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.

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