Like any city Puerto Maldonado got old quick and with the Andes just out of sight over the horizon I set out for my last few days in the Amazon Basin. Very quickly the scenery would change, my cycling patterns would change, the weather would change, so many things I had become accustomed to over the past two months would change. I knew the road ahead would be more difficult and in my mind decided this would be a new beginning for my trip.
The run out of Puerto Maldonado was pancake flat. I passed a poor man suffering from mental illness squatting on the shoulder of the road in the middle of nowhere. When I passed we stared at each other until he began laughing and gnawing his hands. The image is completely surreal in my mind even now.
Further along that day I passed a number of shanty towns that must have housed thousands of people. Again, this was in the middle of nothing, there were no settlements marked on my map, yet here were these tent cities with video bars, hotels, taxi stands, restaurants, car washes, everything all made from bamboo and blue plastic tarps. Over the course of 10-15 miles there were 4-5 of these camps. After some observation I realized they were for mining activities. I watched a group of men haul on their shoulders a huge diesel powered water pump through a swamp and saw signs for buying and selling gold and silver. There were also tractor trailers unloading pallets of beer. I bet this place would have been some fun at night! I later learned it can be very dangerous to take pictures of this illegal mining. Huge amounts of mercury are used in the mining of gold in this area.
This area of the Peruvian Amazon is reportedly the most bio-diverse area on the planet. The highway makes this area easily penetrable for the average person with a motorbike. The mining procedure involves stripping the land of vegetation and using the enormous water pump to blast the dirt away in search of gold. This is strip mining and is quickly destroying the jungle, and there is no law enforcement out here to prevent the destruction.
I spent the night in a dirty town called Santa Rosa at the beginning of the foothills of the Andes. Literally the first turn out of town marked the change from the last two months. I brushed the dead bead bugs from my mattress and waited until after dark when the power came on for a few hours. As I sat in the sun I started a conversation with a road worker waiting for a ride out of town. I taught him to count to ten in English and he taught me to count to five in Quechua. I told him about my trip and he asked if I was hungry. “Of course,” I said and he told me to follow him. In a small restaurant he ordered me lunch (there´s usually only three menu options in these towns: breakfast, lunch, dinner) and a drink. He quickly paid my bill and wished me luck as I dug into my chicken and rice.
The next morning I started climbing…and decending. The scenery was indeed beautiful but I was still only gaining a small amount of elevation with this days ride. I looked back after a few mintues and could see endless flat Amazon jungle to the horizon, just unbroken green tree tops. I was looking forward to leaving behind some aspects of the jungle but felt a little nostalgic about the trip thus far.
The road rose and fell through green foliage with some great river views and steep ravines and cliffs boarding the route. I came upon a road block that closed traffic for 12 hours a day! Evidently there was still alot of work to be done on the Trans-Oceanic and cars could only pass before 6am and after 6pm. Thank god they waved me through the gates. Oddly enough I didn`t see any roadwork going on in the entire closed section (the roadway is slated to be completed in 2010 but after completely much of the new route I can guarantee it won´t be).
I spent the night in Quinze Mil at an elevation of only 2300ft. This was still jungle climate and I had a difficult time finding any warmer clothing. I bought some long socks, half gloves, a ski mask, and a thin nylon parka. These clothes were by no means appropriate to camp at high elevation (nor is my Colombian made cotton stuffed sleeping bag) but I needed something to start with.
Quinze Mil is a stop over for people traversing this area and for road workers along the Trans-Oceanic route. I was told the Trans-Oceanic is almost complete in this region with brand new pavement all the way up. Of course my info was way off as I had already cycled through rubble and mud for 40km into town.
Saturday night in Quinze Mil is when the road workers let loose…in the bar below my room from 6pm until I left the next morning at 4:30am. The bass pumped all night as men yelled right below my window and a huge thunderstorms passed by. I can´t blame them for parting hard. Their schedules are 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. I haven´t slept well in weeks, why start the night before a 8000ft climb?