Norway 2: Bergen, Seafood Capital of Viking Land

During the rest period, Ang and Simon relaxed and enjoyed the cold humid weather by going into the centre of town and for walks around Paradis.

Gamlehaugen, the Norwegian royal family’s residence in Bergen Quite the statement
Fantoft Stave Church (rebuilt after a fire in 1992 started by black metalers) Note the fence and camera to keep an eye out for metal mayhem
Bryggen in all their glory
View towards ferry dock

After a relaxing and enjoyable rest period, including a great salmon dinner with Ang’s support family, Gunnar and Cecilie, Ang and Simon readied themselves for the challenges of the leg ahead. They were handed their next clue at breakfast by the lovely Chilean cleaners who work for Ang’s host family. Both Simon and Ang were able to converse in Spanish, an oddly unexpected thing to be doing in Norway. Their first challenge for the Bergen’s leg of the race was to travel to Urkien for the Over Vidden walk, a spectacular hike high above Bergen town. Simon and Ang were kindly given a lift by the cleaners to the chairlift.

The ride up to the top of the mountain was fun. The team burst out of the lift and commenced walking. They made their way through snow covered high peaks and past more waterproof Norweigns. The team took many photos and enjoyed the length of the walk before they began to descend towards Fløyen, the end of the Over Vidden walk.

Bergen from Mt Ulriken
Over vidden
Chilly vidden trail
Lake on the vidden trail
Snow on the Vidden
Comm tower and old world war 2 bunker Old world war 2 viaduct
Even more spectular Vidden

Arriving at the visitors centre, the team were told that they needed to make their way back town to the Bergen waterfront to the offices of the Brygen Preservation Society, where they would receive their next clue. After briefly enjoying the view, the team jumped into the funicular and rode down the hill. At the base they raced along the waterfront and ran into the old trading buildings.

Looking down at Bergen from Mt Fløyen
Looking down on the historic harbour
The racers pose for a Bergen promotional shot Performance art or a wedding?
Ang enjoying Bergen street art Ang!
Downtown Bergen Delicious Groovy?

Once there, the team was greeted by Mamma, and were each given a Jorgen costume to try on for the 17 May celebrations. With the fitting completed, they thanked Mamma and raced back to Ang’s host family’s house. On the way back, Ang, who had previously lived in Norway was thrilled. She explained to Simon what the day represented for Norway. Simon was suitably excited.

Bergen waterfront
Bryggen passageway Historic walkways
Weatherboard constructions

The next day was spent enjoying the great company, relaxing and eating delicious seafood.

Syttende Mai (17 May) is the Norwegian national day, which celebrates the birth of modern Norway in 1814 wtih the signing of the Norwegian constitution. Simon and Ang woke, and dressed. Ang told Simon that it was important to say Gratulerer Med Dagen (literally Congratulations on this Day) to everyone, which Simon tried as best he could. Ang’s host family looked fantastic in their costumes – suits for the guys and bunads for the girls. These intricate costumes are custom made and represent different regions. Once everyone was ready they all piled into cars and headed off.

The first stop for the day was a family friend’s place. There they all enjoyed a delicious brunch. After the meal, the team along with Mamma quickly changed into their costume and raced into town. They ran to the Brygen, where they sorted out last minute costume details and props and joined the assembled Brygena Preservation Friends, ready to march in the parade. Ang was appointed a drunken Jorgen. Simon was tasked with carrying Torsk fisk, a really stinky dried cod on a big pole with a friendly quiet Norwegian guy.

Ang’s wonderful host family in their splendid national costumes Syttende Mai breakfast
Preparing to take part in the parade

With everything organised, the drummers started and the team marched out of the Brygen and onto the street along the waterfront.

Initially there wasn’t much happening, a few people took photos and the marchers smiled and waved. It soon became clear that it was still early, and that they were marching towards the main square. Arriving there they were marshalled into their appointed spot and waited. Soon they were joined by thousands of other Norwegians organised into community groups and societies in varying costumes that would take part in the parade.

Gents waiting to be released to parade on their velos Friends of Bryggen association’s waiting to march
The racers pose for a promotional photo The group’s drummers
More velos

At the appointed time, the Brygen Preservation Society were released from holding by the officials and they set off. The previously empty streets were lined with an estimated 150,000 spectators turning out despite the light rain (Simon believes Norwegians are inherently waterproof) along the 4km parade route. Simon stumped people by not being able to speak Norwegian, responding to their next question as to why are Australians marching in the parade with that they are in a race and this is an amazing challenge to complete. The team also hammed it up by Simon holding his nose due to the stinky dried Torsk fisk and for Ang fake chugging from the over sized booze mug (both actions perfectly in character).

They walked back past the Brygen, turned and headed back along the parade route waving to the huge crowds. It was then they met the other paraders coming in the opposite direction. Simon noticed a cheeky Australian flag hanging out of the window of an apartment along the route. He decided to mess with their minds by mouthing the words “Aussie Aussie Aussie”, which drew points and exclamation from the Australian balcony spectators. The crowds loved the Torsk fisk, with hundreds pointing and laughing at the hanging stinky fish. Simon and Ang walked and played off the crowd, bringing their characters to life.

Ladies laughing in the parade Stinky fish frame spectators in their national costume
Happy Norwiegans wave to the parade Sneaky Australian ex-pats get in on the festivities

The steady stream of parade groups walking past the team seem to have no end. There seemed to be no end to the variety of groups walking in the left lane (such as the Buekorps https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buekorps). The scale of the celebrations was impressive.

Ang gets stuck into the good stuff Ang plays the cheery role well (photo Gunar)
Simon carries torskefiske proudly (photo Gunar)

Sadly, the drummers leading the group rounded the final corner and walked towards a Viking ship on the shores of a lake, the finish of their parade. The team joined together and along with Mamma, were met by Papa. He handed them their final clue.

Paul, Ang, Simon and Ragnhild pose seconds before the final clue is given Tasty Norwegian canapes
Gunnar and Cecilie enjoying the day

After 290 days of racing, they had reached the end. They were to make their way back to Brisbane! Their first flight of several would leave early the next morning.

The team headed back to Mamma and Papa’s house and spent the rest of the day and evening with Ang’s wonderful host family (Simon of course made celebration ice cream).

In a brief interview at the house, Simon and Ang were sad how their time in Bergen was so wonderful and far too short. They both were really grateful for the hospitality and the ability to spend their last leg staying with such fantastic folk. Simon and Ang both said “a big heartfelt thanks for having us stay”.

The team went to bed happy and content. Tomorrow would be Friday 18 May 2012, day 291 of the Amazing Exclusive Race.

… to be continued

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Brazil 2: Rio De Janiero and Carnival

Simon and Ang enjoyed a peaceful night’s sleep but woke early.  Choosing to make an omelette, the team quickly realised that despite this being a tasty choice for breakfast, it was not the quickest thing to make when a new leg of the Amazing Exclusive Race was about to commence.

Food was scoffed and the team raced out of their accommodation with their first clue in hand.  They were to make their way to Rio De Janiero, but due to their breakfast choice, they had less than 30 minutes to travel across Sáo Paulo to make the first bus to Rio. They shot into the subway station, boarded the first train to arrive, and joined the commuter rush across town.  With nerves high and 15 stations to pass including one change, they arrived at Terminal Rodoviário Tietê , where they ran as fast as their legs could go through the crowds and straight onto the waiting bus which left within one minute of the team boarding.

The ride to Rio was relatively uneventful.  The team enjoyed the scenery and soon their bus arrived at the outskirts of Rio.  Both Simon and Ang were excited, but also apprehensive as they were aware of Rio’s reputation as being a dangerous, yet cinematically beautiful. Their bus made its way through traffic and arrived at the main bus terminal. Because Carnival was soon to happen, the area around the station was alive with people and jam packed with buses.  The team caught glimpses of the nearby Samba school warehouses and their enormous floats and started to get excited for the challenges ahead.  Getting off the bus, the team made their way to the information stand where they received their next clue.

They were to make their way to the favela babilônia where they would check into the Chill Hostel.  Deciding that the line for the taxi was too long, the team jumped on a bus heading to Copacabana and Leme.  Once there, they walked through the pleasant beachside streets and headed up into the favela.

Regular sight in Rio

Check in formalities were completed rapidly and the team received their next clue to find a local Copacabana Bloco.  A bloco is a street party that occurs during Carnival.  Revellers arrive at a meeting point and typically follow a large truck that has singers, dancers and serious amplification.  With this clue received, the team raced out of the hostel, past the drunk hostel manager who fell into the entrance door and to the ground and made their way down to Leme and into Copacabana.  Finding a quiet bloco truck, they worked out that they had some time to wait until the bloco would actually start, so they checked out the crowded beach and surrounding streets.  Later, after dinner, they made their way to the bloco starting point.  There they joined the party and after dancing for the required time, were given their next clue.  They were to meet up with some of the other Exclusive Race teams they had last seen on the Inca trail leg of the race the next night in Ipanema. There they were to complete the party like it’s Carnival challenge at the Ipanema bloco. The team raced back to their accommodation and on advice of the police officer permanently stationed at the entry to the favela, took motorcycle taxis up the long winding road.

Copacabana bloco

The next day, the team went to Leme beach and relaxed.  They knew they would not need to travel to Ipanema until later that afternoon, so strategically decided to chill.  Simon and Ang enjoyed the beach, but thought the water was surprisingly cold for a place so tropical.  Relaxed and ready to party, the team returned to their favela, changed, then headed to the nearby bus stop.

Leme beach

Soon they were in ipanema and amongst hundreds of thousands of Carnival revellers.  They raced to the designated meeting point, the number eight life guard tower, and were soon meet by the other Exclusive Race teams from the Peru leg.  These teams included those from France, Ireland, England and Australia.  As this challenge required all teams to party hard, everyone did just that.

Ipanema beach at sunset Ang with members of Teams Brazil (partially nude) and team Ireland
Welcome to the carnival!

They were also tasked with finding the actual Ipanema bloco.  This involved making their way through the huge crowds down streets packed with people, and some of which were surprisingly happy.  Simon said later, “it was just like going to schoolies where ten years worth of people all finish high school at once”, to which Ang added, “but with lots more guys kissing guys”.

With all teams unable to locate the Ipanema bloco, they were forced to take a one hour time penalty.  All teams took advantage of this time to drink more caipirinhas.  With the penalty completed, the teams were given their next challenge and were directed to make their way to the maze of streets around Lapa.

Some of the action in the streets

A short collectivo ride later saw them in the centre of a huge crowd.  More caipirinhas were consumed.  Simon said later that “at this point, things become a little hazy for me.  There was such a strong party atmosphere that I probably tried to complete the party challenge a little too enthusiastically”.  Ang added that “Simon was pretty much out of control. Lucky I was able to get us on a collectivo and back to our favela hostel in the morning without any trouble, once we had been told we had passed the party hard challenge”.

Caaaaipirinhas! in Lapa

The next afternoon, Simon and Ang woke and headed to the beach to wait until they were given their next clue.  Soon a beach vendor provided them with the challenge.  They were to return to Ipanema and party hard some more.

Whilst tamer than the previous night, this involved drinking yet more caipirinhas.  The team was given an ‘Antarctica’ band hat to keep safe. They were then directed to party on the beach.  There they stayed and listened to the terrible beach DJ that suffered from ADHD until the rapid changes (no mixing at all) of the music drove them back to their favela hostel.  This time Simon and Ang were able to take motorcycle taxis up and were given their next clue upon arrival.

Teams completing the Glittery Carnival Ladies challenge Team Australia is ready to roam the streets

After another days sleep they continued the routine afternoon laze on the beach, where the team was given their next task. They would be required to attend a samba parade at the Sambadrome.  This huge km long street stadium complex is the site where tens of samba schools duke it out to be crowned the best samba school of carnival. Each spends millions of dollars on creating the most outlandish floats for a parade performance that lasts ninety minutes.  Simon and Ang were tasked with watching four performances.

A guy selling his balls on the beach One of the many beach bands

Racing to the Sambadrome, the team arrived early at 7.30pm to secure good spots on the benches.  After an hour and a half, the popular bleachers were filled and the parades started.  What followed was four over the top performances involving hundreds of people, tens of floats and the same beats played over and over again for ninety minutes during that schools parade.

Sambadrome float Mermaids did samba?
Velo samba Giant inflatable samba girl
Sambadrome panorama
The team at the Sambadrome

The performances were back to back, and after a marathon seven and a half hours of watching and waiting time, the team observed the Samba in Space (including giant Martian rover samba float) themed performance and finally completed the challenge.

With this task completed, the team were given their next clue and set about the marathon journey back to their favela.  Simon said of the Sambadrome challenge that “it was perhaps one of the more ridiculous things I’ve seen.  Each samba school went over the top, but the crowd loved every minute.  The Brazilians really get passionate about samba”. Ang enjoyed the experience however was disappointed at the huge amount of waste and said “they just piled the costumes high after each parade and then men just filled up rubbish trucks headed straight to land fill!”. This night marked the end of the formal Carnival period.

The hostel lounge each morning during carnival…. less beds than people

Waking later that afternoon, the team as usual went to the beach until sunset approached when they were handed their next clue. Their task was to travel to Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) and watch the sun set.  Ang in particular enjoyed the awesome view, but regretted not bringing cheese and wine to enjoy. With this task completed, the team was then given the challenge to travel up to the base of the big giant Jesus.

The best place for wine and cheese
Sugarloaf mountain dusk panorama

For their final full day in Rio, Simon and Ang were first climbed to the summit of the big giant Jesus hill. They took the funicular up and then marvelled at the slightly hilarious sight of a heap of people taking funny perspective photos involving the big JC. With this challenge completed it was back down the funicular, then straight to the Escadaria Selaró, a crazy mosaic set of steps all done by a forgotten mad Mario Brother, Selaró. After a challenge which required the team to locate and photograph the kangaroo tile, the team were given their final task for the Rio leg. They were to enjoy one last afternoon laze on the lovely Leme/Copacabana beach they had become so accustom too enjoying.

Giant Jesus! Ang holding Big JC’s hand
Panorama from Christ the Redeemer hill
Ang racing to the top of Escadaria Selarón The Kangaroo tile on Escadaria Selaró
Mad Selaró himself

With this challenge completed, the team finished the Rio leg in style and checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, their favela hostel. Celebrating this victory, the team ate a delicious typical “by weight meal” at a nearby Brazilian restaurant.

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Bolivia 4: Tupiza

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two raced into the unearthly high Bolivian desert.  They left the town of Uyuni aboard a 4WD and spent four days, three nights travelling through some of the world’s most spectacular desert scenery before racing back to Uyuni.

Arriving in Uyuni late that afternoon, the team raced to the nearby bus office and bought a ticket on that evening’s 8pm overnight bus to the town of Tupiza.  After a quick farewell dinner with Team Organic Hobo, they were aboard, heading out of town.  Owing to the heavy afternoon rain, their bus soon stopped 45 min out of town at a swollen river crossing.  Their driver informed the passengers that they could not pass but would wait for the river to go down. Simon left the bus and visually checked the depth of the water, but could hardly see much in the evening gloom.  Returning to the bus Simon and Ang settled in to wait.

After what turned out to be a restless night that included a twelve piece impromptu Argentine bus band forming, to complete their own Exclusive Race challenge, and playing until two am, the bus driver finally consulted with the passengers at 9am the next morning as the river still was impassable.  Consensus was reached and it was decided to return to Uyuni for breakfast and long awaited use of a bathroom.  They would attempt to cross again in the early afternoon before any later afternoon storms could flood the road again.

Back in Uyuni, Simon and Ang quickly located a bathroom then ate breakfast before jumping back on the bus with the rest of the mostly Argentine passengers.  As their bus approached the blockage, it was clear that the water level had fallen, however it was unclear by how much.  The team was hopeful they would be able to get through otherwise they feared they would be eliminated.

Their bus arrived at the back of a queue that consisted of more trucks, cars and buses than earlier that morning.  The road remained impassable, so once again they settled into wait.  Simon commenced looking at alternative routes.  He managed to work out there was a chance to take a six hour detour north to the town of Potasi, change buses then head six hours south.  But in discussions with Ang, they realised this was probably a silly way to go.

Yep, that road is closed Watching flood water with the locals

About two and a half hours later, a particularly loud, hoarse speaking Argentine guy screamed out “una mapa de Bolivia por favour” (a map of Bolivia please).  He was quickly provided one and about twenty minutes later had worked out the same route that Simon had, and began chanting ‘Po-tasi! Po-tasi! Po-tasi!’, to drum up support for his detour.  He then started negotiating with the driver to get him to turn the bus around.  It was about at this point another double decker bus decided it could make the crossing (without anyone physically checking water depths in the raging current) and ploughed into the flood waters.

Blasting through, the double decker bus proved the way and soon others, including the team’s bus followed.  Hoarse Argentine guy remained quiet for a little while, then got back into the music jam session with the other Argentinean folk.  While they were almost fifteen hours delayed, by driving now during the day, the team was treated to more spectacular scenery, which they would have missed had the bus passed during the night bus.

Just like a chocolate milkshake, only flooding Everyone celebrates the crossing
Putting backpacks back under the bus Empty, but flooded Bolivia
Bolivian landscape at its best Like a matte painting!

Eventually after travelling through mind blowing canyons and countryside, the team arrived in Tupiza on dusk after almost twenty-two hours of travel.  They were given their next clue and owing to opening hours being 9-5pm, decided to find accommodation.

Tupiza building Velo shop, Tupiza
Local bike seat Andean sandals made of car/truck tyres
Dried chillies, Tupiza (oddly missing from restaurant menus) Dried pasta (present on all menus)
Small Bolivian market

Waking the next morning they were picked up and set off to complete the Tupiza Triathlon along with another Team Australia.  This event was a combination of a jeep tour, horseback riding and a downhill mountain bike.  Ang was excited by the prospect of more downhill mountain biking, but was fearful as she previously had bad experiences with horses.  Their jeep driver took them on a tour of the surrounding countryside that included spectacular rock formations and canyons.  They soon arrived at a ranch where they were put on horses for a three hour ride around some canyons.  Ang was informed she would be been given the most placid, friendly calm and slow horse, given her history of being thrown off a few, but this soon proved to be quite the opposite.

Panoramic rock formation during the jeep leg
Cutting in the rock wall Ouchy catcus!
We’re on horses! Bolivia’s wild central plains

Ang’s horse, sensing they were racing, took the lead of the herd.  It cantered on and off as it pleased and made sure no other horse would pass.  Simon tried to spur his horse on, but unfortunately it seemed broken, only cantering once during the ride out.  On the ride back, Ang’s horse was attacked by a rouge juvenile horse, which scared her and almost threw her off as her horse was buck kicking the juvenile.  But thankfully they were all able to canter on the downhill and returned to the corral with the only casualties being one of the other Team Australia’s iPhones being thrown from the horse (it sustained minor scratches only).  With this leg of the triathlon completed they all jumped back into the jeep and headed to the next task.

Unique rock formations Ang in the lead
Simon playing cowboy Racers on horses

Their final task of the Tupiza Triathlon was to complete the downhill mountain bike leg.  They were driven to the top of a long dusty dirt road.  After picking bikes the group set off.  Simon and a member of the other Team Australia took an early lead.  Unfortunately, the rough gravelly road caused the other guy to get a flat tire.  This left Simon alone to complete the final stretch.  Eventually the other team and Ang caught up.  Ang was particularly displeased as the standard of the provided bikes was less than those provided as part of the World’s Most Dangerous Road.  Simon thought later that single shocks should be banned from downhill off road riding, after the jarring but fun ride.

Traffic on the Bolivian downhill road Simon gets ready to ride
Giant Ang gets ready to ride
Fantastic Bolivian canyon panorama
Another canyon panorama
Bolivian downhill road panorama
Ang flys past and on to the finish line

Once all team members had rendezvoused at the bottom of the hill, they rode back through town.  There they received their final clue directing them to the pit stop for this leg of the race.  Arriving tired but happy, Ang and Simon were the first to check into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

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Bolivia 2: La Paz and the World’s Most Dangerous Road

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two travelled to the Bolivian town of Copacabana on the shores of Lake Titiaca.  There they visited the Isla Del Sol where they received their next clue to travel to La Paz and soon after were on a bus bound for the high altitude city.

The bus ride climbed up away from Copacabana and soon arrived in the estrecho de tiquana (Tiquana Strait), a body of water that needed to be crossed to avoid having to re-enter Peru.  There they disembarked and the bus drove on to a waiting ferry.  Simon and Ang boarded a launch and followed the bus across the straight over to the other side.  The remainder of the bus journey passed without incident and the team soon found themselves in La Paz.

The ‘road’ to La Paz from Copacabana

After checking into accommodation next to the witches’ market, they received their next clue.  They were now required to ride the World’s Most Dangerous Road (WMDR) on downhill mountain bikes.  The vehicle of choice for this extreme event was two dual suspension disc brake down hilling monsters, full face helmets, thick jackets and pants, elbow and shin pads.  After this equipment was chosen, the team returned to their accommodation for the night.

The place for your dead llama fetus shopping needs (they “bring good luck to a new home”) Busy streets of La Paz
Jolly Bolivian guy who gives you real stuff if you give him miniature versions of what you want Ang inside some closter grounds
Bolivian guards being guarded by MPs Standard South American shoe shining
Rooster! ‘Splendid’  ice cream
Typical Bolivian bread street stalls
Panorama of the La Paz city skyline

Leaving early they, along with other exclusive race teams from Australia, Holland and Mexico, raced out of La Paz and to the start of the downhill course.  After a quick safety briefing, they set off on the asphalt road.  Hitting speeds of up to 90km, the team quickly completed the first stage of this challenge, the new road that had been built to replace the original WMDR.

The team is kitted out Ang is ready for some extreme downhilling
Simon’s might steed The downhilling racers stop for a moment to admire the view (Simon and Ang on right)
Ang hits 80km/h Simon breaks a personal MTB speed record
Ang hits 90km/h Cloudy moutains on the warm up section

After some snacks, the team again hit the road, which now had turned into the original dirt WMDR.  Flying down the bumpy and highly rocky road, around blind corners and over small jumps, both Simon and Ang, along with the other teams were able to pass many other riders.  Eventually after 40km of extremeness, they arrived at the base of the hill.  Simon was able to place third and Ang almost crashed on one corner, but high fives and other extreme hand gestures were given all around.  Top recorded speed on this dirt downhill stretch was 50km per hour.

The racers pause for a photo before the dirt road starts The old world’s most dangerous road
A drop off into the clouds Ang scouts out the next stretch
Simon blasts through a waterfall The riders pause to illustrate the position of the road
One of the many crosses on the side of the road
Panorama of the world’s most dangerous road
Simon is really enjoying this challenge
The racers pause for a promotional shot Simon and Ang enjoy the view
Third across the finish line, Simon is congratulated by the lead guide

After a quick lunch, the team was taken back to La Paz where they checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race.

Simon celebrates the conculsion of this leg in style… with ice cream Heading back up the world’s most dangerous road back to La Paz
Sunset on the road back to La Paz
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Ecuador 2: Baños

Warning:  the following race report contains photography that may be distrubing to guinea pig fans.

Previously on the Amazing Exclusive Race, one team of two raced from Quito, the capital of Ecuador to Baños, a pleasant mountain town in the Andes.  Travelling aboard a local intercity bus, the team arrived in Baños three hours after departure.

Roadside BBQ pig stop

Baños de aqua santa or the bath of the water saint, is a mountain town set in a spectacular location along a deep canyon and surrounded by high hills and a volcano.  Their first stop was to check into their fantastic Australian/Kiwi run hostel, Casa Verde.  After this was completed, they made their way into town to explore and prepare for the upcoming challenges.

Baños panorama

The first task for Baños was to zip line or canopy.  For this task, the team made their way to the zip line in the cloud forests a short drive out of Baños.  There they joined another American team to complete a zip line course that included one stretch of 500m zip line upside down.  Rather unusually, this challenge was completed during a volcanic eruption, so the team’s faces were covered with volcanic ash and sand as they zipped through the cloud forest.  Successfully completing this challenge, the team moved on to their next activity.

Extreme Ang on the zip line

For their next task, the team had dinner at a small cafe owned by a friendly Ecuadorian chef who had been trained in both New York and Paris.  The team worked their way through a fantastic meal and the best piña colada ever.  While they were eating, the team met a crowd of local volunteers and were invited to a variety of Christmas functions.   Once they had finished their meal, once again in first place, the team read the next clue which would require them to look for lava erupting from the nearby strato-volcano, Tungurahua.  This was accomplished with ease with the volcano erupting high in the night’s sky causing a line of red to be formed.

Street in Baños Roast Cuy (guinea pig) anyone?

Relocating to their next accommodation after a great homemade breakfast, including vegemite to Angela’s great delight and real enjoyment, the team received the next clue and headed off to the bike rental shop where they hired two bikes and set off on a 60km downhill ride from Baños to the town of Puyo.  The ride took Simon and Ang past a variety of waterfalls and spectacular miradors, however, they were unable to complete the full distance to Puyo town square.  Ang flagged down a Ecuadorian civil engineer who was commuting from work in a ute and he was nice enough to give the team a ride back to Baños.  Once there, Simon and Ang offered to pay the guy, but he refused.  The team returned the bikes and received their next challenges.

Ang chasing chickens on the downhill One of many Baños waterfalls

Simon and Ang attended a Christmas bonfire held at the Bibloteca volunteer centre.  The centre provides English lessons and encourages creativity with the children.  That evening, the team was allowed to contact family and friends back home.  They spent several hours on skype chatting and catching up with friends and family.  The next day, the team attended Christmas lunch.  This was a pot luck lunch and included macaroni and cheese, grilled meats and a variety of tasty salads.

Christmas day

Bellies full, the team returned to their accommodation and after a light dinner, slept off the day’s indulgences.

Christmas dinner

Relocating accommodation for a final time, the team moved into a hostel with a giant tortoise in the garden and two very friendly parrots, one who could say ‘hola’.  Simon completed the feed the parrots corn chips road block and the team received their next clue which required them to climb to the top of the Virgin Mirador, 200m above Baños’ 1820m altitude.  The climb proved to be surprisingly tough so once they team arrived at the top they snacked on corn chips and took in the view.  With this challenge completed, the team received the final task for Baños, to have a bath!

Feeding a bird Hostel roommates
Ang wants one as a pet
A panorama of Baños from the mirador
Racers pause for a photo overlooking Baños

For their bath in Baños, the team arrived at early at 6pm, right after opening.  They changed and went to the cooler of the two hot water pools.  This small swimming pool sized hot spring pool was at least 40 degrees centigrade and filled with a variety of local Baños residents. Steam rose from the water into the chilly night air.  There the team waited the requisite 15 minutes before they were allowed to get out and move to the hotter of the pools.  The smaller hot pool was at least 10 degrees warmer than the last.  Here they were required to get in the scorching hot water for at least one minute, and then enter one of the small freezing cold water plunge pools before returning again to the hot water pool.  With this challenge completed, the team received their final clue and made their way to the pit stop, where once again they were first to arrive.

Boxing day bath challenge

In a post race interview, Ang said that “I really enjoyed this leg of the race immensely due to the adrenaline from the activities and would like to take up downhilling and zip lining as new sports”.  Ang is keen to buy a zip line for her home after the race is over and will consider offers of sponsorship.

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Costa Rica 3: Puerto Viejo

Early the next morning, the team received their next clue and departed the pit stop.  With a pre-purchased bus ticket, the team was driven down the mountain to San José.  Three hours later, the team arrived in capital of Costa Rica.  There they walked to another bus station where they changed to the twelve noon bus to Puerto Viejo De Talamanca.

The journey to Puerto Viejo began badly for the Australian team.  The team’s bus took one hour to leave San José due to excessive traffic.  Eventually the bus made its way through the central highlands and on to the banana plantations around Puerto Límon.  Being the banana growing capital of the world, home to brands such as Dole and Chiquita, there was excessive truck traffic that caused another major traffic jam.  This further delayed Simon and Ang.

San José traffic jam Armed San José carpark attendant
Sad Santa The banana plantation traffic jam

The bus eventually wove its way through the trucks and containers and plantations and arrived at the Límon bus station in time to see the later 2.30pm bus pull into the adjacent parking spot.  Team combined Belgium and New Zealand were on this bus.  They told Team Australia that they had been told the major delay was caused by a landslide.  Simon and Ang were not amused, and hoped that this disastrous day would not cause them to be eliminated when they finally got to the pit stop.

After the break at Límon, the bus continued the remaining 60km south to the small beach town of Puerto Viejo.  Ignoring the Rocking J’s guy, Simon and Ang located quieter accommodation and met up with half of Team Belgium.  That night they ate at Stashu’s fusion, a restaurant that was run by a friendly Guyanian called Stashu, where they had fantastic fare.  This completed the first eating challenge of this leg of the race.

Good fusion

Receiving their next clue, Ang and Simon hired some bikes and then rode to the Manzanillo national park and Punta Uva to search for the elusive toucan. Despite having a fun day on the beach they had no luck seeing a toucan, but did see a troop of monkeys.  On their return to Puerto Viejo, the team stopped off on the pretty ride back to drink some chocolate and then again to have fish tacos.  After returning the hire bikes and receiving their next clue, the team headed out to dinner for some typical Costa Rican casado and whole red snapper fare.

Dive panga near Punta Uva Barge, dog and birds near Puerto Viejo
Puerto Viejo beach
Panorama of a beach in the Manzanillo reserve
Panorama of the stormy sea and beach in the Manzanillo reserve
Racers pose for a photo Manzanillo beach, drying clothes
Tico beach goers View of beach through jungle
On a tree On a bike
Hot chocolate break Near Puerto Viejo
Monkey in the trees More monkeys
Jungle stream near Puerto Viejo

Completing these challenges, the team raced to the pit stop for this leg of the race where they were once again the first to arrive.

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Cuba 4: Viñales

After a quick early morning swim, the team departed Varadero on a Viazul bus bound for Viñales.  Oddly, on this bus service there were no stops for the two drivers to collect their groceries and soon the bus arrived in Havana.  The team, along with Isabella and Steffano, then negotiated a faster taxi ride in an antique Peugeot 309 to Viñales.

Racing through the Cuban country side, the team stopped only once at a tobacco farm, which both Simon and Angela agreed wasn’t very interesting as it was the wrong season, before they sped into the town of Viñales.  Soon they arrived at their Casa Particular.

Apparently really good dinner Loco perro on the roof of a casa
Wisdom from Che: (google translator says) “one of the noblest ways to serve the country is to be committed to working” The feast in the casa

After an optional rest period, the team departed the casa on bikes.  Their task was to ride to the Cave of the Indian and explore it to gain their next clue.

Restaurante cave

They rode north through the Pinta Del Río country side.  They soon travelled 6km and arrived at the cave and paid their 5 CUC each entry fee.  To the annoyance of the Cuban staff, they went into the cave without a guide.  Soon they were walking through the well-lit cave space.  After exploring less than 200m later, they arrived at the underground river.  There they waited until the speedboat arrived to take them further into the mountain.

Scary well-lit cave

The Cuban speedboat captain gently and expertly guided his boat to the dock.  The team boarded the boat, along with some Israelis and they headed deeper into the mountain. Only to turn around 50m later, with the boat captain explaining that the water level was too low for them to go further into the mountain.  Simon thought it looked very Lord of the Rings, with a lone staircase disapearing into the darkness ahead. The boat drove past the dock and around a couple of bends before they exited the cave.

Daylight The exit to the caves

Annoyed at the overpriced and underwhelming crappiness of the caves, the team raced through the gift shop and were soon back on their bikes.  Intending to visit a 1960s mural located to the west of the town, but not wanting to miss the chance to explore further, the team continued north and then west to Valle Acón.

The road into the valley was lined with pigs and not much else.  The team made good time over the next 8 km and they soon reached Acón village.  There they continued onto cooperative commune land, heading in what they thought was the direction of the mural.  Soon they were in thick plantation land.  Unable to see a shortcut over the hills through the jungle, the team returned to the commune entry.

A panorama of a field near Acón village, pre flat tires

Annoyed that there was no connecting road offering a more direct  route to the mural, the team asked a commune worker in broken spanish if a horse trail would get them back to the village of Viñales.  He said that it would, so the team went through the gate and started up the the trail.

Heading into the jungle

Within 500m both bikes had at least one flat tire (Simon’s bike soon had two flats).  Thinking this route couldn’t be that difficult (there were bike tire tracks along it and it kind of headed in the right direction), the team pushed on.  Two hours later, in the late afternoon with nothing but jungle around them, the team decided that they probably weren’t going to make it through to Viñales via this overland route.  To avoid being eliminated (and having to spend the night in the jungle), the team turned around and rapidly made their way back down the hills to the village of Acón.

As is the norm for this part of Cuba, heavy afternoon thunderstorms greeted their return to Acón.  After sheltering briefly in a friendly farmer’s house from the lightning, the team walked the 8km along the Valle Acón road back to the main north south route.  With the greater traffic, they attempted to get a lift back to Viñales.  Unfortunately, Cuban truck drivers were not able to stop as either their trucks were full or perhaps they were not allowed to give foreigners a ride.  This forced the team to continue walking the remaining 6km back to Viñales, much to the delight of the Cuban locals, who called out pinchazo with knowing smiles.

Ang is soaked, but happy 4kms left to push the bikes

Eventually they pushed the bikes into the town and returned them to the hirer.  After showering, the team celebrated this feat by heading into town for ice cream.

Viñales main plaza, where much ice cream was consumed

Their next task was to make their way to the mural that had been painted on the side of a cliff back in the 1960s.  According to the clue, the mural was a sight to see. After the previous day’s bike issues, the team headed off on foot. After walking the 4km, they headed into a valley where to their right the mural appeared.  Simon and Ang were not impressed, but were able to take photos and avoid paying the entry fee.  They promptly walked back to the main road.

Epically aweful mural

There they were able to get a lift with a couple of rural farmer types on their horse and cart. The cowboys dropped the team off in town and they headed off to next task, find and have lunch at the Balcón, which was provided by Beñat (a friendly spaniard the team had met in Varadero earlier). The 3 km walk up the hill was easy and soon the team located the restaurant. There they ate a huge feast of 10 CUC lobster, drank mojitos and enjoyed the view. Ang thought ‘it was a bit weird we had lobster in the mountains, but it was very meaty’.

Hitching a ride to town Lobster at the Balcón
Panorama from the table at the Balcón
And lunch is finished Later at the view hotel (which doesn’t have as good of a view as the Balcón)
Three little piggies went to market

Later back at their casa, their host offered to take them to his family’s nearby farm.  They went, and despite having no interest in the tobacco element, the team accepted the homemade cigars (but left them later in the casa for their host). There they drank Cuban coffee and drank fresh rum and coconut before back once again heading back to their Casa.

This dude rolls his own She’s 83 and likes her coffee
Waiting for rum The family’s christmas ham
A big pair of fresh coconuts

… to be continued

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Cuba Part 3: Trinidad to Varadero

With only a limited time in Cuba, the team set off to the Viazul bus station via taxi.  There they boarded a bus heading south to Trinidad on what would soon become a grocery run.  At each opportunity, the two drivers would stop the bus and one would disappear into a house only to return with the desired items.  These would range from breads through to single avocados. Other than the chance to see the Cuban country side, a highlight of the bus ride for Simon was passing by Australia, Cuba.

Later that day, the team were finally able to arrive at their destination.  There they were met by their booked casa host and after dumping their bags in the casa, they set off to explore the town.  The influence of the Spanish was clear in the cobbled streets and colonial buildings.  That evening, the team enjoyed the Cuban music on offer at the Music cafe and later during dinner at a little restaurant filled with antique furniture.

Old car Trinidad A tractor in Trinidad
We think it is under repair A surprisingly healthy horse
Exceptional value at 1.75 CUC for 500ml Sunset in Cuba’s Caribbean Capital
Classy dinner

The next morning, they were tasked with lazing on a nearby beach.  To reach Playa Acón, the team negotiated a 5km Coco taxi ride.  Coco taxis are a unique Cuban transport that is like a cross between a tuk-tuk and a carnival ride. Arriving at the Playa, the team did little else than swim, walk and eat ice cream until late that afternoon. With this challenge completed, the team returned to Trinidad for dinner and some more music.

Dudes on their velos heading to Playa Acón Towards Trinidad
Cuban crabs are tiny!
Simon enjoying the coco
Cuban dogs are cool Suburban Trinidad
Sitting and watching is a pastime Every house needs a lion on the roof
Warm nights in Trinidad Live music Trinidad style

The next morning the team once again boarded a Viazul bus north to the resort island of Varadero.  Once again this was a grocery run, with several stops being made on the indirect route that included Playa Girón and the Bay of Pigs.  Their scenic route included the hamlet of Australia.  Unfortunately the team were unable to get any photos as their bus raced through on its way to the next foodstuff pickup.

Hasten to battle, men of Bayamo! The motherland looks proudly to you…
The Bay of Pigs Highway to no where
Monument to the velo

Hours after departure, the team arrived in Varadero and were met by their friendly casa host. They set off to complete the main tasks for this town.  In order to receive their next clue, the team needed to laze on the beach some more.  Having gained considerable skill at this type of challenge, the team was easily able to complete this task in the perfect amount of time and were awarded their next clue.

It isn’t the Caribbean, but it’s still very nice More Playa

The next challenge was to walk to the far end of the island or near enough to ‘see what was there’.  The team attempted this late one evening, but after some kms, decided to return to their casa.  The next morning, the team travelled by foot and negotiated cheap tourist bus to the Plaza Los Americas, where they then walked along the beach back to their accommodation in Centro Varadero.

A revolutionary golf course in Cuba
More classic things Un Perro en la Playa

Having completed these two tasks, the team checked into the pit stop for this leg of the race, a bar on the beach that served drinks and snacks.  There they celebrated their first place with fresh swordfish and mojitos, negotiated for 5 CUC each.

Cuban sunset Post check-in walk on the beach
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