Sunday, June 28, 2015

Beautiful Markets and Amazing People, June 25th-28th

Ibarra-Otavalo-Cayambe-Yaruqui-Chaquiñan Bike Path-Quito

Before the latest blog updates, a few things we've loved so far about Ecuador:
1) There are real crosswalks in the cities, complete with the beeping noise for blind people. This means that people actually have a chance of crossing the street safely.
2) There are school buses with a stop sign on the back. Whether people actually stop when kids are getting off, well that's another story.
3) They're making an effort towards good nutrition! Every piece of food in a package is labeled with the level of sugar, fats, and salt.
4) Grocery stores have things we like to eat, including cans of beans without ham or bacon!

June 25th
In the morning, we find that Cecilia has made us a delicious breakfast of fresh fruit juice, papaya, and a local classic: large corn kernels with bread and cheese. So delicious.  After hanging out and chatting for a little longer with this friendly family, we say our goodbyes.
Thanks again to Mario, Cecilia, Carol, Ivan, and Henry!
It was hardest to say goodbye to the adorable puppies! 

They're so cute! 

We ride on the Pan-Am to Otavalo. A big road like this is never our first choice, but with easy grades, smooth pavement, and a whipping tailwind, we're in Otavalo in no time.

Once in the city we find the Plaza de los Ponchos, the central square well known for its bustling market.  We leave our bikes at a nearby parking garage and set off for a shopping adventure.
The market is completely overwhelming. Stall after stall, bursting with colorful goods.  Basically anything you can imagine made from alpaca and sheep wool; socks, hats, sweaters, blankets, etc. We wander around for a while, wondering at how soft and beautiful everything is.  Eventually we are able to decide on a few purchases, presents for friends and family. We know we have to bargain because they're giving us the gringo prices, but it's almost impossible to argue with these adorable little old ladies!
That's a market

Ok- I purchased a completely unnecessary miniature llama made from alpaca wool. Her name is llamita, meaning "little llama."

Here she is, riding proudly on the handlebars

Shopping complete, we go out for some cheap chinese food: huge plates of noodles and veggies. Chinese restaurants (chifas) are surprisingly common in Ecuador, and there are always vegetarian options!

It's already getting late, so we decide to see if we can stay with the bomberos in town. Turns out that the fire station is very close to the Plaza de los Ponchos, and the firefighters are incredibly nice and welcoming.  We are given a whole tour of the station and access to the kitchen and laundry!
It suffices to say that the Otavalo bomberos are the best!

We spend the late afternoon exploring the main market, buying bags of fresh fruits and veggies, and trying some of the local street food: chocolate filled churros, choco-bananas, and some sort of corn creation, which is delicious.

Make it at home!
-white pea-like things (chochos), which we learn later are lupine seeds
-lettuce, tomato and onion salad
-lime and tomato sauce
-salt and seasonings
-hot sauce
-toasted corn (kind of like corn nuts)
-plantain chips
Put all these in a bowl and you have a sour, sweet, salty, spicy, amazing snack!
Cevichocho! Yummy :-)

At night, outside the fire station is some sort of celebration for a festival that is going on, the Fiesta de San Pedro.  There is a circle of musicians playing stomping music, and another circle of people dancing around them.  People are in costumes, and I see someone go by with a bowl of candy.  It reminds me in a wierd way of Halloween. We enjoy watching for a bit, then put in earplugs and go to sleep.

Otavalo is an amazing city- here's some of the reasons we loved it
1) It's cool to be in the places we read about in the book The Queen of Water.  If you're traveling to Ecuador, definitely read this book.
2) An overabundance of restaurants and delicious food.
3) A backdrop of huge volcanos.
4) Colorful markets.
5) A fun mix of people: tourists and Ecuadorians, many in beautiful indigenous dress.
Mote (corn) drying on the sidewalk 

June 26th
After some oatmeal at the fire station, we roll out. Someone has incorporated a small lane for bikes along the cobbled streets that lead out of town, which we appreciate. Then it's back on the Pan-Am. Under different circumstances, we would have avoided this road, but since we have a timeline to get to Quito, we decided to take the fast and direct option.  Luckily, we have a good shoulder all day, and the traffic is not as bad as I would have expected for such a big road.
Heading out of town, we have a series of climbs, made bearable by the beautiful views of the towering Imbabura volcano and the lake at its base.


Not too bad for the Pan-Am

At the top, we stop to appreciate a local specialty: hot chocolate made with milk, flaky biscotti things (biscochos), and cheese.  We are still unsure why cheese is always served with hot beverages here. Are you supposed to dip it in the hot chocolate? (Later update from an Ecuadorian: yes, you put it in the hot chocolate to balance the sweetness.)
As we descend into the next valley, a new volcano looms on the horizon: Cayambe, an impressively jagged and snowy peak.
Ready for the descent! 

 Just in time for lunch, we roll up to the destination I've been looking forward to: the equator! 

We've been counting down all morning to 0 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.

We find a beautiful monument which acts not only as a marker, but also as an enormous sun dial.  The southern hemisphere, as you might expect, looks and feels exactly like the north, but it's still a novelty to stand with one foot in each.

How cool is it that we biked here?!

After a leisurely lunch, we set back off down the road, and ride for a few hours straight.  The wind has been strong all day, but it really picks up in the afternoon.  As we ride through a dry and dusty valley, trucks passing and the swirling wind throw us off balance and make our eyes burn. It's not a great ride, but at least we have a new goal in sight.  Cotopaxi and Quito on the horizon!

Some desert scenery 

As the day comes to an end, we start looking for a place to camp, but the roadside is either industrial or filled with small houses packed close together.  When we finally come upon a few houses with fields, we are chased away by large packs of dogs.  Tired, we give up and pay for a cheap hotel.

June 27th
We're quick to pack up, and it's not too long on the Pan-Am before we turn off onto a bike path that we've heard about. Some cyclists told us that it would be easy to find, but we missed the turn.  Luckily, a nice lady on the side of the road told us how to pick it up in the town of Puembo, and we were off!
The first portal

The path is built over an old railway line, and often you can see the old rails poking up through the dirt.  Surface is variable, with some packed dirt, some sand and some gravel, but all ridable on our bikes.  

We're happy to see a bunch of mountain bikers out enjoying the day as well.  It looks like this is a popular place to ride on Saturdays.  The path is lined by lush greenery, and takes us through a beautiful canyon with a series of tunnels! 
Approaching the tunnels

Yikes- it's dark in here!

We're flying through the suburbs of Quito with no traffic, on a perfectly graded path; it's a good morning.

At the end of the path, we run into some road bikers who helpfully explain the best route into the city. The route is well-marked with signs informing cars to watch for cyclists, and people who pass are all respectful.  The only drawback is that it's a very steep climb.  Slowly, we begin to pedal our way up.  About halfway we stop for a break and a lady who drives past stops to see if we need anything.  Meet Michelle O. Fried, a mother with a huge heart, and author of two amazing cookbooks on Ecuadorian food.  After talking for a few minutes, she invites us to her house for some cold water.  Upon arrival we are not only treated to water, but also some home-brewed lemongrass ginger beer, flaxseed sourdough pita bread, sourkraut, and oil and vinegar infused with exotic fruits. Wow. Everything is so good! Thank you, Michelle, for your kindness and delicious food.
Michelle in the kitchen

Are you hungry yet? 

If you'd like to check out Michelle's cookbooks or just drool over the pictures, as we did, check out
In Quito, her books can be found at the Librería Española, at Mr. Books, or at the Supermaxi. Happy eating!

Stomachs happy, we finish our hill climb up to the city. Once on the main city arteries, there's a bit of tricky riding doging buses and the like, but it's not too long before we arrive at the house of our warmshowers host.
So begins a wonderful evening filled with baking fresh bread and cookies, cooking up some stir fry, and most importantly, sharing crazy cycling stories.  What a fantastic place we have to stay tonight!
Some of our own home-baked bread. Brain bread, Ecuadorian style.

June 28th
Hanging out with our friendly Warmshowers host, biking through the city, and then meeting Danny's parents this afternoon! 

Getting ready for a week-long adventure to the Galapagos! We promise stories of adventures and beautiful pictures upon our return to the mainland. 

Route/Area Notes:
- The Pan-Am is big until the junction just north of Cayambe, where it shrinks to two lanes.  The shoulder remains and a lot of the traffic goes the other way, so the riding was not bad.

- The Otavalo bomberos were super nice and accommodating, and only about two blocks from the big market at the Plaza de los Ponchos.

Read on for the best way to enter Quito on bicycle! (It's the only way I've done, so I really can't be sure, but it was pretty darn awesome.)

- The Chaquiñan bike path was a traffic-free way to reach Cumbaya (though there was a fair amount of bicycle traffic on the Saturday we were there). The route was somewhat hard to find; we actually missed it where it crossed the Pan-Am and sought out another way by asking around. Apparently the path crosses the big road just south of the roundabout junction of the Pan-Am and the connector to the airport, the "Y" shape just south of Yaruqui. We went all the way almost to the next big intersection, where we took a right on an unnamed street. It's the only long road to the right after the river and before the next big intersection. Follow that street northwest for a few kilometers until you see the old rail lines! The path was very doable with our 1.6" tires, but it might be iffy on skinny road slicks. For more info, see here.
Update: we drove by the path on our way to and from the airport, and yes, it does cross the Pan-Am just south of the intersection just south of Yaruqui. Look for a yellow "Golden Bear Lubricants" sign on the west side of the road next to a pedestrian bridge. From there, you should see a big reddish arch set back a little ways on the west side of the road. 

- From the end of the path in Cumbaya, some road cyclists directed us to Quito on a roundabout, hilly way that totally avoids the traffic. At no point did we feel we were approaching a huge city. "Ciclistas en la via" signs all over the place, and on the weekends, lots of people out and about. 
1) Turn right on the road the bike path dumps you out on (towards the conspicuous bike shop). Stop at the bakery at the corner. Eat some fantastic bread.
2) Take a right onto the bike lane with yellow dividers. Follow the bike lane as it turns right again onto Via Lactea. Soon after, it turns into a painted lane rather than the dividers. Keep going. Go down and down and down some more, cross a bridge, then climb up and up and up to the town of Nayon. The road name changes to Manuela Saenz before Nayon. 
3) Arriving in Nayon, there's a sign pointing left to Quito. Follow it. The road will dead end. Go left, then take your first right. Follow that for a few blocks. At the 5th right, a bigger cross street, go left, and follow that wonderful quiet street all the way to the eastern edge of Quito! Soon after Nayon, you'll follow an overpass over a huge highway and have a chance to thank the cycling gods that you are on the back road!

- Riding in Quito: 
If you have a chance, the ciclopaseo is on Avenida Amazonas on Sundays, ending at 2. Riding through the Parque Bicentenario is an experience as well, as it's the old airport and you're literally riding anywhere you like on the runways.
I couldn't find any bike maps of the city, nor was there any useful info on Open Cycle Maps. Fortunately, however, I did find this barebones map. Hopefully you can see it. Email me for the full size photo.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Welcome to Ecuador! June 21-24

Popayan-Ipiales-Tulcán-El Ángel-Ibarra

In order to make it to Quito on time, we decided to take a bus from Popayan to Ipiales, on the border with Ecuador. Ronald helped us figure out the buses then saw us off. With great company and food, our stay at his place in Popayan was wonderful! Thanks again for everything!
Holding up the "Popayan" bracelets Ronald got us

The bus was, well, a long bus ride, not much more to say. We did find it rather confusing as to why we were speeding along in this megabus at excessive speeds, passing trucks and other buses on winding mountain roads, but then we stopped for breakfast for an hour . Can't people bring snacks? 

After transferring buses in Pasto, we rolled in to Ipiales. There are a bunch of cheap hotels next to the bus terminal, so we bedded down for the night, both of us intensely engaged in our books (Dune for Tam and Cryptonomicon for me).

Instead of simply heading out of Colombia the next day, we had one more thing to see: the church at Las Lajas. Like other religious sites, this one was formed from a seemingly insignificant event (a child telling her mom that a mestizo was calling to her) but has now become, with its breathtaking bridges and waterfalls, a place of peace and spirituality popular with tourists and pilgrims. 

Soon after leaving the Santuario, we crossed into Ecuador! Despite the long line, this was one of our easiest crossings yet. Total time spent talking with officials from both countries: maybe one minute. 

We ascended to Tulcan, continuing through the town until we found what we were looking for:
young, muscular Hitler brandishing a rifle?

This unmistakeable statue was mentioned by a cycling blog ( as the marker for the turn off the Pan-Am and up into the mountains. We took the smaller road with gusto, leaving the traffic behind and climbing at first past farms, their checkered shades of green and brown spread over the hills below, and then past wild páramo, the El Angel Ecological Reserve. The road turned muddy as a light rain began to fall but thankfully stayed rideable even though the going was slow (our recent mud practice in Colombia was paying off!). The same cycling blog as before mentioned the reserve's visitor center as being a great place to stay, but we didn't make it there and instead pulled off the road to camp in a meadow. 

After a night of rain, the mud and puddles in the road had deepened to often unrideable depths. Couple that with tons of rocks, and we were churning through a simultaneously slippery yet bumpy ride, no easy going for us on our mid-size touring tires. Had we been passing farms, I might not have been so happy, but the beauty of the untouched expanse of páramo made up for any physical difficulties. 

You never know how deep it's going to be...

At one point we were approaching a turn and just around the bend was a herd of wild llamas! They were so ridiculously cute, like shaggy deer with extra-long necks, and we stopped to watch them feed and walk around looking silly.

As we began riding again, one of the llamas ran ahead of us in the road. It must have thought we were chasing it. We stopped riding whenever it turned around to attempt to return to the group, but it was too scared of us to pass on the narrow track. After playing this game for multiple kilometers, finally it summoned up the nerve to run by as we crouched behind our bikes trying to appear inconspicuous.

Around midday we arrived at the visitors center and were treated to some warm drinks and friendly company by the park staff. We also enjoyed chatting with Katrin and Daniel, a super nice couple visiting for a few weeks from Switzerland.  Then we began the descent. The road was pretty bumpy, as before, though much less muddy on this side, and we made it out of the clouds before I realized that the constant shaking had jarred loose my glasses case. It was up on the road somewhere. Fortunately some of the park staff had picked it up while motoring down the hill and passed it off to me as I rode back up, no harm done.  
I have a love-hate relationship with cobbles, mostly hate.

The road turned from mud, to dirt, to rocks, to cobbles, then back to mud again before we reached the town of El Angel and found a cheap hotel, our bodies exhausted from the constant shaking. We went out to eat, happily finding non-sweet white bread (Colombian bread is astronomically sweet) and enjoying, as well, a flavorful meal for just a couple of dollars.

Leaving El Angel the next morning took a while, as our bikes needed some work after the mud, but we finally got on the road and enjoyed a quick 5,000 foot descent to meet up with the Pan-Am.
We appreciated the pavement every second of the way. Riding past fields of sugar cane, we started climbing again immediately and reached Ibarra in time for lunch, a delicious mix of lentils, rice, plantains, and eggs. 

Interesting geology approaching Ibarra

Just before leaving Ibarra, I ran in to a store to find Wi-Fi, and while I was in there, Tam started talking with a guy named Mario who invited us to his house! He lives a few kilometers out of town, and when we stopped in, his family was really welcoming, even to the point of pressuring us to stay longer than the one night we had planned! We played basketball with young Ivan and talked awhile in English with teenage Carol, who had just returned from an exchange program in the U.S.  Mario showed us around the factory of his shirt-making business and gave us new t-shirts! We were so fortunate to meet this family; many thanks to Mario, Cecilia, Carol, and Ivan.

Route/Area Notes:
- We didn't feel like a hilly out-and-back, so we took a colectivo to Las Lajas from the bus terminal in Ipiales for COP$2,200 (roughly $1) per person. 
- Leaving Colombia and entering Ecuador were both free and hassle-free.
- The El Angel road has zero traffic and good dirt up to above maybe 10,000 feet on the Tulcan side, where it gets quite bumpy and muddy if it has been raining (which is likely). More of the same on the El Angel side, with less mud but more bumps, and cobbles for numerous kilometers when nearing the town of El Angel. El Angel to the Pan-Am is all paved.
- Lots of traffic on the Pana, but always either a shoulder or multiple lanes. Six-lane highway south of Ibarra. Very few services in the kilometers north of Ibarra. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Warm People, Cold Weather: June 16-20

La Plata-Inza-Totoró-Popayan

After spending way too long playing with some newborn kittens, we set off from La Plata with rested bodies and bellies full of oatmeal, thanks to the kindness of Juan, his mother Neily, and Isabel.
Isabel and Juan

Our road followed the south bank of the Paes River, a frothing, turbulent mass of muddy twists and turns and near-continuous Class IV and V rapids - basically a death sentence for all but an experienced paddler. Watching the torrents below kept us entertained for a while, and the lack of traffic and smooth road surface made for a fantastic morning bike ride.

Unfortunately, when we turned away from the river and began to climb, the traffic picked up a bit, mostly dump trucks from all the construction on this road. Every truck would kick up a dense fog of dust as it passed, so we welcomed the impending rain. Fortunately, even with a downpour, the dirt didn't get too muddy, and less dust made for a better ride.
We had no idea of what was to come.  

After crossing another raging river and going up and down some hills, we climbed up to the town of Inza.
Crazy rapids!

In the U.S, you're not cool if you sit in the front of the bus. In Colombia, you're not cool if you sit inside the bus! This bus sped by with about 20 students on top and many more packed inside.

The view from Inza

The friendly security guard at the local school let us camp right out front while the rest of the town watched the soccer match. We're used to people getting excited about soccer--the countrywide camaraderie is incredible--but this was on a whole other scale; apparently Colombia beat Brazil for the first time in 23 years! The locals celebrated, as I might too if I were a Colombian soccer fan, by driving around and honking.

With the assistance of earplugs, we slept well and started climbing again early the next morning. Yesterday's rain, the continuous dampness of winter (in June, yes), and all the construction traffic had turned the road into a slippery, muddy mess. Our wheels stuck in some sections and slid around in others, and each pedal was a challenge, especially where heavy trucks had sunk in and created crisscrossing vertical ridges of mud. Numerous people had told us that there was pavement just a short ways after Inza--unfortunately getting there was even more difficult than tough pedaling or even walking. Here's why:
That's Tam's (former) derailleur in multiple pieces

We were making good progress pedaling slowly through the muck when I heard a wrenching sound from Tam's bike. She ground to a halt, her chain having seized up with gritty mud and broken off the derailleur, pulling it into the spokes and bending the part of the frame that the derailleur is attached to, the derailleur hanger, in the process.


You may recall that this has happened before. A year ago we were slogging through similar mud in northern Alaska when the exact same thing happened to Tam, only she was able to stop before the derailleur broke. With the help of other cyclists and a giant wrench from a truck stop (the only anything for many miles around), we were able to bend everything back into shape and continue riding to Fairbanks, where Tam, expecting the formerly bent derailleur to break at any moment, picked up a new one. But, miraculously, it never broke. It lasted all the way to here, and the new derailleur was still new and in Tam's bag! Even more miraculously, this break happened right in front of a mechanic's shop and a restaurant! Normally there isn't much along this road; these services were set up temporarily to support the construction. We couldn't believe our luck.

With the help of some friendly construction guys, we removed the broken stuff, bent the derailleur hanger back in line (more or less), installed the new derailleur, and ate a warm lunch, all in under an hour!

Working on the bike

Success! New, shiny derailleur

Feeling proud of ourselves, we pedaled onward through more rain, finding the pavement just two kilometers from where we had broken down. From there the going was fast, but now, above 9,000 feet, the cold rain and wind were becoming a challenge by themselves. Tam, I'm sure, was counting the days until she would receive her new rain jacket in Quito, which would surely be more waterproof than her current hoodless windbreaker.
Pavement, yessss

We had to stop and wait awhile at around 10,000 feet for a landslide to be cleared, and upon starting again were just kind of fed up with the cold wind and rain. We were fully in the clouds, no sign of a break in the weather, so upon finding a small restaurant, we stopped. Inside we found laughter, warmth, and the most delicious hot chocolate and buñuelos in the world (a buñuelo is a fried ball of corn flour and cheese). The happy folks inside, Lucila, Wilson, and Natalie, took good care of us, and when I asked if we could camp outside, Lucila looked shocked; she had already prepared a bed with about fifteen blankets! We played some music then drifted off, listening to the wind howl outside.

Lucila and Natalie

Restaurante La Cascada, an unassuming little outpost, is worth a long stop if you're in the area!

The next morning we said adios to our new friends and continued up to the top of the pass. There were no fences next to the road at the top, no farmland, just high elevation páramo, a marshy ecosystem similar to moors.  
Frailejones hiding in the mist

We soon descended again into the land of cows, climbing up another small pass before finally dropping way down towards Popayan. Stopping for lunch in Totoro, we started talking with the people in the restaurant and soon were telling about our exotic North America and learning the local indigenous language, which was apparently the first in South America, according to one guy. We ended up chatting for hours. 
The restaurant crew

Ema tried my helmet on for size 

Back on the road, the descent to Popayan took no time at all and we found ourselves soon at the home of Ronald, whom we had contacted through Warmshowers. Maybe the nicest person ever (tied with all the people we have met over the past few days), Ronald welcomed us in. Tam hasn't been feeling well, so we are staying the next day as well at his place in Popayan.

Popayan: The White City

Route notes:
- Paved from La Plata for a number of kilometers, then decent dirt to Inza. Construction trucks but little other traffic. After Inza, rutted and deep mud for a bit, tough but mostly rideable with medium to thick tires, motivation, and okay conditions. Paved about 10km after Inza, some bumpy dirt again near the top of the pass, paved on the first downhill, bumpy dirt again on the next big uphill, then paved to Popayan.