sitting around the fire with the guitars playing and whoever wanted to sing along. Makete is a world-class musician and songwriter and played a fabulous set in front of the fire. He stopped and asked, “Are we drinking medicine tonight?” It was probably midnight by the time the ceremony was underway.

I drank my second ever cup and this time, with logistics in my mind, topped up my water bottle and went to the toilet straight away while I was still able, and then got comfortable in my spot.

This time the taste of the medicine had an association with vomiting and I could see how it would become harder to keep down if I thought about it too much. the dose was lighter and the effect was slower to arrive. There were no psychedelic colours, everything looked normal and I could walk OK. I felt light headed and made my way to the ridge to walk around ready for the purge. It was a while coming and I helped it along deliberately in order to feel better and go and sit back down.

I laid down in contemplation. Nothing profound appeared to be happening and I was fine with that. Instead, I was reflecting on last night and thanking the stars and mountains. I felt almost as if I was drunk but with sharpened awareness instead of the dullness that alcohol brings.

I was recovering by the time the next cup was being offered and I stepped up to the altar. It was harder to keep down because of the flavour. I purged fairly soon after and walked around for a while, visiting both the main fire and the quieter fire in the purpose build circle below, warmed my bones and contemplated whatever came to my mind then returned to my spot to sleep.

In the morning, I awoke just before dawn and people gathered around the greying embers of the fire to close the retreat and share experiences one by one. I didn’t know what to say but the right words seemed to come out on their own without thinking about them. A deep feeling of gratitude, not just for the Ayahuasca but all the processes leading up to it and beyond. Every part of the retreat was like a jigsaw piece that interlocked with the next to build a larger picture of part of the universe and my part in it.

This week had bonded our whole community. Deeper than I have ever experienced before. The retreat was closed and people began to drift away, and as people left, the energy of the site began to wain. Aloha still had its own feeling but the energy that we all brought to the retreat had been palpable.

Tim left straight away and I promised to meet him at Rio Elemento hostel in Minca the next day. Rosalie left too but most of us stayed at Aloha for one more night.

Monday, I got ready to leave after just one more cup of tea. The tea would be ready in 10 minutes but still wasn’t apparent an hour later. I might as well stay for lunch, so I waited. Another hour later, I felt I had already overstayed and I prepared to leave. Lunch was about to be served but I had made up my mind and took my helmet and bag and retrieved the bike.

I rode the opposite direction to the way I came and followed the loop around via Los Pinos and Pozo Azul. It was an easier route with far more paving and probably took the same amount of time even though the distance was further. I spotted Sam in a juice bar and went to offer her the cup of tea that I’d promised the day before. Herbert and Alle were there too so the offer was quickly forgotten as greetings were exchanged. The juices were nectar to my taste buds. Greg, Adam, Sheryl and Jason joined us and so we had a mini-reunion tagged straight onto the Aloha departure.

As we disbanded I made my way to Rio Elemento. They were fully booked but there was a hammock I could rent. Perfect, I took it and Jay, the owner, proceeded to give me a tour of the place. There is plenty of space here and a good sized pool and walking around the pool toward the river, the familiar blue eyes of Rosalie pierced my awareness. I didn’t expect to see her here – it was an unexpected pleasure.

Greg, Jason and Sheryl joined us as I returned to the terrace above the pool… I wanted to catch up on my blog but it wasn’t going to happen here right now. I went to dinner on the terrace and Gerhard joined me at my table. Gerhard was 57 and saw me as a fellow older traveller. I keep forgetting I’m old. Most of my peers are half my age. Greg and Jason joined us and Gerhard shared so much wisdom from the lessons from his recent divorce, we were all inspired. He admitted that he didn’t love himself until after his divorce. A tough lesson that I recognised through my own history.

There were four hammocks in the corridor and it looked as if I was last to turn in. I kicked off my flip-flops and settled down wearing my shorts and t-shirt with a blanket over me and drifted off to a fitful sleep. I woke at dawn slightly chilled. It was a cold night and I got up for an early breakfast. Greg, Rosalie and I went down to the river for a swim. Bracing mountain water got the blood flowing.

There was no check out time as such so I retired to the hammock to update my blog until the middle of the afternoon. I had promised to meet Helmut, Jason and Sheryl at Helmut’s hotel and restaurant in Santa Marta. It felt time to revisit ‘civilisation’ so I eased the bike through the mountain passes toward the city…

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Ayahuasca 1

Thursday felt like a rest day. I needed it, not because of the Kambo but because of the Men’s Circle and Purpose Spark process cracking open my psychological shell.

Keely and Makete were my Purpose Spark team and we had already shared a lot but sharing didn’t get any easier: exercise after exercise putting us on the spot without time to compose ‘impressive [inauthentic]’ stories, relying solely on truth and vulnerability. “Vulnerability is a muscle.” Greg, the facilitator told us. It was a powerful muscle too, I could see its power to inspire in listening to other people’s heartfelt stories. Vulnerability is a muscle worth exercising.

Pen and paper crystalised all that bubbled up within; dormant baggage from the past buried under the blanket of suppressed emotions that I never knew remained hidden deep down in my bilges.

Shortly after five, we headed down the mountain ridge for the sunset hike. It wasn’t far to a small plateau on the peak at the end of the ridge below Aloha and we watched the sun descend over Cartegena and beyond.

People started to return to the farm when the sun started dragging the twilight away with it and eventually I am left sitting on the ridge with Ryan, Makete, Jason and Bryan. All have had Ayahuasca before and I learn about the revelations that each have had from their ceremonies. I’ve never done an ayahuasca ceremony before so I was fascinated by what I might be in for tomorrow night.

I was feeling the evening chill but did not want to miss this conversation. The moon although far from full gave us all a silver sheen and we sat like ghosts on the mountain.

Friday morning, I was beginning to feel flashes of doubt. It could be apprehension or fear of the unknown, but both are a disease of thinking and I let those thoughts go. I felt fulfilled and at peace with all the processes that led up to today and I felt I didn’t really need the ayahuasca but Miguel and Luis had reassured me that it is good for opening us up to the spirit world, where consciousness lives… and for me, where consciousness lives is worth exploring.

It was a day of silence today and I grew tired that afternoon so went to my bunk for a couple of hours sleep. The ceremony wouldn’t start until at least 8pm. It was dark when I awoke and everybody had already got their bedding out on the grass. We were all to spend the night around the bonfire. All the best spots closest to the fire were already taken and I settled into a place further away next to Edward and Keely.

The fire was soothing in its warm orange glow and sparks floated up to meet the stars in the cloudless sky. The ceremony began with ritual chanting and dancing around the medicine before it was dispensed which, even though I didn’t understand the words, stimulated my own appreciation and respect for the ceremony before I drank the ayahuasca and followed with water. I went to sit down and wrapped the blanket around me.

I had heard that the medicine tasted really bad. It was distinctive and strong flavoured but not bad. 10 minutes later I began to feel nauseated and disorientated but didn’t want to be the first to move, and started to wonder if there was some sort of protocol to follow. Others had drunk before me and they weren’t moving. Edward moved to the ridge and I followed a moment after finding my own space. The grass was turning fluorescent violet and turquoise and appeared as a geometric web. Reality as I knew it was falling away along with my ability to move.

I already knew that the secret to the medicine was to surrender to it but I had a dilemma: I was stranded in the grass at the edge of the ridge. I couldn’t  surrender yet, I was too far from my bed and I needed to go to the toilet to purge these laxative sensations. With both locations slowly receding further into the distance, pretty soon, it was going to be a long journey to either. I rested on my hands and knees heaving saliva into the violet grass webbing and praying to the purple mountain in the indigo sky in front of me. Even though I wasn’t wearing my glasses, everything appeared vivid and pin-sharp with the colour and contrast turned to 100%. Imagine your drunkest night after a party but sandwiched by full awareness underneath it all and a layer of dreamworld on top: a lucid dream on a roller coaster…

I wanted to purge but I felt empty and moved slowly toward Miguel and Luis for some water. Copious amounts of water stimulates the purge.  Standing up on shaking legs, I downed a glass of water. I didn’t want another… “Never again,” I thought as I staggered back to the ridge and laid in the grass.

I was conscious and had all my senses within these new scenes and feelings. If I was to make it to the toilet, it had to be now while I could still move. I put my hand up and Miguel came to help me. Bryan walked me to the block. My legs were weak and I needed support. I passed Tim who was bent over purging the weeds next to the path to the toilet block,  which inspired my own next to him. I felt a bit better as I made it to the toilet. The shadows across the path from the bathroom lights gave the path geometric pattern that was rich in colour. It was hard to walk upon and work out where the steps were.

The room was intense orange and green with shadows taking on geometric patterns. It was blissful sitting there letting everything go both in body and mind but I was aware that others would need it too so didn’t stay too long. The benefit of the trip to the toilet was that I was led back to my bed. I’m thankful for the help I received and remembered the message from the Kambo: “Allow others to help you…” Thank you, Miguel and Bryan.

I wrapped up in both blankets and faced the fire. I felt safe now and laid down. Laying down made me feel sick again and I crawled out to the edge of the grass. I purged a bit more but not much. I think I was done and settled down under the blanket again.

Miguel came to me, his silhouette vivid out of the night sky and asked: “How you doing, Okay?” I said I thought I was resisting. He replied “Good, keep going.” laughed and disappeared. I smiled and relaxed into the experience

Everything looked vivid and alive,  and I thought grateful thoughts of how my mum had brought me up almost single-handed and empathy for my father’s dementia and wishes for him to stay strong for whatever he was going through. I felt no profound messages coming through from or for myself. Instead, my awareness was going out to the stars as though I was an astronaut in orbit but still feeling the Earth on my back. The world became silent apart from my breath. The sky came over the mountain in front of me Cassiopeia was above and Orion was following the moon to the western skyline.

My feet were cold but I could feel they were under the blanket. The tree to my right was violet and turquoise and stood out against the sky. I wished I could photograph it all, it was so beautiful.

I didn’t need anything and knew I could surrender completely but there seemed to be nowhere else for me to go. I just breathed into the night sky appreciating my existence in this moment.

Couldn’t I have just one secret message? A clue to my ideal role in life perhaps? No, nothing, just a feeling gratitude and being alive. That was good enough. Words came and went that I had not heard before. Words with no meaning but felt good speaking into the stars.

People started coming to the fire and singing with the guitars and although I was perfectly aware of all that, I was still down the rabbit hole and a second cup was offered to those that felt the urge to go deeper. Should I? I didn’t know and, anyway, I couldn’t move which I took as a sign to stay put.

Six hours after taking the medicine, I was coming down to Earth, I felt such peace and descended into a warm and tranquil sleep. When I woke it was dawn. The blankets and pillow were moist with cool dew, but I was warm and comfortable. I thought about what revelations I had this night and couldn’t really define any as the sun slowly rose above the mountain so I took up my bedding and headed to my dorm with a feeling of peace, gratitude and fulfilment, which was probably the revelation I was really looking for…

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Kambo

Wednesday morning dawned and I was still nursing fatigue from some sort of stomach bug and didn’t feel like getting up for yoga but I went anyway. Sam was leading this session and she turned out a real joy. Less of a workout than Rike’s session on the first morning after I arrived at the retreat. I was beginning to feel better. Just in time for the Kambo ceremony.

Legend has it that an ancient tribe in the Amazon were struck down by a mystery illness resistant to all their know medicines.

One of the shamans, Paje Kampu, embarked on a vision quest to see if he could divine the answer from the great spirit. He trekked into the jungle and cooked up some ayahuasca alone in a remote spot and drank it at sunset.

In his vision, the queen of the forest led him to an enormous tree and showed him how to call for a small bright green frog (phyllomedusa bicolor), whereupon he stared up into the branches and sang. To his surprise, a bright green frog climbed down onto his shoulder. The queen told Kampu, “This frog is the prince of the forest. He is poisonous and has no predators but, fear not, the poisons of the forest are also medicines.” And the queen showed Kampu how to work with the frog.

Kampu returned to the tribe and set about treating them with the new medicine. Not only did it cure the tribe of the mysterious disease, it served to cure snakebite, malaria and curses.

Amazon tribespeople harvest Kambo by calling the frogs using the same sacred songs and play instruments that mimic its voice. The frogs descend from the high trees where they live, allowing the shamans to suspended them on strings who release them as soon as the frog allows the secretion from glands along the side of its body to be scraped onto a stick, where it is then dried and wrapped in leaves.

This enigmatic frog has no natural predators. It is not an endangered species. Except, as usual, by the threat of destruction of its habitat by money-hungry humans.

Attempts to breed the frog in captivity by Big Pharma have failed: captive frogs do not secrete the medicine. Scientists are mystified as to why not.

Edward, an 18-year-old from England was feeling ill and came to say he wasn’t going to do the Kambo as he felt so ill. We said “Kambo is a medicine, you’re closer to the Kambo than we are since it makes you purge anyway. He turned and his illness caused him to turn and projectile vomit into the weeds before returning to bed.”

It seemed a shame to come this far and not go through with a session so I went to the cabana to talk to him. I said “How would you feel at the end of the week and you missed the ceremony having come this close? If it were me, it would bother me and it might even heal this sickness.” He said he could always do it again another time so I said “OK, if you’re sure.” and left. Ten minutes later Edward appeared, ready for doing the Kambo.

We were split into four groups of four and five and I was in the last group along with Adam, Herbert, Edward and Tim. Michael from New Zealand was in the first group and was shouting out in distress as the Kambo was forcing his body to purge. This wasn’t helping the anticipation. Someone said it feels like we are gladiators waiting for the arena where the lions were eating the warriors. Tim was about to go to meditate when Ryan came up to say the energy felt different and that we should go into the third slot, cutting out Tim’s meditation opportunity.

We sat on our mats removing our shirts and downing two litres of water as quickly as possible as the ceremony started, the surface of the skin on the shoulder were burned away ready for the medicine to be applied. It wasn’t long before I started feeling the effects. My hands and arms began to tingle and I bent forward to the bucket ready for the purge and promptly passed out.

I was in a dream world and I felt a hand on my cheek and a distant voice say ‘breathe’ and I slowly came round well away from my bucket. I felt nauseated and began to heave into the bucket. “Never again.” came the thought. Not much was coming up and I was urged to drink more water. I couldn’t take any more. I had water in my mouth but felt unable to swallow.

The feeling was beginning to subside. Ryan said, “I’m going to burn another dot OK?” “OK I said as I prepared for a second wave.” and the tingling and purging rose within me again but I didn’t faint.

“Come on, what are you holding onto?” Ryan asked. Good question. A thought that didn’t feel my own came to me “Allow people to help, don’t do it on your own.” I looked around me and there were bodies scattered all around with Herbert facing the other way. I wanted to go to the toilet and I was helped by Rike and Luis. This was the first time I had been helped onto a toilet and executed this most private act in company. I didn’t care though. It was necessary. Back on the mat, I purged as much as I could but far less seemed to come up than went down.

I looked across at Adam who rose out of his bucket with a smile and said: “You’re a warrior, man.” Exactly the thought I had about him. His heart and soul were in it. Apparently, we all passed out apart from Herbert who was disturbed by the sight and turned round to focus on his own process. Edward was laid on his side but conscious and Tim was really going through the mill. Tim had seven dots since he’d had Kambo before. I had three.

It was a relatively long session since it was an intense group but we were soon out of it and I began to feel cleansed. The sickness that I had experienced the last few days was no longer there and on top of that, I felt happy. My shoulder was a little sore where the burns were but I felt good deep inside. Never again? Maybe one day…

 

Any comments, feedback or suggestions are gratefully received. Please add one using the comments link below.

 

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Purpose Spark

Saturday morning and there was no wifi or signal at Aloha so I fired up the bike to explore Minca, get some more offroad practice and maybe catch up on some writing. I do like multiple reasons. In a way, going downhill is harder than coming up. It’s easier to come off under braking especially locking the front wheel. Best not touch the front brake if possible.

Wherever I went in Minca, there was no WiFi. Ordering tea for the purpose of using the Wifi resulted in me drinking tea impatiently thinking of internet connection. This wasn’t working out. I gave up any online interest although the phone now had a signal for checking messages and other small-screen keyboardless stuff. Walking around Minca revealed some tucked away hostels and juice bars. More than was first apparent although it is still not a large town. What’s clear is that there is a business opportunity here due to the growing number of backpackers now that the road is paved to Minca.

I crossed the small bamboo bridge across the river and made my way back toward where I parked the bike and heard someone call “Paul!” It was Herbert and Alle in a cafe and I went to join them for a while. They had hiked up to Pozo Azul waterfall and recommended I go since I had transport. Taking this as another omen, I took the bike up and swam in one of the upper pools where there were no people. The water was cold, straight off the mountains so I was less than a minute, enough for a wash and cool off before riding back down to Minca. the ride was better than the swim.

The softer parts of the track up to Aloha had deeper ruts than yesterday and although I was riding better, I got off at the deepest stretch and walked along the edge while keeping the bike under power to guide it through the ruts.

Sunday was a day of reading and sleeping. I was beginning to feel cold, I had caught some sort of chill which sapped my energy so retired to bed and stayed there until Monday lunchtime. I was off my food. I met Greg and Adam round the campfire that night who were fascinated by my life journey to that point, especially sailing from Turkey to Colombia and find myself here, now at this retreat. I said I was simply following the omens. Talking with Greg and Adam was an unexpected pleasure. It’s rare to speak openly with people right off the bat, at least for me it is, but this place around a campfire had something special.

I had committed to the timetable for the retreat but Tuesday morning came and I hadn’t the energy to face yoga at 6.30 so missed the first session. I needed rest and recuperation and wasn’t in the mood for socialising, Even less than usual.

Greg runs Purpose Spark and an exercise had us randomly selected our various groups of three. Mine included Keely from Gravesend and Makete, a hugely talented songwriter/musician from Montana. The various sharing exercises opened us up in preparation for the sessions to follow, including the medicine ceremonies.

My automatic judgments were still running riot in my head but I got used to telling them to shut up while I started to get to know this community…

Any comments, feedback or suggestions are gratefully received. Please add one using the comments link below.

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Aloha Ke Akua

The ATK TT 180s need attention and Michael and I ride them to the dealer. I never tire of riding here. It’s exciting and takes skill to survive and thrive. The taxi drops Michael at the Old Town and continues to drop me at my bus at the Berlinave Bus Terminal so that I can continue to Santa Marta to collect the 125 and ride up to Aloha Ke Akua for the Sacred Medicine retreat.

4 hours, I understood the journey should be. 5 and a half hours later, it was dark and the driver pointed down the road toward the Marina where the motorcycle was stored. “Si, gracias!” Instead, I head for the main road for pizza and beer. I’m hungry and decided I didn’t want to ride into the jungle in the dark. I needed to find the Positano hostel I booked online while on the bus.

The hostel was 20 minutes walk from the pizzeria but easy to find via google maps. Clean and cheap, I dumped my rucksack in one of the three dorms and went to cool off in the pool before settling down in my bunk logging onto the wifi.

Breakfast was basic but filling and the Colombian coffee, divine. I normally steer clear of coffee as I believe it’s not healthy for me but how bad can something be that tastes so good?

There’s no rush to get to Aloha so I leave the hostel at the check out deadline and sweat my way across to the marina 10 minutes away.

I have trouble starting the bike until I find the choke lever on top of the carburettor. I’m up and away, across the city to highway 90 and looking for the exit to Minca. It’s not long, I veer off the highway and into the twisty tarmac scaling the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Some of the hairpins are sharp and I use the scooter with its pillion up ahead as my guide. If he slows sharply, there is good reason. The road is a bikers dream, smooth, undulating with sweeping curves and hairpins. It reminded me of Devon with a tropical twist.

Suddenly, I’m in a village swarming with caucasian backpackers, hippies and gap year travellers. This must be Minca. I was expecting a mini Santa Marta but Minca had the air of a frontier post. A jumping off point into the wilderness for intrepid explorers. The tarmac came to an abrupt end on the bridge and my route was a T junction to the left that looked like a concrete drive to a private property. It was good that I stopped for a wander so that I got my bearings although either way would turn into dirt track soon enough.

I didn’t want to drag my rucksack around Minca with the hostel’s location not clear in my mind so I got back on the bike and headed up the track to Akua Ke Akua. The concrete didn’t last long before it turned into a single dirt track. It was pretty rough in places and I soon caught up with 4 wheel drives lumbering their way up the track like overweight hippos.

Where the track sloped down into a hollow, rain collected into muddy pools that vehicles hollowed out deep ruts. Sometimes there was an easy line for a motorcycle to skip around or over the ruts but sometimes, through the mud was the only way. Local moto taxi riders on standard road bikes with pillion and backpacks were making it look like child’s play. I found it just as difficult as my weekend at the BMW off-road school that I attended 10 years ago. I was conscious of my laptop on my back too. I didn’t want to tumble in a muddy puddle.

Like most things, the secret is to commit to a path and go for it. Hesitate in the middle of an obstacle and you’re off. If you take a few miles an hour extra then you can be through the worse with the momentum and picking up traction on the other side. I started standing on the footpegs and powering through the shallowest ruts if there were no dry path. Sometimes I slid around a little but never came off.

I stopped to check the Sat Nav which told me I was on the wrong track. I didn’t remember a junction but turned around anyway, descending the mountain for ten minutes. I asked a passing moto taxi rider who pointed the way back up the way I had come saying “Past Casa Elemento.” I had been at the sign to Casa Elemento before the Sat Nav was telling me lies. I followed the moto rider and passenger to Casa Elemento who pointed the fork to Aloha Ke Akua. It was an enjoyable ride but the bike and I were now plastered with mud.

Walking through the gate, I met a young muscly lumberjack looking man with a wild beard and announced that I was Paul, come a few days early for the retreat. It was clear this was the first he had heard of it so I gathered that this was not Ryan I had been messaging on Facebook. This was Jason, his business partner.

It was 5 minutes until lunch, just in time for a quick tour of the farm before settling down to eat. I was in cabana number two, a palm-thatched 4 berth dorm with a stunning view south-west over the mountains and the road to Barranquilla and Cartegena that I had become so familiar. After lunch, I settled into the hammock taking in the warm mountain air listening to the birds and grasshoppers, contemplating the series of coincidences that led me to this place: Thomas’ candid share about his ayahuasca experience; Herbert’s partner booking him into Aloha Ke Akua; the use of the bike from Santa Marta. A book lay on top of the locker: “The Celestine Prophecy” a story about coincidences not being accidental. What a coincidence. I felt I should read it and sat back in the hammock feeling I was in the right place at the right time. It was Friday afternoon and the retreat didn’t start until Monday.

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Submarine

“Can you wear this uniform?” as Micheal hands me some surf shorts and a white t-shirt. I don’t mind. My laundry needs doing anyway.

We prepare Pantelisa for mystery clients. Not a mystery to Michael, a mystery to me until he shares more details as the day progresses. Three gay guys on a complimentary (exploratory) day out to discuss the possibilities and opportunities for chartering Pantelisa.

Frank is a warm and ebullient American from New York with a talent for marketing as I listened to the conversation throughout the day. Joshua appeared to be his partner: a Colombian with a good command of the English language. The second Colombian, I couldn’t catch his name, did not speak English and was left on the sidelines throughout the day. I sympathised since I was reminded of the occasions Herbert used to prefer to speak German on the crossing.

We slipped the lines and gently reversed out of the berth avoiding the web of lines holding the other vessels to their berths, and headed out of the harbour toward Isla Grande, turning south as we pass the two old forts that used to guard the harbour entrance. Michael gives an impressive history lesson on the forts as we bi-sect them.

Isla Grande is quite a long way for a day out. It takes at least a couple of hours to get there. We would like to get the sails out but there is not a breath of wind as we motor down the coast. Our course looks like we might approach close to the treacherous reefs around the island and after some contemplation, we turn East to stay in deep water well away from the coast of Isla Grande.

We anchor south of the shallow channel between two islands and see quaint palm-thatched beach huts on the shore. The water is deep enough to go closer to them but my skipper is happy where we are and we settle down for a few beers and a swim in the warm Caribbean water.

We don’t stay long as the day is short to fit so much in. Toni suggested a lagoon nearby that was deep enough fro Pantelisa’s generous draft of 2.2 metres. The plotter indicates a reef on the chart of at least three metres. Reefs are worrying, they are not often flat all the way along. I stand at the bow looking ahead into the green depths to get ahead of the game. The channel markers seem reliable and we read 3 to 4 metres plus all the way along as we enter the lagoon.

There#s a party beach at the entrance with booming music and moored motorboats. We are the only sailboat to drop anchor just inside the lagoon and a flotilla of locals swarm around us selling fish and whatever else as I seek refuge below and allow the clients to enjoy their negotiations. Me? Quero de nada!

We enjoy a lobster lunch and 80’s disco music before hauling anchor to Playa Blanco, a busy white sanded beach stretching for a mile or two up the coast. I’m not convinced by the holding of the anchor. The breeze is light but we are on a lee shore (blowing on) as is common in the daytime on a warm day when the thermals draw the sea air inland.

I dive on the anchor. There is plenty of chain but the anchor is resting on rock. Pantelisa is being held purely by the weight of the chain and anchor since there is nothing to dig in to. We aren’t moving and we aren’t staying long but I keep a weather-eye on our position.

Heading home, we deploy the Genoa to give the clients a sailing experience, even though there isn’t quite enough to stop the engine and let nature carry us. It was nice seeing a sail full of wind though. That was enough.

Rounding into the harbour, a vessel on AIS is barely visible on the surface. Anonymous in its detail on the plotter, we see the conning tower. It’s a Colombian Navy submarine. We wave to the three officers on the tower. As they pass to our port side.

It is dark by the time we reach Cartegena and we navigate all the way into the Old Town Quay. The icing on the cake for the clients. Michael asks me to contact Toni to invite him for food or drinks. Toni isn’t happy and asks if the US flag was still up. Yes, it was but I put it away as I hear that foreign vessels aren’t popular in the town, especially US flagged vessels.

The atmosphere aboard becomes muted but Michael and I stay for a glass of wine before returning to Club Nautico.

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Easy Rider

We were up before dawn the next day Santa Marta bound to collect the motorcycles. Rosalie cadged a lift too and we were huddled in the Land Cruiser bouncing along the rough concrete streets of Cartegena before the morning ‘workaday’ crowd barrelled onto the roads to race towards hated jobs.

I was warned that my backside would be sore from the motorcycle ride but it was already getting that way being perched in the centre of the rear seat of the land cruiser.

Along highway 90 are various stalls grouped into roadside villages and we stopped at one for some natural coconut refreshment.

We headed up in the foothills near Santa Marta to collect Daniel, the 5th member of the bike squad. He had a bike at his house but Michael took that and Dan joined us in the Land Cruiser.

Rosalie bailed out later near a random street in Santa Marta and we headed to the Marina.

The motorcycle key management system was of Latin style, you know, none. We spent some time trying random keys in random bikes. Toni said “I don’t know why you guys put tags on these keys. There was no response like he was speaking a language from another planet. Pretty soon we took off through the streets of Santa Marta, weaving in and out with Colombia’s best.

Rolf was following in the Land Cruiser squeezing through spaces like he was on a bike too, driving like a local. We had arranged to meet at the first fuel station out of town but Dan had passed us all and disappeared over the horizon. We stopped for lunch at a roadside cafe where Michael managed to reach Dan on the phone and told him to wait at the toll gate where he was and we continued our lunch.

We collected Dan at the toll gate and had to take him to the next fuel station. Dealing with locals here seems to be the equivalent of herding cats. I get the feeling almost nothing is thought through. Early days though, maybe it’s just a series of one-offs.

The road to Cartegena is smooth and flowing with long spaces between the traffic. There is a hard shoulder most of the way which makes a convenient undertaking lane if there is oncoming traffic visible along the long straights.

My bike was an ATK TT 180 enduro style. Dan was on an ATK TT 125 and seemed to have the legs of the 180. We were weaving in and out of the traffic toward Barranquilla to rescue the boat batteries from bureaucracy. The hot Colombian air was hardly cooled by the coastal breeze and the sweat could be felt sticking my t-shirt to my back under my backpack.

The motorcycles swarmed like bees through Barranquilla. We were Gladiators in the motordrome making our way to the customs office.

Dan and I waited in the shade of the trees while Toni, Michael and Rolf entered the dead air-conditioned atmosphere of the government office. Barranquilla is hot and dusty, the longer I sat, the dustier I became. After 90 minutes, Toni said we might as well head back and they would follow later. With that, we took off.

I asked Dan “You know the way back to the Marina in Cartegena right?”
“Si, no problemo!” and proceeded to weave through Barranquilla stopping every few hundred metres as Dan asked the way…

Out of Barranquilla on highway 90, you can’t go wrong. It’s the only highway between there and Cartegena so all we have to do is sit there and allow the road to roll away under us village after village.

The toll gates are free for motorcycles so we coast straight through a metre wide path along the side passing all the impatient car drivers that had raced past us miles back as they fumbled for change and waited to pay their toll.

The villages have speed humps too. Traffic builds in queues as the trucks slow to crawl over them. Dan and I filter down the inside or continue at speed and stand on the footpegs over the speed humps. The bikes rise gently under us as we roll steadily into the open space ahead.

We hit Cartegena at 5pm, rush hour, and the battle with the traffic is joined a few hundred metres at a time as Dan resumes his relay of direction finding. I learn to keep more distance between us as Dan can spontaneously come to a halt at unlikely looking junctions. Eventually, I take the lead as we come into sight of the dock cranes at Manga. I know the proximity of the Marina to the docks and we soon reach Club Nautico as we follow the coastal streets.

I’m parched and ready for a beer. Dan has no money (he says) and I buy him a couple of drinks as we wait for I’m not sure what. I presume Dan is staying the night on Pantelisa but I say nothing. I’ll leave that to the guys when they return from Barranquilla.

Hunger creeps up on me and I invite Dan for a Schwarma up the road. The food is cheap and good. Dan is a good guy and helps me carry beer from the supermarket back to the Marina for the guy’s return. Rounding the corner, we see the bikes are back, placing a hand on the engine reveals they are still warm so not long returned and we make our way to Toni’s catamaran. They are just finishing dinner so just in time for drinks and a fuzzy head for the morning.

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Cartagena de Indias

The leg to Colombia felt very much like a continuation of the Atlantic. We were 50 miles north of the Colombian shore to avoid the rising sea as the waves enter the shallows steeply near the coast.

Even so, to the south, we could see the white bloom in the night sky, reflections of the city lights of Santa Marta and Barranquilla. Tomorrow we would set foot in Colombia at Cartegena.

Moving the spinnaker boom to the port side to get a more southerly bearing to the wind revealed a break in the mounting on the mast and the boom had to be retired. Not a big problem as we had only one day of sailing left to go.

The hazy high rise skyline of Bocagrande condensed into view out of the distant mist. The coastal boundary of Cartegena. The entrance to the harbour was protected by a shallow rock barrier where in the past enemy ships might founder as they attempt an invasion of Cartegena. Rolf could not determine the depth or width of the channel that suggested an entrance and we decided on caution and headed south to round the southern point of Isla de Terra Bomba.

We hailed Eidleweiss on the VHF, Toni’s vessel, and received a broken response. 10 minutes later the transmission was much clearer. Instructions were to head toward the Bocagrande skyline and adjacent rock barrier.

Concerned that there might be a mistake, I asked if they could see us on the AIS. “I can see you in real life!” came the reply. The channel through the rock barrier was narrow but deep enough for cargo ships. This would save 4 hours or so.

Approaching the barrier we observe a dinghy well away from the shore waving a Swiss flag. It was Toni and Michael welcoming us to Colombia. This was why the transmission was so improved. The handheld radio had been less than a mile away from us.

The harbour was dominated by a statue in the bay surrounded by cardinal markers. It looked an odd place to have a statue until I learned that this area was a broad and shallow reef.

Soon we nosed our way into a narrow space between vessels on the end of a pontoon in the Club Nautico Marina.

Mission accomplished. Pantelisa had been delivered to Colombia.

Herbert left Pantelisa within a couple of hours as he was now reunited with Alexandra who was already based at a high rise AirBnB pad in Manga nearby.

Crossing an ocean for a loved one was something I’d only ever encountered in poetry and music. Herbert lived it. My reward? Homelessness came to mind. Pantelisa had been my home for the past three months and now my plans were lost in a fog of uncertainty. I was booked onto a Sacred Medicine retreat near Minca in a weeks time. All I had to do was to tread water until then. Michael and Toni allowed me to stay aboard and help with Pantelisa for the time being which was a relief. I heard that Toni needed some motorcycles moving from Santa Marta to Cartagena. A 200Km trip that sounded an interesting gig so I offered to help, even if it meant moving them one by one over the next week.

Toni had some business retrieving some lithium boat batteries that were being held to ransom by Colombian customs so a plan was set for four of us to drive to Santa Marta the next day and return via Barranquilla with four bikes. The fifth being left behind so that I could ride to the retreat in the mountains at the end of the week.

Meanwhile, Michael wanted to retrieve his Kawasaki Ninja today so I went with him in the Toyota Land Cruiser via the Tigo cellphone dealer so we could both get a data Sim for Colombia. In true manjana style it took over 2 hours to get the sim. Long enough for me to lose track of our parking token required for exit to the car park necessitating a €5 bribe to the security guard.

The Ninja was located at an apartment on the coast so Michael and I drove along the beach nearby to grab some lunch. The beach reminded me of a rustic version of Miami. Miles of straight sand lined with luxury apartments as far as the eye could see.

Michael walked into the building and emerged from the garage a few minutes later on the sports bike and turned toward central Cartegena with me tailing in the Land Cruiser. The traffic is a crazy competition to be the first to fill spaces in the traffic ahead. I couldn’t always stay right behind the Kawasaki but the distinctive black and yellow helmet was always in view.

Arriving in Manga, Michael stopped and pointed across the road and I noticed Rosalie looking bemused that Michael was on a motorcycle with me following in a Land Cruiser. Yesterday, we were simply boat crew. Rosalie hopped in and caught up on the afternoon’s events on the way back to Club Nautico.

I had no Colombian currency. I worked out it was roughly £3.00 for $10,000 (Colombian Pesos). The problem was solved by paying for dinner with Debit card and gathering in the cash contributions from around the table. I was already on the way to becoming a Peso Millionaire.

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Rosalie

I was up at 7, irrationally keen to set off. We were 22 hours from Martinique so it wasn’t logical to go now and arrive at the Marina offices before they were open. 11am would be good enough. The morning was bright, warm and clear and already families were snorkelling off their boats through the bay and along the rocky shore. Guadeloupe is on the list for national roaming charges for my phone provider so I logged onto the internet and caught up on messages. The less I’m connected to the web, the fewer messages I get; the opposite of what I expected to happen. Herbert and I relaxed in the sun and swam around the boat in the warm turquoise water. After a longer than expected Skype call, we set off just after midday.

The sea was kinder to us today as we were broader on the wind steering a more southerly bearing. The warm land was drawing the air in from the west over the cooler sea. And we were unusually on a starboard tack going south until we reached the bottom of Guadeloupe and the wind flipped to push the sails across from the east. We had the usual calms in the lee of Dominica and Martinique and the leg was uneventful.

As usual, I could get no sense out of the La Marina du Marin office regarding marina instructions and I switched off the VHF and headed directly for the Carenantilles boatyard a mile to the north. The channel was clearly marked on the plotter but obscured in reality by scattered moored vessels and we weaved our way through the chaotic anchorage.

We had a name of a contact at the boatyard and we were met by a friendly French family together with Anna, the helpful boatyard manager. There turned out to be no mooring available. Not surprised, to be fair, the way of my previous experience of Martinique. We tagged onto the end of a pier that constituted half the boat launch.

Pantelisa was too fat to remain there when a catamaran came to be launched and we were pushed over to the gas station perched on the end of the other leg. There was no water or electricity but at least we had easy access to land and so stashed the dinghy away.

Two days later an irate French woman hammered on the cabin and told me I had been there two days, which I knew already since I had slept there two nights already. She ran the combined gas station laundry and bar. She bellowed that she had a business to run but what she really wanted was Pantelisa to be moved and eventually got round to mentioning it.

A Belgian catamaran arrived wanting to fill up and one of their acidic crew member’s said we could use the mooring around the corner. I went to confirm this with Anna first, to his displeasure, but couldn’t find her. It turned out he was lying. We backed off the dock looking for an alternative solution. Anna was on the shore waving and offered us either a space on the rafted pontoon floating out into the anchorage or at the end of the row of boats on the end of the established floating pontoon. We chose the latter although it wasn’t a real space as all the cleats were used up.

We reversed next to the end boat and secured the stern to the single available cleat shared with our neighbour and tied ourselves to the boat while we hailed a dinghy to take bow lines out to the buoy to our port and the cleat to our starboard on the pontoon parallel to us the metres to our starboard. The guy in the dinghy said that would be a problem if another boat came to moor in the space beside us but I said it wouldn’t since there were no more cleats available on that side and the parallel pontoon was fully occupied.

We borrowed a long hose for water and extension leads for the electric and we were as good as moored up for the last couple of days. It was easier to relax away from the gas station and dinghy dock.

Rolf arrived on the evening of the 6th before dark and we celebrated by going out to a meal at Mango Bay. Herbert brought up the subject of boat hitchers looking for passage to Colombia and the conversation turned to experiences with various nutters and delicate people that complained about breaking fingernails and getting wet. The consensus was that since we were already proven as an effective and harmonious crew, and we were already provisioned and set to go we would stay as a trio.

Half an hour later, Rosalie had tracked us down and joined us at the table. Herbert explained our conversation and Rosalie pleaded her case.

She’s quite the mediator, a smoother operator you will never see, Rosalie.

We felt awkward and didn’t want to feel bad and decided it would have to be a unanimous decision to accept. Even though there was no evidence of long fingernails and hairspray, It was me that said no, we should stay as a trio, to end the discomfort and the matter appeared closed as Rosalie left the restaurant carrying her disappointment with dignity.

The next morning, the subject cropped up again and Rolf felt like helping Rosalie out. Herbert was for it too so I went with the majority. I collected the boat papers and headed for the Captainarie at 10am for checking out, via Kokoarum to wait for Rosalie while Herbert messages. After an orange juice and an hour of interneting, hosting a mosquito feast around my ankles I messaged Herbert to say no sign of Rosalie and headed for the clearing out terminals at the Captainerie. Forty minutes later, I was back at Mango bay, papers and passports in hand ready to go but first, lunch.

Moments later, Herbert received a call from Rosalie and tells her we have already cleared out, it was too late. She said she would go to the Captainarie to get the paper and meet us at Mango Bay.

She’ll see you later, and no-one dares dissuade her openly, Rosalie.

She must have sprinted all the way as she appeared at Mango Bay within half an hour with an exact copy of my paperwork with her details included in the crew list. We welcomed her to the crew and relaxed with a celebratory lunch before heading off.

Rolf volunteered to swim out to the buoy to retrieve the bowline and at 3pm we were heading out of the harbour bound for Cartegena, a rainbow astern signalling our departure as it did the morning of our arrival. I wasn’t unhappy about leaving Martinique. I had never felt particularly welcome here as it was so busy. I was grateful to Anna, the boatyard manager. She felt like she had been our only ally and we bought her a bottle of wine to express our thanks.

Mokta and his French family were very welcoming and helpful too. They were on a Dufour 560, a huge monohull, about 4 boats down. Socialising was limited for me since my French language and their English was limited. Herbert was our unofficial French diplomat…

Martinique faded into the distant haze before sunset and reappeared as anonymous lights on the horizon after dark. Other than that, this Caribbean crossing felt like a continuation of the Atlantic: same sail configuration, same wind direction. Rosalie had settled in well and proved a competent short-fingernailed crew member. Having one more German speaker tips the balance into German being the predominant language of conversation although English is used quite often to include me when I’m close by.

Ther is plenty of space on Pantelisa for 4. Technically space for 8 to 10. The main thing I notice is coming up to the cockpit, where there used to be space, there is a body, so lying down outside was a bit more restricted than before unless you were there first. It wasn’t a problem though as everybody shuffle’s up to make space without having to ask: almost psychic.

Rolf admitted he hates cooking so Herbert and I relieve him of that duty as we prepared dinner, following the retreating sun, Colombia bound…

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The Double Deuce

We reached Nevis shortly after sunset and picked the closest mooring ball to shore on the northern edge of the field. These balls had a secondary line attached that we could easily hook, unlike the Martinique balls that you had to wrestle your own line through a steel ring set on the top, while the wind pushes the bow away from the mooring.

We chilled out on Pantelisa with a meal of pasta and created a plan for the evening that we would return at about 10.30 unless we both agreed otherwise. Herbert joked that I would be the one staying out way past midnight and I laughed since no social occasion usually keeps me out that long.

With our plan agreed, we rowed the dinghy ashore. I warned Herbert that the beach was steep and waves would rise suddenly but we easily surfed a swell which deposited us on the sand perfectly and we stepped onto the sand dragging the dinghy up before the next wave came.

Walking into the Double Deuce, there was an easy atmosphere, not crowded but sociable. I asked if Mark was around. He was. Cooking out the back. I went to say hello and he remembered me and asked me to stay long enough that he could come and talk when the food orders stopped coming in.

Herbert and I sat at the bar chatting with Expat Nevis residents: sailors that somehow ended up on this volcano protruding out of the sea. We tucked into the El Dorado rum until Mark was free and then had a good catch up.

Mark put me onto a Rival 34 which peaked my interest. A good blue-water boat same length as Glee but GRP instead of steel. Should I own a boat? I’m not sure, but I would like a base to call my own and I know I’m a good skipper now. It sounds ideal.

Herbert kept asking if I was ready but I kept wanting to stay just a bit longer and we headed for the dinghy at 11.50. Pinney’s beach was throbbing with drums and rhythm. It seemed like the population of Nevis was all here.

Launching the dinghy into the waves, we catch a big one that Herbert took the brunt of but we were out past the breakers and digging the oars in rowing toward Pantelisa. Halfway there, the Four Seasons Resort’s firework display kicked off so we stopped and watched the show reflected in the water from the most perfect position.  When the display stopped, we found we had drifted to within 30 meters of Pantelisa, which was an easy few strokes home.

It was the perfect end to an amazing day, starting off with drizzle and uncertainty and ending in joy and kicking off a whole new year.

I was up just after dawn and Herbert was still sleeping. It was easy for me to slip the mooring in the still morning air and motor out of the mooring field and head for Guadeloupe. Herbert emerged bleary-eyed, surprised that we were moving, on the one hand, grateful for the opportunity to sleep and on the other, feeling left out as a valued member of the crew.

We were hard on the wind beating against the waves bound for Deshaies, a bay I had enjoyed with Susie and Anna on Spirited Lady of Fowey in April. It was hard going, too rough to read, sleep or do much of anything. Montserrat came and went and we coasted into Deshaies at 8pm. There were three boats showing on the AIS. More like thirty in the bay. We cruised around the bay at tickover, there was little wind so plenty of time to pick a spot a safe distance from other vessels. I check the depth. 18 meters. We need at least 4 times the length of chain out as the depth. We have 70 meters and the swing arc for that amount is hard to gauge to the distance to the neighbours. I decide to go further in to find shallower water.

Dropping anchor on a few likely spots resulted in us dragging and pulling up weed. How do people find a holding here? Another attempt was interrupted by a shouting Frenchman waving from the vessel 30 meters astern. “Parlez Vous Anglais?” “Non” as he continues waving. Herbert continues winding in the anchor and says we have a chain on our hook. The French guy is in 18 meters of water so we have at least 36 meters of his chain and possibly anchor hanging off ours.

I try to think while this frantic Frenchman is bellowing incomprehensible communication. I use the snubber line to hook the chain off the anchor but now there is no way to save the snubber as the full weight of his ground tackle is hanging on the line. We drop it in order to silence the frantic Gaul. I should have hooked the head of the anchor and let out the chain and his tackle would have slipped off the end of our hook but I had no head space to work that one out until after the tension was resolved. We were now minus a snubber but on the plus side, no harm was done to crew or vessels.

Last April, I remember a French boat coming into the anchorage when Susie was there having the same problem and retreating to deep water after some verbal abuse. I can understand their problem now. I wouldn’t recommend Deshaies to anyone. The holding is poor and harbour overcrowded. If you don’t hook a chain, it is likely that someone else will hook yours.

We tried one more time in deep water. Our anchor held briefly but dragged again so we made our exit toward Pigeon Island 9 miles south.

We passed a few fishing buoys so kept a sharp lookout so none would tangle in our prop as we motored through the still night air, what with the day nor wind not really going in our favour. Within a couple of hours, we approached a cluster of mooring lights atop masts swaying gently in the swell. There were a few boats here but there was space and depth was three to four metres into bare sand and good holding. 20 metres of chain was ample and Pantelisa slowed with a soft jolt as the chain became taught and anchor dug in.

It was 23:30 and a peaceful spot in the heart of the Jacques Cousteau Nature Reserve. Much nicer than Deshaies, although there was nothing nearby apart from a beach bar and a few houses scattered up the hillside. We could have been here by 7 if we’d come directly. Even though it was further, we would have had a better angle to the wind and avoided the stress of ploughing weed and chain out of the seabed at Deshaies.

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Illegal Immigrants

Pretty as a motion picture was the animated graphic forecast on Predict Wind’s Android app. The accuracy however, could not be guaranteed.

We motored all the way out to the Banc du Diamant with the wind dead astern, not worth deploying the spinnaker boom as it would be back in within an hour or two. As soon as we changed course to 340, the beam wind propelled us forward at 8 to 10 knots. Even with one reef in the sail, we were heeled over more than we were used to but the handling on the helm felt well balanced and not overpowered. Pretty soon we settled down to a steady 6 or 7 knots.

West of Dominica was a dead spot. Flat sea, no wind. Herbert was on watch and did his best to not use the motor but there is nothing much can be done with limp flapping sails. We crept out of the shadow of Dominica an hour into my watch just before 3am into a keen blow of 20 knots which put us on heel again and 4 hours of rapid progress.

6.30 we were in the lee of Guadeloupe. A dead zone for the rest of the day. The calm extended almost to Montserrat.

Getting to Nevis about 23.00, we approached the yellow buoy we were meant to pick up for customs. I didn’t like it so close to Charlestown and the ferry dock so I veered north to the mooring buoys designated for cleared vessels. Much quieter and serene.

Dawn broke on the 31st December to a mirror sea: silver under a grey drizzly sky. It looked more like Scotland than the caribbean. Ben Nevis and Loch Ness perhaps. We wanted to be away early before the customs boat had a chance to cruise around the mooring field but there was little movement apparent anywhere.

We kicked off our clothes and plunged into the warm,  clear water to shake off the fatigue and slumber before motoring to St Kitts in a soggy stone sky.

Our outboard was kaput. We were here on a lead from a friend of a friend. Names are changed to protect the innocent.

Following the yellow catamaran in that raced past us and rudely halted itself in front of the harbour entrance, we crept past and looked for Tim’s boat, Bounty. We couldn’t see it from the water so we moored at the fuel dock near the entrance and found him two or three boats away. Tim was our contact but he didn’t seem particularly pleased to see us.

“The dinghy and outboard are over there next to the customs office but you need to clear in before I can help you.”

Ah, that was a problem. My friend had told me there was no need to clear out of Martinique and waste two hours clearing in in St Kitts since we would load the dinghy and outboard at the fuel dock and be away.

Since we had not cleared out of Martinique, we could not clear in anywhere else. A shortcut that had become a road-block.

Our choices were either to risk it and risk detention or abandon the mission. The customs office is perched high on the quayside and has the view like a guard tower over a prison complex. We bought some time by refuelling Pantelisa and, for the sake of one piece of paper and the gaze of officialdom, we abandon the mission.

Technically, we are not legally allowed to go ashore anywhere without that piece of paper. This was a consideration for stopping anywhere but Martinique. We had time to get back and wanted to enjoy the journey back rather than hammer the overnight shifts. We’d be doing that to Colombia on the next leg anyway.

We told Tim we would leave it so we’d be off and handed him a four pack of beers. Tim had warmed to us by then and showed us on the chart some nice anchorages along St Kitts that might be good for New Year’s Eve.

Exiting the harbour, there was 15 knots of wind helping us down the coast. I liked the sound of Cockleshell Bay on the south coast with a Reggae Bar on the beach. We were not disappointed. The sun had broken through the cloud by then and we found ourselves anchoring in three meters of turquoise water with firm holding. With us as the only sailboat in the bay, it made for a picture perfect postcard scene.

Herbert took the snorkel and mask to inspect the anchor and the topology in case of any swing we might have. Level as a billiard table on the seabed except for scattered urchins instead of balls.

We deployed the dinghy and rowed into the beach locking the dinghy to a heavy ring set into a concrete block resting in the sand. The Reggae bar was how you would imagine a remote rustic Caribbean beach shack to be.

Walking through the row of loungers and umbrellas to the bar looking out to Pantelisa was a dream scene hard to believe. We planned to be here long enough that we could get to Nevis after the customs and immigration closed at 3pm and nab a mooring buoy for the night. As it was so nice we stayed way beyond then.

This made up for the disappointing morning in Port Zante. Nevis was a short motor to the mooring field, weighing anchor into a beautiful pink sunset with a three-masted tall ship on the horizon, we made the mooring ball just before dusk. This day had it all: rain, sun, uncertainty, beauty and adventure… and our minds turned to celebration…

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The Bucket Holder

28th December 2017
The first time since Glee, I was the skipper of a vessel, except this one will be off its mooring ball. Herbert and I deposit Thomas and his luggage ashore at 10.30 and we refill our water tanks. We arrange to meet at Kokoarum after returning Pantelisa to the mooring. All set, we fire up the outboard and it dies within 30 seconds. I’ve already let go of the line and we are drifting with the wind toward Mexico. Our Aussie neighbour on Aegis was watching, probably with some amusement, as we paddle Hawaii 5’0 style against the trade wind and the Aegis tender comes to rescue us. An hour and a half later of spark plug cleaning and pull cord workouts we hail the capitainerie on the VHF who tell us 5 minutes. 20 minutes later I call again and they say “We are too busy” Empty promises from officialdom strikes again. We flag down our nearby Neighbour, Thomas on Shiraz who kindly ferries us and our dinghy ashore.

The consensus is that we have a carburettor problem and we add the task of repair to our growing list of issues. We bid farewell to our former skipper and set about planning the time we need for chores and travels. Ideally, we want a Marina spot and Martinique fails to fulfil our needs both here at La Marin as well as at Fort De France. We feel like Josef and Mary returning to Bethlehem for Christmas. There is no room at the inn.

I’m not too taken with Martinique. Whilst it isn’t hostile, it is too crowded and too busy for my tastes. I feel no empathy either from or toward the place. But at least we were ashore and I set about compressing and uploading my Atlantic vlogs to youtube and planning a resolution to our transport problems. The sole available outboard mechanic (Meca’ bats) can only fit us in next week. I ask about some carb cleaner but the mechanic takes time to explain the intricacies of the Yamaha four-stroke carburettor. I abandon the thought of a DIY carb clean pretty quickly. The results of our efforts to coordinate and resolve our various problems are mixed. 3 steps forward and 2 back at the very least.

I check the winds on the internet and make a tentative plan to sail up to St Martin where I know I have allies and I can reunite with some good friends. Herbert is up for it. He’s already put a lot of trust in me as a skipper and I’ve so far proved myself with manoeuvrability around the harbour and docking to the buoy and thinking ahead before acting (apart from letting go of the dinghy line before the motor was running).

Herbert and I feel slim reward for the day’s efforts as we dine at the internet table at Kokoarum. I settle for a chicken burger in the absence of all their vegetarian options. It’s either chicken or grass. We head off back to the dinghy tied up near Meca’ bats about 9pm.

Passing the dinghy dock at Kokoarum, we spy a couple either mooring up or unhitching their dinghy and decide to abandon the walk to our own and try our luck to find prompt sanctuary aboard Pantelisa for the evening. We meet Byron and Katie who are only too pleased to give us a ride, especially as it’s pretty much on their way to their own boat, Ceylon. They remind me somewhat of Riley and Alayna from Sailing La Vagabond. Fellow free spirits that take a bold step into the unknown and work life out as it happens. We had the pleasure of sharing a beer with them onboard Pantelisa, brightening up a dreary slog of a day.

I awoke at 2 am, a little hungover, and set about sorting through the options for escaping the mooring field. Predictwind.com’s animation puts the wind direction swinging from the south-east after 2nd January. That puts the mockers on making it back to Martinique from St Martin for collecting Rolf on the 6th. Plan B. There are nice marinas down at Grenada and the wind direction is friendly both ways between now and the 6th so that’s what I propose to Toni, the owner. The answer later in the morning would be no, he has a better idea.

30th December
Katie comes by to take me and Herbert ashore at 7.30 and we three share coffees and a green tea. True to form, the waitress brings black tea and says “We have no green.” These little signs that life isn’t currently 100% in alignment. I tell her I’ll take the bag out early so it’s only light brown then. I set about reigniting the todo list and call Toni. He thinks we can make St Kitts and back before the wind changes and we can collect a dinghy from a friend of his there. I feel like an employee and agree although the plan is sound. I’ve not set foot on St Kitts before and Herbert is up for the challenge so that’s what we commit to. With that commitment, a lot of stress and uncertainty dissipates. I feel good about escaping Martinique and good about the mission ahead and head toward the capitainerie to settle the bill and clear out.

Halfway through clearing out, Herbert comes in and tells me Toni says we don’t need to clear out as we will pick up the dinghy and come straight back to Martinique. So we abandon the computer terminal and leave.

Thinking about it, it makes it difficult to get ashore anywhere else, like Nevis to see a friend that owns a beach bar there. We will have to be outlaws to do that. Cest la vie!

We retrieve our dinghy from the dinghy dock without even bothering to try and start the outboard. A French couple is just leaving and Herbert uses his best French to secure a tow back to Pantelisa. The members of the sailing community, really are gems. Everyone is so pleased to help their fellow mariners without thought of reward. It’s an attitude that seems embedded in the cruising world.

We immediately deflate and pack away the dinghy and put the ‘bucket holder’ on its frame. Everything here must have a use. We slip the lines at 12.45 and then follow the convoy exiting the channel from the harbour to the open water…

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Arrival: Martinique

We arise one after another. Herbert was already enjoying the Martinique morning while I prepared my cereal upon a level surface for the first time in weeks.

Motoring into La Marina Du Marin. I hail the Marina to announce our arrival and the response is that Pantelisa has no reservation and there is no space for new arrivals. I relay the information to Thomas who tells me to tell them that we made a reservation days ago “Try again.” is the order. Did the entry magically appear? No. I radio for a mooring ball. “Go between mark 7 and 8!” We see no marks and abandon the VHF to take any mooring ball we find.

At 2 pm the dinghy is deployed with the 2.5 HP Yamaha outboard. It’s tiny. Thomas and Herbert go to clear in at immigration and connect to the world wide web. I opt to remain aboard since they will only be a couple of hours and three guys with three bags looks a little too intimate in a dinghy so small. Anyway, one more day won’t make much difference. I’ve already missed the Christmas routine of greetings. Besides, I can use the opportunity to catch up on some sleep and then go in later.

6pm my phone rings unexpectedly. It’s Thomas “Someone has stolen our dinghy…” This is not the welcome I had in mind for celebrating our acheivement…

With Herbert and Thomas stranded somewhere in Martinique, darkness falls and I settle down to some writing and editing since there isn’t much else available and the cleaning can wait until daylight. I’m too tired for reading tonight. 8.30pm and some activity on deck. Thomas and Herbert are delivered by the crew of the Czech boat “Victoria.”

The next morning, we slip the lines on the mooring ball and motor round to the old galleon “Victoria.” The sea bed is grass and holding poor for the anchor so we tie alongside Victoria’s service boat and intrude on Josef and his crew to take photographs and talk about their project. I’m not sure where Thomas’ interests were at the time. Victoria is moored in a quiet corner of the bay. There are an eclectic collection of vessels scattered around the lagoon which reminds me of where I was moored in St Martin. Freedom seekers existing on the fringes of the state prescribed way of life.

We secure another mooring buoy slightly closer to shore and not so close to other vessels. Josef swings by soaked by the spray whipped up by the headwind as the dinghy moves through the water and ferries us ashore so we can work out our game plan. Drifting into the dock, we spy our dinghy and outboard. Whoever took it brought it back, it is a mystery but the game is now changed…

Thomas goes to the chandlery, which is now open, to get a cable and lock while I catch up on contact and updates. There is so much to do, it feels overwhelming and I restrict myself to messaging and telephone calls which keeps me busy throughout the day. With this being Thomas’ final evening before he flies home, and treating us to a beer and tour of his own boat moored in the marina, Herbert and I offer him a farewell meal at Kokoarum, and we make our way through the tropical downpour to secure a table. The tables are full, the restaurant heaving and the band is swinging. The contrast is too much for me after the quiet of the sea and I give up the battle to communicate over the noise and take in what I can. I was happy to return to Pantelisa in our overcrowded dinghy and staying relatively dry of rainwater from the ankles up.

Things were looking up. We had transport, a mooring and a cold beer aboard a luxury yacht in a tropical paradise. Even though our mission to Colombia was not complete, this felt like the closing of a chapter and I felt sorry that our harmonious trio was disbanding…

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Atlantic 2: Into the West

Day X (7 to 9)

Days slide seamlessly into one another: stirred together by the passing of the sun from dawn till dusk and dusk till dawn. Date and time mean less and less until the question of air tickets and departure dates crop up.

Rumour has it, there is a zen-like quality after a week at sea. It’s not here yet, although I am finding more time for myself for reading and sleeping. The consistency of the weather helps wind speed, direction and sea state. Any change necessitates a change in sail configuration and trimming thereafter. We had set course for the Caribbean way before the intended arrival at our intended latitude but still, the 20-knot winds are in our favour.

The weather is noticeably warmer as we follow the wind to the west, which necessitates longer running of the fridge, and therefore, the engine for charging the batteries if we want to maintain our food stores for the next 2 weeks. Provisioning is an art I have not yet mastered and still have little interest in until I’m hungry.

We found another broken sail slider even though we haven’t had hard winds. All seem to be the same old type. The new ones seem OK. We dropped the mainsail anyway as Pantelisa is more stable under headsail only in winds over 15 knots. More importantly, the autopilot can’t handle sailing with the mainsail in a following wind.

Herbert was keen to get the fishing line out and so the old rusty hooks were removed and the line restored with fancy new hook and lure. As we let out the line, Thomas was telling us it could be days before we catch anything. Moments later, flapping on the surface at the end of our line; a beautiful young Dorado, less than a kilo. Summarily filleted and prepared for soup, sushi and risotto.

The next day, within half an hour another Dorado, twice the size, soup sushi and curry. We were sick of fish by then. No more until the vegetables run out.

Fate appears to have drawn us together, we all have an interest in the depth of life and the search for its meaning. Herbert’s thesis for his PhD is self-actualisation. Thomas, a medical doctor who has explored meditation and psychedelics. My life has become an unstructured experiment of self-discovery and quest for freedom. 3 different backgrounds converged into the same boat. Our conversation is rich, yet we are comfortable with long periods of silence in each other’s space. We are one third the distance.

There’s a feeling that the ripples of life are calming down even if the sea isn’t. I’m a frequent user of the internet, especially Facebook. Do I miss it? I’m not sure that I do. I hardly give it a thought until I come to write this blog or want to Google whether a fish is called a Mahi Mahi, Dorade or Dorado. Meanwhile, no internet connection will be enjoyed until landfall. I know the first thing I will do ashore will be to get online. The blog will take some time, as will catching up with messages.

These last nights, the light of the moon had disappeared as it renews its lunar cycle. The only lights are from the navigation instruments and the stars shimmering overhead. We could be astronauts orbiting the earth, be it at sea level. The feeling of solitude distorts the passage of time: speeding it up when the mood is high and slowing it down when fatigue sets in. Four hours, every night. It’s the hardest part of the day and constantly checking the time doesn’t help.

The green bananas hanging in the cockpit turned yellow and then to black, faster than we were eating them. The last three flambéed after tonight’s dinner on the 9th day.

Day Y (10th to 14th)

Found two flying fish on deck. Herbert cooked flying fish burritos with them. We were past half way so cracked open the Lanzarote wine for celebration.

We’ve been lucky with rain but today looks decidedly grey and showery. The motor went on early and woke me at 7.30. Looking out from the stern, I could see a grey haze on the horizon: rain. I went below and re-emerged with my wash-bag and towel, kicked off my clothes and had a cool refreshing shower. There’s a primal rejuvenating feeling associated with showering from heaven rather than a tap. Refreshment of the soul as well as the body.

Fasting day for Thomas, and Herbert and I join him in the fast. I was awoken early to help deploy the Gennaker. The wind was light but gusty as we rolled around. We hoisted the sail into it’s flowing beauty into the sky and it sagged briefly into a shapeless curtain and popped open by a sudden gust, tearing the sail along the foot. Thomas was upset by it…

We put its remains away and adjusted sails for spinnaker boom to port, main to starboard. Sea easing, winds down to 10 knots. Nice night shift.. the wind eased to an ancient sea gods breath and the sails banged a little in the breeze as Pantelisa swayed danced with the ocean swell.

I had a restful sleep, rocked by the easy waves. I was awakened as the motor started up at 7.30 but still, I Laid in until 9.50. Showered on deck using a bucket of seawater then a freshwater rinse. Trimmed sails and spinnaker boom back to starboard and main to port. Small waves gently rocked us along, the sea a deep royal blue. the weather now warm, wearing swimming trunks with no shirt now. Broke the fast with eggs and bread. Felt tired after. Long siesta t shake off the lethargy of the food. Lentil and Sweet Potato soup went down really well and enjoyed a chilled out evening in the cockpit with Thomas and Herbert.

So tired coming out on shift. Not conscious enough to switch the light on in my cabin, I grope for the door to let the light in from the navigation desk and I stagger up into the cockpit. Sitting near the helm, Thomas’s voice has a distant echo like the ears of a fighter hearing a referee assessing whether the fight should continue. 3am and I’m on my feet, hands on the bimini frame looking windward.

The wind suddenly increased from a light breeze puffing us along at 4 knots. I looked at the instruments, 9 knots. Still standing on the stern, a shadow catches my eye and gives me a start. Thomas, unheard and awakened by the torrent rushing past the hull, has come up to join me. “See anything unusual?” “No.” If it was a squall it was an invisible one with no rain and the wind veered. south pushing us northwesterly.

Day Z (15th onwards)
There are days which just happen which are sheer bliss and it’s hard to say why. Today is one such day. Bright sun warm and dry, calm sea although the sails bang in the lulls. Reading and napping in the sun, I can feel the warm tingle of today’s sunburn on my shoulder blades. Herbert interviewed me for his thesis on self-actualisation which stimulated my mindscape and brought consciousness to my own existence. The sun leaving indigo and magenta skies as it descended into its peach and pink horizons.

A Royal blue seascape capped by snow white crests, Pantelisa swaying and creaking in the breeze. We are still doing 5 knots courtesy of the light breeze at the Atlantic current. Skipper’s not entirely happy. His flight is out of Martinique on the 28th. ETA for us is 26th PM with still above 600 miles to go. Wind was promised for today but failed to be delivered. Patience… but I have no pressure of a deadline. The gentle breeze steady from the east meant we didn’t have to touch the sails. I tightened the two preventer lines to confine the banging to the sail instead of the boom when the wind deserted the sails.

A flash of green astern indicates activity on the line. “Fish!” I shout and Thomas and Herbert emerge from the saloon. Three times, three Dorado within an hour of casting the lure. Today it will be my turn for the Pantelisa rite of passage. This beautiful green fish is the biggest so far, maybe 2Kg: enough easily for two meals. Thomas stuns the fish by pouring rum through it’s gills. The fish freezes and I give silent thanks before cutting the spine behind the head as fast as possible. I’m wearing my last clean Tshirt but it’s too late for me to change now with blood on my hands. I have the benefit of the first two masterclasses of filleting and opt to retain the tail to use as a handle while I descale, gut and fillet on the stern of the cockpit. I take my time and the skeleton comes away complete. With so much meat we opt to forgo the Fish soup and dispose of the head and carcass over the stern. We are now equal hunter-gatherers in the Pantelisa tribe.

Arrival 26th December
Midnight. As usual, I surface bleary-eyed for the night watch. Lights in the west. Martinique glimmers on the western horizon and I settle down to admire the unfamiliar sight of land. 30 Minutes in, I realise the Genoa is poled out to the port side which means I have limited manoeuvrability southward. I check the plotter and we are projected to clip the southern shore so I take an early deviation of course to give us plenty of leeway.

Thomas appears at 2am ready for anchoring in St Annes bay near La Marin. Rounding the cape, the sea becomes flat and we get respite from the relentless roll of the Atlantic swell. We are in the lee, downwind from civilisation and its characteristic aroma: drains.

4am and the anchor is deployed and the chain becomes like a steel rod as Pantelisa reverses to test the holding. Herbert remains unconscious in his bunk while Thomas and I toast our arrival with a Rum laced Ginger infusion.
The calm is unfamiliar as I lay back on my bunk and the unfamiliarity, the lack of motion, creaking and banging bleeds into my dream world and I experience a restless sleep…

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