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Pete Nelson Bicycles Through Andes In Peru

At an age when most folks sit around in their rocking chairs reminiscing about the good old days, former Peshtigo and Marinette resident Pete Nelson is out creating memories to enjoy in his old age. He retired in 1996 from teaching at East De Pere Elementary School. To fill in the gaps, he has taken to riding his bicycle. Not just on comfortable trails, but to some of the hardest to reach spots on the globe.

At age 75, Pete is not a stay-at-home kind of guy! He’s kindly shared some of his experiences with those of us who stay at home and get most of our exercise watching TV.

Nelson attended schools in Peshtigo through sixth grade and graduated from Marinette High School in 1956. He now lives in the Town of Sobieski. In addition to bicycle trips, and traveling in general, Nelson loves to visit his children and grandchildren, and care for his yard and garden. He does a bit of canning in his spare time, and helps care for Wisconsin bicycle trails.

Since his retirement, he’s bicycled across the United States from north to south and from east to west, across Canada and to many points in Europe. In Africa he didn’t bicycle, but he did hike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro.

He has been around the world by bicycle, and says he has visited all seven continents one way or another, if you count New Zealand as part of the Australian continent.

Finally this year, he spent two months touring parts of South America - mainly Ecuador and Peru - mostly on his bicycle, but also on foot and by motor vehicle.

Since retiring, he has pedaled his bicycle at least 42,000 miles - he is no longer sure of the exact number because the odometer quit working on his last trip. That trip, completed last July, took him from the Pacific coast to the deserts to the jungles and the high country of the Andes mountains in Peru, and from modern civilization into ancient times when the Aztecs and Incas ruled South America.

His companion for the South American trip was Diedre Goodwin, a bicycling enthusiast of 60 he met while on the trans-Canada trip in 2012.

Their South American experience started on March 21, 2013, the first day of spring here in the northern hemisphere, official first day of autumn south of the Equator. Their ride would take them on both sides of the Equator, but mainly south, where it’s generally warm anyway, but at some of the altitudes they reached in the Andes winds can get more than a bit chill at any time of year.

The riders met at the airport in Houston, Tex. and flew together to Quito, the capitol of Ecuador, arriving late on a Thursday night. “After customs we had to haggle with the taxis for a ride into Quito, which is about 30 km from the airport,” Nelson said. “The taxi was small. After getting our bike boxes into the taxi, Diedre crunched up in the back and I sat in front with my knees up against the dash. I could not move! “ Nelson said.

“After an hour’s ride we couldn’t find the hostel,” Nelson said. “Bummer! So we drove up and down streets until we found it. The taxi ride cost $30.” He said Ecuador is on the same dollar system as the U.S., so there was no money exchange. American dollars and cents are good there. In fact, Nelson said, they love the American dollar coins that no one in the US wanted, so our government sent most of them there.

Their hostel in Quito had two floors, and each room had three bunk beds. His room was mixed, male and female. Everyone was from a different country but English was the common language. Nelson said Goodwin had a one month jump start on Spanish. “That was a life saver,” he commented, adding he knew a few words, “hola”, “bano” for example, but couldn’t do a sentence.

On Friday the two wandered the old section of Quito. “We were either going up hill or down,” Nelson remarked. “The streets are narrow and paved with cobble stones. The traffic is one-way.”

He had been carrying a back pack, and after returning to the hostel found that his camera was missing. “Welcome to Quito!” he declared. “After 30 plus countries, this is the first time I had anything stolen!” He would have to buy another camera.

The camera would wait. On Saturday the pair hired a taxi that took them to the start of the cable car line. “Quito elevation is about 2,400 meters or about 7,200 feet above sea level,” Nelson wrote. “The cable car carried us up to 4,311 meters, or 13,000 feet. The view was awesome! There was a trail 5 km long. We walked about 1 km and did it very slowly, as the air is quite thin. This was to help us get used to the elevation. After all, I am a flatlander. Home is about 600 feet above sea level.”

“There must have been a foot race,” he went on. “I was sucking air like crazy and these people were running!”

The next day, Sunday, he was not feeling well, but they went for a short bike ride anyway. Later that day they took a bus to Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World), which is located on the Equator. “I could jump from the northern hemisphere into the southern hemisphere, and I did, back and forth, just like a kid,” Nelson laughs.

Then the impact of what seemed to be Montezuma’s revenge struck and he stayed at the hostel while Goodwin went off on her own to do some sight seeing. While she was taking a photo some guy reached across her shoulder, ripped the camera out of her hands and took off running. She returned to the hostel with the strap that had broken off on her wrist.

The next day they decided to go to the mall for new cameras, using public transportation. The busses cost only 25 cents a trip, but they are crowded, Nelson said. “We were packed like sardines. Two people would get off and five would get on.” Goodwin got pushed so far back that he lost sight of her. But they did manage to get off together at the mall, and buy the cameras. That was a good thing, because later in the trip he lost his replacement camera, and she had the only remaining photos of a good part of their bicycle trek.

Quito is the highest altitude national capitol in the world. It was settled originally some time before 980 AD by the Quitu tribe, who were conquered by the Caras tribe. In 1462 they were conquered by the Incas, and marked the northern boundary of the Inca empire. In 1534, less than a hundred years later, the Spanish conquered the Incas. The Spanish government moved Quito to its present location that same year and made it a government headquarters.

After a few days Nelson felt good enough to leave the hostel and Quito. They hired a truck to take them to Pan America Highway. They did not care to bike through the traffic on the narrow streets of Quito.

They began pedaling south, but after a few hours he realized he was still weak from being sick, so they stuck out their thumbs for a ride. They were lucky enough to get a ride to Cotopaxi National Park, but found it closed for the day. They found the nearest hostel and made arrangements to be guided to Cotopaxi Park and the mountain itself. Snow capped Cotopaxi is the second highest mountain in Ecuador. They hiked to the snow line, at about 4,300 to 4,500 meters. The peak is 5,897 meters - about 18,000 feet.

The next day they cycled to Latacunga, and the following day they decided to do the Quilotoa Loop, which other cyclists had told them was very scenic, with one of the nation’s largest farmer’s markets. “It was scenic,” Nelson said, “but they forgot to say it was very mountainous. Silly me! I forgot we were in the Andes. Of course it was mountainous!”

He said they saw a scar on the earth’s surface made by an earthquake a few years ago, and they did visit the Farmer’s Market, which was held in the plaza, or town square. Generally hostels and government buildings surround the plaza, Nelson said.

“The Farmer’s Market was huge,” he declared. “You could buy live chickens, pigs, etc., and also raw meat and fish, hung out in the open, sun beating down on the meat.” Clothing was offered for sale, and he tried on a hat. All the women there wore hats, from five to 90 years old.

Finally they biked back to the Pan American Highway and again traveled south, toward Ambato to Bano, and from there down hill to Puyo, where they saw some very nice waterfalls along the way.

From Puyo they headed north to Tena, which is very close to the jungle. They were a little concerned because of malaria. “A great road, lots of wild flowers,” Nelson declared. “Farmers were using oxen to plow the land, and horses to haul sugar cane and logs from the jungle.”

“In one village, right on the sidewalk, with traffic driving by, there was a dead hog. There was also a butcher with a blow torch, burning the hair off that hog. Street dogs - dogs that no one owns - were hanging around for a free meal,” Nelson said, adding they saw similar sights in many villages.

They left Tena by bus to get back to Puyo. Plans were to cycle to Macas, but after 70 to 75 kms, Nelson said the hills, heat and humidity got the best of him. He’s prone to heat exhaustion, so to be safe they caught a bus to Macas.

“On Sunday we went to church, not for the services but to check out the interior,” Nelson wrote. He said the interior of the church was all gold - real or not, he wasn’t sure. “The floor, either wood or stone, had grooves from thousands and thousands of people walking on it for hundreds of years. The main front door was 16’ high, about four inches thick, and wide enough to drive a semi through. Beside it there was a smaller door for people to pass through.”

“From Macas to Limon it was hilly and lovely, with jungle on both sides of the road. Everything was lush and green,” Nelson wrote. “In Limon the bus driver turned onto a barely two lane gravel road that climbed up and up. My ears started to pop. The driver must have thought he was a race car driver,” Nelson commented. “Down shifting, passing on curves and hills, sliding around hairpin curves, with multi hundred foot drop offs on one side and sheer mountain walls on the other!”

Nelson said some people on the bus were sleeping, others were talking, but all at once people stopped talking and those asleep woke up. It became strangely silent on the bus. Perhaps the altitude? Perhaps the fear?

Nelson said there were many places where rocks has skidded down the mountain and blocked half the road. As they continued upward, clouds completely surrounded them like a blanket. Coming around a curve and seeing headlights was even scarier than seeing nothing. “We finally passed through the cloud and reached the top, about 4,000 meters,” Nelson said.

“Going down was even scarier, going faster, with the driver braking instead of down shifting. But he noticed that the people had started talking again,” he said.

Upon arriving in Cuenca they claimed their bikes and panniers and sought hostel. Found one for $14 per night. Cleaned up and took a taxi to a restaurant. But they had learned their lesson. They set a price for their taxi rides, generally two to three dollars. If the price was too high they waited for the next taxi.

They enjoyed a great meal for $6 and then flagged a taxi back to the hostel. Another lesson learned. In each city he would take a business card from the hostel. Showing that to the driver as their destination when they wanted to return saved a great deal of time and confusion.

“We visited the center of the town and did some sight seeing,” Nelson wrote. “Lots of people selling things on the sidewalk. Fruit, chicken - alive and dead - veggies and clothing. Just think! No rent, no electricity, no overhead!”

“One thing I noticed in every village was usually two or three women breast feeding their child, in public. The first couple of times it was startling,” Nelson commented, “but the more you see it, the more you realize that this is a way of life.”

“We take for granted to toss toilet paper in the stool and flush. Here the toilet paper goes into a container beside the stool. Then every day it disappears.” He didn’t know if it got burned, recycled or otherwise disposed of.

“I grew up with outhouses,” Nelson commented. “I still have one at the deer shack. But here the outhouse is about a 3-foot square with a concrete slab for a floor with a 5-inch hole in the center and two raised foot prints for your feet. It is called a squat toilet. Here too the toilet paper goes into a container. I know this is more information than you need!” Obviously aim has to be good!

(This the first of several installments. Watch for more next week, including the start of a trek from the Atlantic to the Pacific side near the top of the South American continent.)


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