< Colombia | Northern Peru >



I spent a while at the Colombia-Ecuador border chatting it up with the money changers before I left. They were a good source of information on the road ahead, and were curious about my trip on a person-to-person level, rather than the series of rapid-fire questions level. God knows I love to chit-chat, and it was a good 30 minutes of shooting the breeze between getting my exit stamp and crossing the small bridge to Ecuadorian immigrations.

In light of my experience with Colombian immigrations, I decided that joking was not in order, so I listed my profession on the immigration form as the relatively tame “fighting-cock breeder”, rather than the usual “international jewel thief” or “organ trafficker”. Apparently, “fighting-cock breeder” is a high-demand profession here, as I was granted a 90 day visa. And so after enjoying a 35 cent cup of coffee, I started the climb up to Tulcán.

And I immediately thought that the drivers here were all nuts! The northbound traffic had completely blocked the southbound lane, and so I had to ride against speeding traffic all the way to the outskirts of town. There I realized that there was an entirely different road for southbound traffic, and it was I who was riding in the wrong direction.

In town I didn’t see anything to compel me to stop, and so found the road south and took it. While still in town, I got a flat rear tire (my second flat in South America). I commandeered a section of the sidewalk and changed it. And then rode on.

Leaving town, there was a 1000ft or more climb to deal with, with views of nearby volcanoes and dark clouds speeding towards me. The clouds never caught up, thank god, because at my altitude that would have been some really cold rain. It turned out that the climb was just up to a pass, because I descended towards a valley-like area after a bit and ended my first day in Ecuador with another flat rear tire as I rolled into the town of San Gabriel.

There I took a $3 room at the local residencias and went on a $10 shopping spree at the local supermarket. Considering a bag of milk only cost 60 cents, and a one lbs. bag of quinoa (!) cost a dollar, you can imagine just how much food I bought. I spent the rest of the evening stuffing most of it into my face and then feeling pretty sick after imbibing triple milk rations.

What remained of the food after my gluttonous frenzy fueled me for the next day down, down, down to the Chota valley and to a town of purely African descendants (I’d never encountered any sizeable African population at this altitude before, so I was curious about how it came to be there, but not curious enough to stop and ask). The Chota valley was warm and dry, and since I still had a good amount of food left, I saw no reason to stop as I rode through it, except to occasionally convert food to fuel. The road down, however, is worth special mention because as I turned a corner leaving San Gabriel, I saw my first giant snow covered volcano. That stayed in sight as the road followed the edge of a canyon which as far as I could tell was bottomless (I believe that it is bottomless). While still high up in my descent, farms descended down the hills to the event horizon of the canyon, and I found them all to be beautiful. Down lower, it was too arid for that…

After a while of flat or rolling riding through the Chota valley, I saw a road switch-back up the hill, and a little later, realized that it was my road. So I went into the lower gears for a while, and summited next to a fragrant landfill, and finally descended into the town of Ibarra (birthplace of the last great Inca resistance leader, I think). I rode through Ibarra up and along the hump of the local volcano, all the while enticed, but not seduced, by signs for delicious grilled guinea pig. The road took me through a sort of low point between three large volcanoes, past a lake which looked like Lago de Atitlan, Jr. and finally up, up, up and then down, down, down to the town of Cayambe. There I quit for the day, and wandered around town while Ecuadorian teenage girls giggled and cast furtive glances my way as I walked past. After a week of hard riding without a shower, I can’t imagine I looked or smelled particularly good, but who knows.

I woke up the next morning to rain. Dang it. I took longer than usual getting ready hoping it would stop, but it didn’t. And so I headed down out of town freezing until I surrendered bit by bit, and put on my cold weather gear. I guess I was pretty high up after all…

And after a shorter while than I expected, I saw a town which seemed somewhat out of place, and realized that I’d just crossed the equator. So I went over to the monument, took a couple of pictures, and got back on the bike. I’d just ridden for a year, down 70 degrees of latitude and east 70 degrees as well. Somehow what that meant failed to impress itself upon me at the monument. Maybe it was the rain…

The rain did stop eventually, and I began the long slow climb (my legs were pretty dead after riding from Bogotá to Quito with just one rest day and several bucket loads of climbing, so when I say slow, I really mean “slooooow”). Eventually I made it, and did what I always do when coming into a city.

After over two weeks of waiting for my tires to clear customs, and also having three different conflicting responses as to the status of my package from UPS depending on whether I called from Quito, my mom from the US, or the tire company called from wherever they are, I decided to just go down to UPS and see if some physical presence could produce the package.

Sure enough it was there, and by some crazy coincidence UPS had only received it from customs earlier that very same day…

My time in Quito was spent waiting around for the package, and I regret that. The next time I’ve got an unknown wait for something to come, I’m just going to take off exploring via the bus, and come back when I know the package is ready for me to liberate it. Right now I’m pretty pissed off at UPS for the way they’ve handled things, but at least they didn’t charge me any customs duties. Actually, I think they meant to, but in a moment of confusion, I took the package and ran off.

So I finally got to get back on the road, and after an eternity riding south of Quito, finally left its orbit and made it out into the country. And into the rain. My legs began to complain, I got soaking wet, and said “Nuts to this, I’m calling it a day!”. So I stopped at the junction town of Aloág and took shelter. The rain continued to pour through the night, and the clouds were there thick as ever the next morning. Normally this wouldn’t bother me overly much, but they completely obscured my view of several giant snow covered volcanoes. Their threat of rain on this day never produced more than a drizzle, and so I stopped short again in the city of Latacunga, hoping for a view of the volcanoes the next day.

No such luck. Thick clouds again hung low in the sky and obscured my view of Chimborazo (a 20,700 ft peak) completely. The only way I could tell I was near it were the signs pointing in its presumed direction, and the absolutely breathless altitude I had to climb to (12,000 ft) to get to the city of Riobamba.

Again I hoped for a view of Chimborazo the next morning, and again clouds completely covered the sky. My climbing for that day topped out somewhere past the indigenous town of Cajabamba (“bamba” is qichwa for valley, so whenever I see a town on the map with “bamba” in its name, I know I’m in for more climbing). And although I was denied a view of every major peak in Ecuador except Cayambe, I did get to see something I wasn’t really expecting to see at all —quinoa being cultivated in the fields. I’m a pretty big nut for gardening when I have access to land, so seeing quinoa triggered an euphoric geek response that made the rest of the day fly by.

Well, relatively. First I had to descend through some dense fog into the town of Alausí. But with that accomplished I took a contemplative stroll around the town, reflecting on quinoa and other indigenous crops in the new world. I also reflected on the fact that I haven’t seen a llama in the fields yet, and am getting pretty impatient to see one.

From Alausí the road turned for the worse, and I was sliding over loose rocks uphill to the town of Cunchi where the good pavement finally returned. At a restaurant just outside town, I met a guy named Nacho who used to live in New Jersey. He was originally from Ecuador, but his parents live in New Jersey now. We talked about some of the differences between Ecuador and the US, and he was grateful for the opportunity to speak English with someone (my Spanish is such that it’s usually just easier to speak in Spanish).

The road from Chanchi climbed through the fog. As it continued to climb, the fog began to lift and rain began to fall. It started to fall harder and harder until on every slight descent the drops of rain felt sharp in my eyes. In these conditions I continued to climb and descend to the junction town of Zhud. Beyond there the rain doubled its force, and the fog returned. The road became the worst I’ve seen in a long time (I find bad pavement to be worse than bad dirt, and this road was perhaps the best proof of that).

Finally as darkness was coming on, I pulled into the town of Tambo, frozen cold and starving, and took a $4 room at the local residencias (“Residencia” is the magic word for dirt cheap accomodations in Ecuador). After stuffing my face with some bread and milk I found, I crawled into my sleeping back and passed out shivering. But for all that, my spirits were incredibly high that day. The day before I was overwhelmed by a sense of lonliness, the first which I’d experienced in several months. And so the swing in my mood by the next morning was unexpected and very welcome. I didn’t mind the dirt I had to ride on, I loved talking with Nacho, and the road to Zhud was downright pleasant to ride on. It was only after Zhud when altitude caused the trees to disappear from the land, oxygen from the air, and strength from my legs that I started to feel desperate and cold.

On the next morning, I was greeted with a cold headwind and a climb back up to 12,000ft. Devoid of oxygen and full of agony, I slowly climbed over the pass. Finally at the top I was saved by a 3000ft descent which banished the cold wind and brought oxygen back to my legs and lungs. It did nothing to relieve the soreness in my legs, however. And so, I followed a rolling road the remaining 20 miles into Cuenca, and decided it was time to take a day off.

After my day off in Cuenca, I orienteered my way out of town and onto the road leading south. The road led through more pastoral valleys with pine and eucalyptus climbing the hills. In one town, I saw a procession of faithful carrying a statue of the virgin Mary complete with marching music. Overall, the road was nearly flat and the weather was pleasant and the miles rolled under my tires.

I eventually came to an intersection which led on the one hand over another 12,000ft pass from my current altitude of around 8500ft and up and down to Loja, and on the other hand to a 8500ft descent to the coast. On a whim, I decided to burn 8500ft of hard earned elevation and see what the Ecuadorian coast had to offer.

Well, I never quite saw the coast, but here’s how the climate changed as I descended: lush grass and cool air, to warmer air, to scrub land, to wind-swept badland, to scrub land, to tropical, to really humid and more densely tropical. The road didn’t descend the whole time; no road in Latin America can be that kind. And the wind-swept part of the road was more wind-blasted-in-my-face-so-I-had-to-pedal-to-descend-a-five-degree-slope. Also the road sucked and I had to be ever vigilant for potholes.

But I made it down to the dirty town of Pasaje after 95 miles of riding, found a cheap hotel and a cheap chinese restaurant and set to work relaxing for the night. While in my room, deciding what I was going to do for the day, I realized that I was really close to the Peruvian border. Before taking the route to the coast, I was still about four days off, but suddenly, I found myself with 45 miles of Peru. So I set out to find the exchange rate, read up on the border crossing and generally inform myself as to the situation I would soon encounter.

Well, the news wasn’t good. My guidebook repeatedly said that this crossing was the most dangerous of all the crossings into Peru from Ecuador, and that I would surely be a victim of some foul crime. But what the guidebook didn’t account for was that I was stinky, uncaring, and most importantly: I had a bicycle.

And so the next morning, I left Pasaje through banana plantations and drizzle. The drizzle stopped, the plantations stopped, and the tropical foliage became more scrub-like as I went south until at the border town it was more savanna than forest.

I passed immigrations, and by the time I stopped to ask someone where the office was, I was informed it was two and a half miles back the way I came. Dang it! I turned around, trudged the two and a half miles, got my exit stamp, turned around again and trudged the two and a half miles by to where I had to turn around the first time. From there it was another half mile to the border bridge, through street stalls and a mass of human traffic and into Peru.

< Colombia | Northern Peru >