FIRST STOP: QUITO
Ecuador’s capital, altitude between 2850 and 3100 meters above sea level, it’s the world’s second highest administrative capital, just after La Paz, Bolivia. With a surface area of 290 km², Quito has a population of 2.2 million.
Here the journey starts. Once I have arrived at my departure point, I will need a few days to get organized: I will have most of the gear with me from Italy.
Before beginning the long bike ride there will be one of the most important and desired stops of all: Galapagos Island. I will get there from the Quito’s airport or from Quayaquil (see stop number 4), depending on logistical and time possibilities.
SECOND STOP: MANCHANILLA NATIONAL PARK
Back to Quito the restart is supposed to be easy and made easier by the fact that is a downhill all the way to the Pacific Coast. Passing through Santo Domingo de los Colores and the little Quevedo, I will get half way to my third stop: Manchanilla National Park.
Situated in the province of Manabì, between the Andes and the Ocean, this natural park is one of the biggest protected areas on Ecuador’s coast. Since 1979 this national park includes an area of more than 56.000 ha and a marine restricted zone of more than 14.000 ha. This lovely place also hosts the only coral reef in Ecuador.
But there’s more. The park hosts the biggest biodiversity of continental Ecuador and it’s a fundamental crossover of migratory species that share the landscape with 81 mammals, 70 birds and 143 fish. Do you need anything else to justify a stop? It’s more than enough.
Here it’s going to be interesting to document the conservation status and the relationship between locals and this habitat, mainly because unlike Galapagos Islands here there isn’t a geographical barrier like the sea.
THIRD STOP: THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS
Top destination for most naturalists all over the world, these islands represent a stronghold of biodiversity and one of the most incredible closed ecosystems. Here rose an archipelago made by seven main islands that have a total area of more than 100 km² and by nine smaller islands and hundreds of islets. The Galapagos National park covers almost 90% of the area.
L’isolamento geografico di questi luoghi offrì i requisiti ideali per una evoluzione peculiare creando delle condizioni faunistiche che ammaliarono il grande naturalista e studioso Charles Darwin che mise piede qui durante il suo lungo viaggio intorno al mondo nel 1835 . Grazie ai suoi studi e alle geniali intuizioni formulò la teoria dell’evoluzione enunciata nel suo storico libro “l’Origine delle specie” tuttora accettata dall’intera comunità scientifica e studiata da migliaia di biologi e naturalisti in tutto il mondo.
The geographical isolation offered the ideal requirements for a peculiar evolution, creating a scenario that amazed the great naturalist and scientist Charles Darwin, who arrived here in 1835 during his round-the-world trip. Thanks to his studies and brilliant hunches he formulated the Theory of Evolution by natural selection in his famous book The Origin of species, currently accepted by biologists and naturalists all over the world. First I will visit Santa Cruz Island. This is the island with more man-made environment and because of this deserves to be observed to document the relationship between conservation, inhabitants and tourists. On the islands there’s also one of the most important headquarters of Sea Shepherd, an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization.Their mission is to end the destruction of habitat and slaughter of wildlife in the world’s oceans in order to conserve and protect ecosystems and species.
Thanks to the collaboration with this organization I would love to understand and document the actions taken and principal difficulties that come with everyday life to protect this naturalistic paradise.
The second island I will visit is going to be the biggest, Isabela Island. This one has the highest observation spot of the whole archipelago. Wolf volcano is 1707 meters high and is the highest peak of the Galapagos. The prehistoric naturalistic charm of Isabela Island is powered by the presence of two characteristic endemic species: giant Galapagos turtles(Chelonoidis niger) and Marine Iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus). Without forgetting pelicans, penguins, hawks, seals and other species. Most of them have morphological characteristics that made them unique in the world.
The third largest and visited island will be La Isla Fernandina. This is one of the youngest islands and hosts an active volcano: La Cumbre. Also in this part of the archipelago nature is wild and rare species such as marine iguanas and sea lions run the place
The fourth and sadly last island to be visited will be Isla Pizon. This is going to be a challenge: to visit the island you need special permission from the Government, to avoid any damage to this incredible ecosystem. It’s a tiny island (just 18 km²). Because it’s so isolated and wild I would love to understand and document differences between other islands and how to preserve an ecosystem from human footprint.
THE HUGE GUAYAQUIL, THE BORDER OF PERÙ, NATURE RESERVE DE TUMBES AND AMOTAPE
Following the Pacific Coast I will cross one of the biggest South American cities: Guayaquil. This metropolitan conurbation with its 3.700.000 inhabitants is the biggest and most populated city of Ecuador. It’s going to be interesting to document the massive human impact on the country’s delicate ecosystem.
The real heart of the fourth stop is, once again, a place of incredible natural beauty and biodiversity: Tumbes and Amotape’s national parks. Located on the border between Ecuador and Perù, they represent a geographic scenario that binds complex meteorological components: both marine and continental. For these reasons these reserves are a unique place to be in the pacific coast: I can’t miss them.
ALONG THE COAST RIDING THE ROAD SYSTEM OF QHAPAQ ÑAN, CAJAMARCA
Upon leaving the Tumbes reserve, I will come back to the coast to enjoy the lowland areas.
Heading south I’ll cross a massive inca road system called Qhapaq Ñan. This incredible age-old road network crosses the entire empire from North to South for 40.000 km, connecting Quito to Santiago de Chile.
Some streets are known to reach heights of 5000 km above sea level. I will try to follow one of these roads as far as I can: most of them are only walkable and very dangerous!
The city of Cajamarca deserves a visit just to remember the historic event of Francisco Pizarro: thanks to deception and technical superiority he won the Incas despite only having a few men with his expedition, marking the first step of Spanish conquest.
STOP 6: FOLLOWING THE COAST ON THE WAY TO LIMA
After more than 1.000 km along the pacific coast I will finally reach extraordinary Lima, financial, industrial, cultural and political capital of Perù. With 8 million people it is one of the world’s most crowded cities. Nowadays it is a multicultural and multiethnic center, hosting together people with different origins. It all began with the Rimac river and its valley: today the capital reaches the desert with a surface area of more than 2500 km², known as one of the world’s biggest desert cities.
GOOD PISCO, NATIONAL PARK DE PARACAS, ICA’S DESERT AND THE ROAD TO NAZCA. AREQUIPA, NATIONAL PARK OF SALINAS AND AGUADA BALNCA
After leaving Lima behind I will head a few km to the South, where Pisco is produced, the national liquor made from white and rosè wine. The origin of this distillate has been contested with Chile, the other big productor. Close to this region there’s a small town called Ica which acts like the gate to its namesake desert. Visiting Ica I will visit Pisco’s most ancient distillery and, at the same time, the most ancient city of South America.
Here the land opens into a sprawling desert that can’t rival the African deserts: it’s not as big as the Sahara but the oasis and the fine white sand are beautiful and make this a hidden paradise suspended in time.
On the north-west side of the coast I will ride my bike through the national park of Paracas. 335.000 ha (217.594 ha include an area the Pacific Ocean and 117.406 ha is land mass) of pure wild beauty that lead to the Pacific Ocean. The unique position lets the Humboldt Current transport a lot of nutrients making the area a paradise for endangered animals already protected by local and international laws. Between the most significant species here you can see the Humboldt penguin, the brown fur seal, the sea lion the Peruvian booby.
From here I’m going to start a little trip inland towards mysterious Nazca to admire one of the most astonishing creations of man. It is considered that the huge hieroglyphics covering the desert were made by the Nazca civilization almost 1500 years ago and that they have been well maintained for such a long time thanks to the special meteorological conditions in the area. The best idea is to observe these wonders in a green way: what could be better than paragliding?
Leaving the wonders behind, I will follow the coast to the small town of Matarani, one of the most important ports of Perù. It is here that the real challenge starts: a long and exhausting climb of the Andes to reach the border of Bolivia, 4.000 km higher. This marks the beginning of the most difficult part of the trip.
The first step of this climb will take me more than 2300 meters above sea level to the second most populated city of Perù: Arequipa. Almost a million people live in this place known as La ciudad Blanca thanks to the color of the historical buildings. Here I will take a break and prepare myself for the last part of the climb, to get to the highest point of my journey.
Two thousand meters higher, with a medium altitude of 4300 meters, there is the national reserve de las Salinas de Aguada blanca. From this plateau, that covers more than 360.000 ha, I will get an amazing view of the majestic volcanos (like the Misti, Chan Chani and Pichupichu) and of the high-altitude rain forest called bofodales. These wonders of the natural world are the perfect habitat for camelids such as vicuña, alpaca, llama and guanaco.
In this part of the journey it will be necessary to scrupulously follow the necessary high-altitude precautions. For several weeks I am going to live and, most importantly, to ride my bike in a constant altitude of between 3500 and 4800 meters above sea level. If I don’t follow these precautions, I will suffer from a specific illness called acute mountain sickness. This sickness could happens at any moment during my climb: I will need to constantly monitor my symptoms and awareness.
THE SOLEMN LAKE TITICACA, ITS ISLANDS AND THE BOLIVIAN BORDER
Put a huge amount of water at 3800 meters high, spread a constellation of small islands and add the border of two of the most fascinating and arduous countries of the whole continent: Perù and Bolivia. Here it is, we have a rough idea of Lake Titicaca. After the necessary adaptation to high-altitudes and more than 400 km from the coast, my pedals will have taken me to this stretch of water that can’t easily be called lake. After all it hardly feels like a contained area.
Within the banks of Titicaca are dispersed islands which are at the highest altitude of the entire planet. The first one I will get to will be the small Taquile: tiny, gracious and mysterious where people still speak ancient languages such as the Gentilicio and the Quechua.
After a long bike ride of more than 200 km following the Peruvian coast, over the border of Bolivia and Perù, I will reach the holiest of the Inca islands: Isla del sol. According to tradition, here belong the Gods who created Cuzco, the majestic capitol of the ancient Inca empire. It’s just 12 km² wide and is the biggest of the lake’s islands. This pearl of Titicaca is characterized by a piece of land at the edge of a cliff and terraces built by the Incas: everything can be explored on foot.
Once again in this enchanting place it will be necessary to document the human footprint. Here, almost 4000 meters above sea level, in the place considered by locals as the birth place of the sun, plastic pollution is worse than ever. The principal cause behind this environmental disaster is the waste material of illegal gold mines hidden in the Andes and their dumping of this waste. Traces of heavy metals such as cadmio, mercury and zinc have been found in fish from the lake. Everything easily available in the daily diet of locals, extremely toxic.
LA PAZ, THE DISAPPEARING LAKE AND FINALLY THE BOUNDLESS SALT DESERT OF UYUNI
Leaving behind me the shores of Lake Titicaca I will pass through the streets of the highest metropolis in the world, Nuestra señora de la Paz. Almost 900 thousand people who live seemingly without problems in a place with an altitude between 3200 and 4100 meters: it is, after all, the most crowded city of Bolivia.
Another place to resupply in preparation for the next stop.
All along the road towards the next stop I will document the tragic situation of a lake, 8 times as big as Lake Garda, that periodically drains due to climate change. Too often the countries that pay the bill for mother Earth are the poorest. We are talking about the Poopò Lake that periodically drains so much that hundreds of families stay with nothing to live on.
Going South a few km, without ever leaving the high-altitude, a sight gradually creeps into view, an endless, shiny stretch that looks unreal. Ladies and gentleman, here it is, El Salar de Uyuni. 2500 km² covered by more than 10 billion tons of salt. This is an area formed after an ancient prehistoric lake dried up more than 40.000 years ago. Without a doubt it is the biggest salt expanse in the world. I imagine this to be like walking on the moon, and I can’t wait. The horizon is made up only of the high peaks of the Andes, between 3.600 and 5.000 meters in altitude.
As in every (ex) puddle of water this desert has its islands and inlets. I will try to reach la isla del pescado, named after its fish like shape. Here there’s no vegetation except for majestic millenary cactus up to 12 meters high. After making it to these islands in the middle of the desert, I will just need to find the famous accommodation made completely from salt, typical of the small villages near the Uyuni.
CHILE’S BORDER, THE DRY ATACAMA DESERT AND THE NATIONAL RESERVE DE LOS FLAMENCOS
The tenth stop means popping back into Chile, passing through the National Reserve of Alto Loa, located just behind Bolivia’s south-west border. Continuing downhill (geographically speaking) I will ride until I reach the edge of one of the driest deserts in the world: the Atacama Desert
The annual average rainfall is between 0.6 and 2.1 mm per year, area dependent. While I am there, I should witness a season called Atacama en flor. After some rare rainfall, the desert develops a huge wave of flowers giving the place a magical aura.
After having visited the city of San Pedro de Atacama, the gate town to the desert, and after having been to Los Flamenco reserve which is more than 4000 meters high, I will return to the ocean. In just a few hours I will reach the coast at Antofagasta, passing through Calama and enjoying a beautiful downhill ride on the street that connects the two cities.
HUMBOLDT PENGUINS NATIONAL RESERVE AND THE FINALE OF SANTIAGO DEL CHILE
After having reached the coast, a few hundred km further south in the region between Atacama and Coquimbo, I will come across a little archipelago close to the coast, made up of three islands.
This place forms La Reserva Nacional de los pinguines de Humboldt, home to a big colony of a peculiar species of these so-called penguins, but also sea lions, different kind of birds and bottlenose dolphins.
Here just few kilometers will be between me and my final destination. This will be the end of my never ending journey, that sounds memorable from the first draft of the project. Welcome to Santiago de Chile.