We finally got the bike in fighting form and high-tailed it to Mizque, arriving several hours after the others as the sun dipped below the mountains. Somebody handed me a beer, we made our way to the grill, and I learned that I had a new nickname: “Pinch Tire Luke”.
After almost two weeks in La Paz, it was time to move on. I chose Cochabamba. How could a guy not visit a city with a name like that?
The salt desert itself is beautiful, with its hexagonal cell-shaped ridges, white featureless horizon highlighting the cloudless blue sky, and vastness of scale reminiscent of being in the middle of an ocean. Then there were the colored lagoons, tinted red and green by various types of bacteria, home to huge flocks of pink flamingos.
Our bus tickets had become quite worthless when we arrived to find every seat full. A confused troubleshooting session found us in a private car trying to catch up with the bus so we could get the Japanese’s luggage, still tucked away in the smoke-belching belly of the bus as it pulled away without us.
Climbing in the thick darkness in the hills above the town of Aguas Caliente, the final leg of the Salkantay Trek began an hour earlier at 4am. A string of lights flickers behind us, hundreds of tourist flashlights snaking single-file through the hillside jungle on the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. We climb quickly and sweat like marathoners.
The crossing from Ecuador to Peru happened sometime between midnight and 3am – my cell phone was long since lost, and I had no way of telling time other than the aching fatigue circulating from my neck to my eyes and back again. We stopped to be scrutinized by the Ecuadorian uniforms with machine guns, then again by the Peruvian uniforms with rifles.
The Galapagos Islands are strikingly barren. While the vegetation changes from island to island, the young volcanic archipelago is dominated for the most part by dry grasses, low shrubs, leafless trees, and cacti.
The bus dumped me off in the wee hours of the morning, and I learned pretty quickly that small Ecuadorian towns are creepy at night (almost tripped over a four-foot snake when I got off the bus). After a Jesus-adorned taxi ride with a babbling, mumbling fisherman-type driver to the sleepy beach town of Canoa, I finally caught some sleep.
Last weekend, I went on an adventure with some Spanish School friends to try our hand at some outdoorsy adventure. Besides jumping off bridges, we repelled down waterfalls in the thick, dripping jungle; zip-lined across canyons on cables two-thirds of a mile long; crawled through muddy stone tunnels behind a monster waterfall to a lookout underneath the rumbling, ferocious spillover point at the top; and rode rusty bicycles through a downpour along the side of the road, blasted by the grit of passing pickups and buses.
On Monday I moved into a hostel in the Mariscal neighborhood of Quito. This particular section of the city is known to the locals as Gringolandia – named “affectionately” after the travelers who congregate here – and is a cross between a red light district and a tourist beehive.