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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Medellin, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador

    Medellin turned out, just as the rest of Columbia, to be filled with nice people, rich culture, and meals of enormous proportions.  The food situation in Colombia is truly a cyclist's paradise, with heaping portions of extremely cheap food.  All meals come complete with a bowl, or bucket, of soup, a massive plate of meat, rice, salad, bananas and beans, and even a drink and sometimes even a pastry for desert.  The price of these meals that actually have the ability to put a dent in our hunger range from about $1.50 to $3. 
    After getting some work done on our bikes at one of the many incredibly nice shops in the city we were ready to push onto Cali where we would stay at our first Casa De Ciclistas “House for Cyclists”.  There are a number of Casa De Ciclistas in South America which are houses that are always available for cyclists to stay at no charge and in many cases for weeks at a time.  These spots can usually accommodate as many people as the road may deliver and the owners are always biking fanatics themselves who only ask that you inform and invite any and every cyclists you may encounter on the road.  
    The ride out of Medellin was like all rides out of major cities and we could not wait to get back into the mountains and away from the traffic.  Of course getting back into the mountains meant climbing back into the mountains so it was not long before we were crawling up the Andes at the blazing speed of about 3mph.  At the top of the first major climb we very excited to see a few familiar  faces taking a breather and grabbing a bite to eat at a small restaurant.  Surprisingly, we had run into Ingred, Sean, and Kate who we had not seen since Canada when we all camped on a beautiful lake located on the Stuart Cassiar Highway in northern British Columbia.  This was the English family living in Scotland that started cycling in Northern Canada and was heading to South America with their very brave and very personable 8 year old daughter (now 9) that rides tandem with her father.  We had much to talk about and spent an hour or so catching up before getting back on the road and finishing the day with a 20 mile decent. 
    Just before dusk we found ourselves in a small town with nowhere to stay so we headed to the police station to ask where we could pitch our tents for the night.  They were happy to assist us and showed us to the soccer field behind the station where we would be safe and have a very soft and level place to put our tents for the night.  Our normal 10 minute routine of setting camp and breaking down the bikes took over an hour as we had attracted a large group of local children that were intent on asking us a million questions and reciting every word of English that they had ever heard.  Seth had recently lost one of his cycling gloves so he gave one of the teenage boys his remaining glove who was ecstatic to receive such an unexpected gift.  The glove was immediately put on his right hand and was still there in the morning when he returned to watch us break camp and wave us off. 

    After such a long and beautiful decent the previous evening we knew we were in for some punishment as our destination for the day was well over 1000 meters gain in elevation.  We were not let down and spent the entire day crawling up switchbacks and traversing canyon walls.  Many of the roads in Colombia follow major rivers and it is always taunting to look over and see the water flowing in the opposite direction that we are traveling.  Nevertheless ever since the first major climb to Medellin we have been surrounded by some of the most beautiful country we have ever seen.  We both feel so lucky to be where we are and have the opportunity to see the incredible places we pass each and every day.  The terrain is tough but there is no place we would rather be.  We only have to open our eyes for the needed inspiration to continue heading further and further upwards and into the vast mountains of South America. 
    That night we made it to Rio Sucio which turned out to be a very cool mountain town with a large plaza that people from miles around gathered to on a beautiful Sunday evening.  There were thousands of people that seemed to be in very high spirits and drinking very strong spirits.  We soon learned that the next day was Colombian Labor Day and everyone was taking advantage of the holiday and partying it up so we decided to join them and sample some of the “exquisite” and delicious street food.  We each ordered two of the largest street burgers I have ever seen and sat in the plaza to watch the cowboys show off their skills with their finest horses.  This was very amusing as there was not a car in site but the cowboys would take turns high-stepping their decorated horses down the boulevard where all the women would cheer them on.
    When we left early the next morning there were still a number of horses roaming around the plaza while their riders were hanging on half conscience with a tight grip on the few remaining bottles of rum.  After navigating through these early morning shenanigans and getting back on the road we were expecting to start the day with a relaxing decent but instead still had another 5 miles or so of climbing before reaching the summit.  The view looking back at Rio Sucio was absolutely spectacular.

    The rest of the day boasted some of the best high elevation views of the trip followed by a huge decent into a valley that lead us to the industrial town of Buga.  It was here in the interesting city of Buga that we saw our second movie of the entire trip, Robin Hood.  Like the first movie we saw this one was also bootlegged and although the theatre was surprisingly decent, we could barely hear a single word of dialogue.  However, for a $1.50 we were thoroughly entertained by something other than our books. 
    Only 40km out of Cali and with no major change of elevation we were looking forward to an easy day.  After 15km we approached the turnoff to the road we would be taking into Cali but were halted by a roadblock guarded by the national police.  The cop informed us that the road was closed and that we could not pass to Cali.  He told us of another route which entailed backtracking some ridiculous distance to get to Cali but of course this was out of the question.  I said that we just needed to advance a few kms to a hotel where we would wait until the road reopened which of coarse was also out of the question.  The cop agreed to this allowing us to pass and long story short after a few strategic off road detours we were in Cali by that evening at Senor Herman Miller Yule's Casa De Ciclista.

With a name like Herman Miller Yule we were convinced that we would be greeted by a German ex-pat who like many Germans we have met have a love for long distance cycle touring.  To our surprise Senor Yule was 110% Colombian without a trace of any European decent.  Herman works long hours at the University in Cali so we were greeted by his mother and uncle who made us feel extremely welcome and were kind enough to slow down their Spanish for a couple of tired gringos.  We set up our tents in the back yard and headed to the store to grab a snack and a few well deserved beers.  On our way we were intercepted by a very polite young man who asked us in English if we were the cyclists staying at Herman's house.  We confirmed his inquiry and he introduced himself as one of Herman's tenants who was attending the University and studying English and Molecular Biology.  He asked if he could accompany us to the store as he jumped on every possible chance to practice his English.  When he heard that we were from the Bay Area he could barely contain his excitement and started asking us a million question about UC Berkeley and living in San Francisco.  Turns out his dream is to get his PHD at Cal when he finishes his undergrad studies in Colombia.  We gave him all of the info we could and he was very sad to hear that we were continuing on the next day.  I have no doubt that this kid will achieve his dream in attending an American University as his level of determination is incredible.  Not to mention he learned almost perfect English in less than two years of studying the language. 
    After Cali we headed back into the mountains towards Popayan which we reached after two days of climbing.  The most memorable part of this section were the roadside fruit stands that sold fresh pineapples 3 for $1. 

We also met and started riding with a Canadian cyclist named Byron who began his trip in Calgary.  As we entered Popayan we were motioned to the side of the road by a motorist who clearly wanted to speak to us.  He informed us he lived in the area and wanted to show  us a very good and cheap place to stay.  The place he escorted us to was perfect and this good samaritan introduced himself as Pedro who had just recently finished touring in Patagonia the previous year.  He gave us his number and email and said he may try to meet us on our way to San Augustine. 
        We had a great time  in the very beautiful city of Popayan that is characterized by its colonial style architecture and it's uniformly painted white buildings. 

We took the day off here to watch the first USA World Cup soccer game and the following day began one of the hardest and most incredible sections of our trip.  Byron had no interest in taking this route so we bid him farewell and headed off the beaten path and further into the mountains.  Just a few kms out of town we ran into Pedro and a group of his cycling buddies including one guy, Mark, who had lived in the US for years and spoke prefect English.  These guys were all fitted out in top of the line road gear and told us that they do this ride every morning up to where the pavement ends and back to Popayan.  Mark was very upset that Pedro did not tell him about us earlier as he wanted us to stay at his house and treat us to dinner.  He told us that all Americans (people from the US)  are his brothers and he told us to give any cyclists from the US heading to Popayan his contact info so he could take care of them.  We promised to return someday and continued onward.  As Seth began pedaling away one of the cyclists jumped off his bike and started running after to push him up the hill.  He could not believe how heavy our gear was.  
    Once the pavement ended and the dirt began we were surrounded by lush green countryside and the sound of bubbling trout streams and trickling waterfalls.

Without a vehicle in sight this is about as good as cycling gets.  Half way through the day we took a long break at some hot springs in middle of a picture perfect valley with numerous naturally heated pools and mud baths.  

That night we camped at a very small mountain town with a population of no more than 100 people on the edge of a slow moving river.  

It was freezing but was nice to once again need our sleeping bags for something other than a sleeping pad.  In the morning we started another day of riding in very remote, very cold, very wet and very pretty conditions to San Augustine. 

    San Augustine was the destination of our second Casa De Ciclista experience and could not have been more memorable.  When we approached the central plaza of the small mountain town we were stopped by a couple who asked if we were cyclists looking for the Casa De Ciclista.  They introduced themselves and informed us that they were also cyclists staying at the house and led us to where the owners, Igel and Paola, were finishing their beers in a local pub after watching a soccer game.  We all walked back to their spot together and were astounded by what we saw.  Igel and Paola own a beautiful home located on their large coffee finca.  The place was a cycling dream house with hammocks, extra rooms, covered camping areas, a big kitchen and enough room for numerous travelers to hang out in excessive comfort.  They even had a fridge full of FREE beer... seriously.

    Igel and Paola live a pretty relaxed life on their coffee finca and spend their time tending to their crops and hanging out with the many cyclists who pass through.  They also frequent a local bar called “La Oficina” which many of the ex-pats meet at on Mondays and inevitably prompts the joke every Monday evening of, “It was another tough day at the office.”  They are originally from Germany and left behind lives dominated by constant work.  Igel had a job that he worked 3 shifts a day and told us it took him about 2 years to get his mind and body to adjust to such a slower pace of life. 

    San Augustin is famous for being home to some of South America’s greatest archaeological sites.  The area is dotted with freestanding monuments and statues carved of stone left behind by a mysterious pre-Colombian civilization.  About 500 statues can be found spread out in groups in the region. Checking out the ruins and head figures was an excellent way to spend one of our days off the bikes, albeit getting from site to site was a little more difficult than we had hoped. 

Other than the two cyclists we met when we arrived in San Augustine, an Australian couple was also staying at the finca who arrived two weeks earlier on their motorbike.  Although these spots are for cyclists only they made an exception for these two as they had met them the previous year while touring in Argentina.  We had only planned to stay in San Augustine for a day but ended up staying three.  The Australians had only planned to pass through and stayed two weeks while the cycling couple broke the all-time record and had been there for six weeks by the time we left and were in negotiations to buy a plot of land of their own and  build a house.  These two only met 6 months earlier and have a petty interesting story.  They met in Bolivia while Joel was on a 6 week backpacking vacation from Belgium and she was cycling north from Argentina.  They hit it off and he decided to buy a bike and his 6 week vacation turned into an 8 month adventure that has no end in sight.
    Before we left Igel and Paola's finca we, like all cyclists who stay at their place, designed a bamboo plaque that they hung on the wall and planted a tree on the hillside.  The hill has over 75 trees planted by the various cyclists who have passed through their Casa De Ciclistas.  This is surely a place that we will always remember.
    After leaving San Augustine we had a 3 day ride to Mocoa then another 3 day ride from Mocoa to Pasto.  The stretch from Mocoa from Pasto is a stretch of dirt road notorious for being extremely hard riding and very dangerous for those who are brave enough to drive it.  

The riding was quite difficult with steep climbing and terrible road conditions not to mention it poured on us all three days.  

Every piece of advice we got was to leave an entire day for the first 20km of this ride because avergage speed for cycling this road is about 3mph.  We made it about 40km but it took us about 7.5 hours of straight riding to make this distance.  

We would only see about 10-15 vehicles a day on this road and we later learned from an engineer studying this route that 1000's of people have been killed in this area.  Last year there was an accident where over 200 people died from a massive landslide.  As you can see it can be a bit tough to see cars coming the opposite direction when the fog rolls in.

The ride was tough but incredibly beautiful and we were very happy we decided to leave the Pan American Highway for this remote detour.
    Our last day before arriving in Pasto we met Simon, an engineer who was writing his thesis on the road we were traveling.

He is getting his PHD at a university in London and was back in Colombia doing research before he had to return and finish his degree.  We exchanged emails and decided to meet up once we made it to Pasto for a few beers.  Not more than a few moments after parting ways with Simon, we were passed by one of the few cars that we saw that day.  I'm not really sure what to say about this other than this circus mobile was on one of the most remote and steepest roads we have ever seen.  Not sure where this thing came from or where it was going.

We finished another 7.5 hour day of climbing and arrived at Laguna la Cocha.  

We took a dirt trail 3 kms off the road out to where three plush resorts where located on the edge of a pristine lake.  It was evident that these places were way out of our price range but with only a few moments of daylight remaining we decided to see if we could strike a deal.  We chose a restaurant/lodge called El Jardin which had an amazing view of the lake and a large lawn in the front which would be perfect for camping.  As the place was empty I proposed to the owner that we would buy dinner and breakfast if he would let us camp for free.  After unsuccessfully trying to sell me on one of their luxurious rooms he agreed to the deal.  We had the entire restaurant to ourselves and were served a delicious dinner of vegetable soup and fresh trout from the lake.  This was one of the best camping spots we have stayed at in months.

This region is well known for a local specialty called cuy, or as we like to call it, guinea pig.

From the lake we had a short day to Pasto where we found a nice hostel and settled in for another USA World Cup game.  We also met up with Simon and his buddy Sebastian who is part owner of a candle factory located directly in the city of Pasto.  One beer turned into many and we ended up having a pretty late night which was a nice change from falling asleep at 8:00PM every night for the previous few weeks of riding in the mountains.  Sebastian spends most of his time at a piece of land that he owns in the country where he is attempting to build a house.  He recently experienced a major setback as he was cutting down a large Eucalyptus tree for lumber to build his house.  The tree did not quite fall the way that he had intended and he completely fattened his truck.  The vehicle still runs but he said he must stick his head out the window while driving to fit his body inside. 
    After watching the US pull out an incredible win against Algeria the following morning we hit the road and put in as many miles as we could before dark.  The following day we crossed the border into Ecuador and climbed our way up to San Gabriel where we decided to call it a day.  The next day we had a huge 30+ mile decent where I lost my entire seat bag which included my light and multi-tool.  The zipper on the bag had broken so I had secured the bag in an alternate location which turned out to be not so secure and fell off during the extremely long and high speed decent.  Backtracking was well out of the question but we did come up on these huge sculptures in the middle of the highway.

We stayed that night in the large city of Ibarra and departed early the next morning to put in our miles before the midday game against Ghana.  By chance we decided to stop at a small cafe in Cambaye and as we were securing our bikes we heard someone call out, “By any chance is one of you Seth?”  This certainly caught us by surprise and we were even more shocked to learn that the person asking was Eliza's, Seth's girlfriends, stepsister, Mia.  She had just been stationed in the small city of Cambaye for her Peace Corps. training and just happened to be watching the game in the same small cafe we decided to pull over and check out.  It was very nice to speak to some Americans while watching the match even though the game did not turn out in our favor.
          As we were leaving the cafe we were greeted by a group of three cyclists that were also finishing their day and looking for a place to stay.  The group included Marc, Indira, and Thomas who all know each other from San Francisco, Ca.  Marc started in Alaska and has been traveling for over two years now.  He met Indira while he was traveling through San Francisco and she decided to join him for the ride to Tierra Del Fuego.  Thomas was her neighbor and just flew down to Cali, Colombia to join the ride for a couple months to Peru. 

The five of us headed to the local fire dept where we were warmly greeted and invited to stay the night at no charge.  After a few games of volleyball with the firemen we all made some dinner and crashed in one of the departments extra rooms.

    The next day we rode five deep into Quito and ended up stopping every 5-10 miles to take a picture, buy some fruit, or eat some street food. 

Seth and I even stopped to pay $1 each to take a photo on the exact line of the equator!  Incredibly we crossed the middle of the Earth exactly 1 year from the day we started cycling in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.  It has been one hell of a year to say the least.

    We all arrived in the Quito area about midday and were intercepted by Santiago, the owner of the Casa De Ciclista in Tumbaco, who escorted us to his house.  We had made plans to stay with an Irish couple that we found on “Warm Showers” but were invited by Santiago to stay at his place for as long as we would like.  We accepted the invitation as we did not feel like navigating our way through the enormous metropolitan area of Quito to find the other spot.  When we arrived there were six cyclists and 2 motorists crashing at Santiago's place and we were immediately welcomed like family.  Santiago is a cycling legend here in Ecuador and has been housing cyclists for over 21 years and informed us that there is ALWAYS at least one cyclist staying at his house.  His property is set up perfectly to house numerous people at the same time with outdoor showers, extra rooms, a large flat lawn for camping, and even a full shop where he has two mechanics working full time.  We were immediately incorporated into the daily shopping, meals, and tours around the city.  Santiago has an incredible amount of energy and makes you feel as if you are the first person that he has ever shown his beautiful city to.
    Our first morning in Quito Seth and I caught the bus up into the city of Quito proper and navigated our way to the United States Embassy.  From the moment I arrived I knew that getting my new passport was going to be a battle.  The guard at the entrance would not let me pass as I did not have an appointment with the Consulate.  After much arguing with one of the women in the front office I was given a pass to plead my case to the Vice-Consulate.  After waiting in the lobby for about an hour I was called into the office and laid out my story and why I did not have the time or resources to be making appointments.  The Vice-Consulate was very understanding, deemed my situation an emergency, and told me to return in 6-10 days to pick up my new passport coming hot of the printer from the US.
    With that taken care of we could spend some time relaxing and checking out the sites and our surroundings.  Santiago spent a ton of time showing us around and even took us to his dealer so Seth could get a pair of discounted replacement gloves for his poor sunburned hands.  We also made a short move over to the apartment of the Irish couple that invited us to stay with them, Adrian and Ainsling Pugsley.  Adrian cooked us an incredible trout dinner and we traded traveling stories before retiring to our very own and very luxurious room.  Ainsling just signed a two year teaching contract at a British school and Adrian is working at a new bike shop that just opened in Quito that imports a German brand called Bull Bikes. 
    We have been splitting our time between Santiago's and the Pugsley's houses as well as doing some exploring around Quito.  Seth just got an email from an old friend, Jason Hench, that he played soccer with in Marin.  Jason is living and working out on the coast for a non-profit involved in the preservation of the rainforest.  He invited us to come stay with him for a few days so we are catching a bus at 11:00PM tonight and headed to the beach.  This is a very pleasant surprise because we had not expected to hit the beaches of Ecuador as our route is through the mountains.  Everyone is telling us we are in for quite a treat and we are more than ready for some seaside relaxation.  On our return we are planning to give a presentation to the local SAE (South American Explorers).  We also picked up another rider, Juanita, who will be joining us for a few weeks through Cotopaxi. 
    After one year on the road we want to thank our family, friends, and sponsors who continue to offer us the incredible amount of support needed to reach our goal in Tierra Del Fuego.  Already this trip has turned out to be more than we could have ever imagined thanks to your help.  From Quito, Ecuador (more than half way done) we would like to once again say, THANK YOU!



Scott said...

I don't know what's more: your prostate from sitting on a bike for 365 days or the vast experiences you guys have taken in crossing half the earth.

Thanks for sharing. Keep on rockin.

Anonymous said...

Great Pictures!! looks like that trip is only getting better. Luis (el salvavor)

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