Off to Panama and the End in South America

While we were away in the Galapagos, our 2 bikes were in the hands of BMW in Quito in yet another attempt to rectify the cold/high altitude starting problem. In fact on the day they were to go to the dealer, both refused absolutely to start even when left in the sun, which had previously done the trick (Quito is the 2nd highest capital in the world after La Paz, hence the problem). We had to get a pick-up truck from the shop to come and transport them over. On returning from Galapagos, we eagerly bounded round to the shop to find both bikes serviced and running after a fashion! The valve clearances had been checked, air filters changed and new spark plugs fitted. The bikes had been washed and were ready to go. The bill for this work was staggering! $109 for both bikes!! In the UK just before leaving, we paid ₤165 for one bike to be serviced!!! Bear in mind too that the dealer, Alvarez Barba, stored the 2 bikes for 8 days while we were away enjoying our Galapagos trip, it was really unbelievable. Sadly they could not find any obvious reason for the starting problem. Batteries and charging systems were yet again checked and were all found to be OK. In the next few days we tried starting the bikes and the problem is still there, especially in Mag’s bike. We have now obtained a can of ether easy-start spray and this does the trick with no nasty side effects. As before, once the bikes are started they will restart & run all day, so given that in a few days we will be back at sea level in Panama, it seems there is nothing to do but live with the problem.

One member of our Galapagos party was a charming Ecuadorian chap called Carlos Cadena. Carlos makes his living exporting roses all over the world (he has customers in 23 different countries). Ecuador has a huge flower industry and on the Saturday after our Galapagos trip, Carlos invited us to go out with him to see one of the Rose farms that he deals with. Ecuador’s neighbour, Colombia is actually one of the largest flower growing countries in the world. The industry there is 10 times larger than Ecuador’s so Carlos explained that the Ecuadorians go for the lower volume, higher quality end of the market. The place we visited was called ‘Sisapamba Roses’, a relatively small producer – a mere 7-hectare plot with some 450,000 individual rose bushes! It was a fascinating place to visit. In their greenhouses they grow 34 varieties of Roses in 23 different colours. The plants are all hybrids and sadly are grown only for their appearance rather than their scent, which was a pity as the smell of 450,000 rose bushes would have been something! The plants are meticulously inspected throughout their life for any sign of pest or disease – any infected deliveries are immediately returned in their entirety, so tender loving care is the order of the day. Production was running slowly when we were there at 10,000 stems a day – to be cut, trimmed, packed and placed into cold storage ready for delivery anywhere in the world. During the peak periods of St Valentine’s Day & Mother’s Day, production ramps up to 40,000 stems per day. Different markets have different requirements. Those romantic Italians for example love the deep and seductive reds. Russia on the other hand has taken a shining to a new green rose that has sold very well. In Armenia, another customer, the preference is for long stem roses, with stems of 60 – 80cm, whatever the colour. We were staggered to learn that Armenians will pay up to $40 for a single long-stem rose!

Colombia was the next country in our path, but sadly we had to reject any plans to visit there, as it was too dangerous to go by bike. We had hoped whilst in Ecuador to find some easy way to see the country as it is supposedly very beautiful but it was not to be. 27th May marked the 40th anniversary of FARC, the main terrorist group there. Checking newspapers and Internet we heard stories like ‘Bomb in packed Disco kills 7’, ‘Bomber kills himself & 2 others in crowded market place’ etc, etc. Police had also intercepted a lorry packed with explosives destined to take out either a busy bridge or a tunnel and one news story on TV showed a battle in the northwest of the country between regular army & rebels involving helicopter gunships. It was enough to keep us away.

By now we were looking to leave Ecuador, but there was one more treat in store before we shipped out to Panama. At the Andes Range Hostal in Quito we met a good friend of Chris who sometimes stays there. Colleen Pawling is an ex-lawyer from New York State who had packed it all in to come to Ecuador to help set up a Rescue Centre and Tracking Station to care for and monitor the Andean Spectacled Bear. We had an invite to pop up and see the tracking station and we determined to squeeze a visit in before leaving the country. The ride up to little village of Apuela in northern Ecuador was one of the best of the whole trip. A staggering well-surfaced dirt road took us deep into lush jungle canopied mountain valleys with breathtaking views of the Northern Andes. We forded streams against backdrops of fantastic waterfalls and were just totally ‘wowed’ by the whole journey. At Apuela, we were told to ask for the ‘Casa De Las Gringos’ or the ‘Casa De Los Osos’ (house of the Gringos / Bears). Sure enough everyone pointed the way for us up a rocky road that climbed out of town and took us to the Bear Project, where we were warmly received by Colleen and her team of volunteers.

We left the bikes parked out front and went for a walk with Colleen to buy some provisions from the local store a few kilometres away. The whole organisation depends on volunteers who come from all over the world to give a little time to monitor and track the bears and help in the local communities. There are currently 7 bears in the area fitted with radio collars and the volunteers go out to track and mark the bear movements. The data is then collated in an attempt to learn more about the habits and movement of these shy little creatures. The bear’s only enemy is man and they can be unwelcome visitors at local subsistence farms where they come to eat corn in the fields, causing damage to fences and crops on the way. Consequently they have been occasionally shot or trapped and the fact that they are an endangered species means little to an angry farmer. To begin with there was a big battle to win over the local communities, to raise awareness and make them appreciate the presence of an endangered species on their doorstep. It was a difficult task. We in the West have already developed and destroyed a lot of our landscape along with its inhabitants, so what right do we have to march in to lesser-developed countries and tell them what to do? A hearts & minds approach was required and the people had to get something out of the deal in return for not shooting or hunting the bears. The payback comes in the form of education. Many of the smaller communities have no local schools or if they do, have no teachers to work in them. So what Colleen has been doing is to send her volunteers out to live and teach in the communities. That way, they can go bear-tracking in the early morning and evenings and spend the day, when the bears are usually less active, teaching English to the kids in the schools. It has been a successful approach and has really switched the communities on as to why the Andean Spectacled Bear is special and why it needs protection. In fact there was news when we were there, of one farmer deliberately planting a late cornfield to attract bears so that a volunteer teacher would have to be provided! When we returned from the store, much to our surprise there were now 4 bikes sitting outside the station! The 2 new arrivals were F650’s and belonged to Rene, a Canadian and Amy, his American girlfriend who are headed south on the first leg of a round the world trip. A great evening ensued with a truly scrumptious vegetable soup provided by the volunteers washed down with lashings of beer and dark rum. We also sampled some Puro – the local hooch made from cane sugar, which we diluted with a lemon tea.

The return to Quito was via a different road from Apuela that had only recently re-opened after some horrendous landslides that had blocked it since February. The section as far as Otavalo (about 40km) was all dirt and was a gruesome experience. When a landslide wrecks a road the practice is to get some earth moving dozers in and shovel the dirt off the edge to make a new road. We arrived in the middle of 2 of these operations and had to wait until they had shovelled a path through for us to continue slithering over the mud and earth of the new road. Still we had another fantastic jungle ride in the afternoon through cloud forests and back to the main paved road that lead us into Otavalo.

Back in Quito, on our last Friday in South America, the bikes were loaded onto a huge aluminium pallet and packed off ready for shipment by air to Panama City via Bogotá, Colombia. It was all very simple and straightforward apart from the drugs check! A paramilitary type customs guy appeared sporting a grey and black camouflage uniform, resplendently decked out with a multitude of Ninja Turtle belts, pistols & ammo pouches. With him was with a mangy looking scruffy Golden Labrador sniffer dog to check out the bikes. To be honest the dog had spent so long cooped up in a tiny kennel that all he was interested in was exploiting his new found temporary freedom, which he duly celebrated by peeing all over an expensive looking BMW car in the parking lot. The glum Ninja asked us to remove our saddle packs & baggage from the bike for the dog to sniff. We laid everything out on the ground but the dog was totally disinterested and had to be continually dragged back and pointed at the target by Ninja Man. No, he had found something far more interesting! Prior to leaving Chris’ place I’d had Coco the Siamese kitten sat on my lap for a while and the dog must have smelt her because now he decided that my crotch was worth a good sniff and his nose seemed to go onto a sort of radar lock – I spent the next 10 minutes trying to fight off his increasingly amorous intentions. Mags was doubled over laughing, even more funny as the Ninja played the straight-faced embarrassed doggie owner, first trying to look the other way & then dragging the dog over to go back to work sniffing some cardboard boxes that were also to be checked. What a relief! 10 minutes later, I was bent over checking some strapping and tie-downs when I felt someone grab the back of my leg and give it a sharp series of tugs. When I turned round and looked down it was to look into the big brown eyes of the drugs dog, tongue lolling out the side of his mouth, doing the doggie thing to my left leg! Mags was once again doubled over, choking with laughter – the Ninja was just totally embarrassed and this time dragged the dog off and tied him up. Later I pondered my good fortune that the Ninja didn’t decide that I had drugs secreted somewhere upon my person & brought out the rubber gloves!

We arranged to fly to Panama on the Sunday and spent Saturday out with Chris and Colleen at the Santa Marta Animal Rescue centre just south of Quito. On the way we stopped off to see 2 rescued Spectacled Bear cubs in a Quito animal clinic. Some villagers in a different part of Ecuador had stolen them from their mother when she went out to look for food. Fortunately the authorities found out and the cubs were duly confiscated but now they will have to be hand reared on bottled milk for at least 2 months and a rehabilitation programme worked out for them so they can be re-introduced back into the wild. The Santa Marta Animal Rescue centre is a collection point for rescued animals – animals that have been shot by hunters or recovered endangered / protected species. Like the Tracking Station, the centre is staffed by volunteers and the aim is to provide veterinary treatment and then to recuperate the animals such that they can be re-released back into the wild. First stop on the tour of the centre was a cage full of beautiful Macaws and other protected parrots. Nearby were cages with Squirrel, Spider and Capuchin Monkeys in various stages of recuperation. Another cage held a ferocious Jaguar that had recently been recovered from an illegal circus. We saw a tank with some 50 or 60 tarantulas – these were the remnants of a consignment of 400 found in the post, on their way to an address in Switzerland by regular mail. ¾ were dead on discovery and a few more died over the next few days, but the survivors will eventually be sent back to the jungle and released to do their spidery things once more. We saw some beautiful Ocelots and a hopeless Puma called Garfield. Garfield was another recovered animal but had spent so long in captivity that he cannot now be released back into the wild. When found, he had been overfed and deprived of exercise to the point that he was suffering from obesity and has since resisted all attempts to activate him at the centre, preferring to lounge around all day in the sun. He has a fantastic big enclosure and they tried to get him to walk a little by placing his food at the other side of it – he simply refused to get up & fetch it, preferring to go hungry instead. His weight had been estimated at around 80kg, heavy for a Puma. Recently when he was tranquillised he weighed in at an actual 140kg! He is now on a controlled diet and reports are that he is losing weight, albeit very slowly. The centre also has a Galapagos Tortoise, over 100 years old. He had been pet and his shell bore bullet scars from when his past owners used to shoot at him to impress visitors as to how tough his shell was! Mags fell in love with the final guest at the rescue centre, a female Spectacled Bear called Colleen. She is in a huge leafy enclosure to try and simulate her home environment. The main problem remaining in her rehabilitation is to try and make her shy away from humans. She has grown accustomed in her past to taking food from human keepers so they are trying to make her more independent so she can fend for herself. The whole visit to the Rescue Centre moved us. As in Galapagos we were up close to most of the animals and could see first hand the good treatment they were receiving here. The work at the centre by the volunteers is fantastic and we really admired their progress and determination to rehabilitate the animals. Santa Marta is no zoo and we left happy in the knowledge that at least some of the animals would go on to fulfil a normal and natural life. If you would like to know more about the Andean Spectacled Bear and the work of the volunteer programme, check out their web site at www.andeanbear.org

We left Quito, Ecuador and South America today. Looking back over the past 6 months in South America it has been a superb travel experience. I read recently in Hugh Thomson’s book ‘The White Rock’ about the impact of the discovery of the Americas in 16th Century Europe. The problem was that the early Conquistadors were all lesser and bastard sons of the Spanish nobility, out to make their name and fortunes in the new territories. They returned to Spain and people asked ‘what’s it like?’ They replied with stories of the biggest river in the world, snakes that can swallow whole donkeys, gigantic tortoises, snow capped mountains higher than the Alps or the Pyrenees and fabled cities lined with silver and gold. Given the background of the narrators, these stories were treated with scepticism and disbelief and it took a full 100 years after Columbus’ initial landing before people really realised what this new world was like. By then more ‘reliable’ witnesses, scholars and clerics, had made the journey and came back to confirm the wild tales of the early Conquistadors. We know the feeling! In this web site we have tried to relate what this mighty continent has been like and it has been difficult at times to convey the sights, sounds and sensations this travel experience has brought.

South America is a fantastic place. It is literally like travelling to another planet, a new world full of sights, sounds, smells and sensations and we both feel our lives have been enlivened and enriched by our travels here, way beyond our wildest dreams and expectations. It can be a little raw, dangerous and hairy at times but these times can be countered by applying a little common sense, following the plentiful advice available in guidebooks and chatting with fellow travellers on the road to steer you safely through the bad parts. It feels like we have packed several lifetimes into the past 6 months. Anyone reading this and thinking, “that sounds great, I’d like to do that”, stop thinking – act on the impulse and just do it! It is a fabulous wonderland, populated by hospitable people and amazing animals with stunning flora and landscapes on a simply unimaginable scale. As the old cliché goes, ‘life is not a dress-rehearsal – you only get one go at it’. If your idea of an ideal life is to fill it with experience and sensation, we can think of no better place to do this than South America!

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