Leaving Ecuador

23 12 2009

I’ll miss Ecuador. The landscapes, my friends, my students, the food…


Near the Colombian border: My world is changing. I don’t know exactly what to expect from Colombia but I suspect the changes I’m seeing here in Northern Ecuador are influenced by Colombia.  I’ve been climbing steadily and so the weather is colder. People are unbelievably polite, buying me drinks and offering me gifts more than usual. Bicycle repair shops are everywhere, and more cyclists too. The Lonely Planet travel guide says soccer and CYCLING are the most popular sports in Colombia. I have also heard from other touring cyclists that Colombians love both cycling and the cyclists that tour their country. I have been advised to expect plenty of generosity. I’m trying not to get my hopes up, but they are up. Like Machu Picchu (which was out-of-this-world amazing) tourists over and over guarantee me Colombia really is as amazing as everybody says. So I have high hopes for this country, and like Machu Picchu, I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.


It was great having company on the ride. People always ask me, “Why are you riding alone?” I respond, “Would you like to join me?” They laugh and say I’m crazy. I say, “I’ve been told that a few times.” But Lucy was crazy enough to spontaneously join me for a few days. It’s good practice too, because I’ll have another riding partner in about a month, if all goes as planned. Normally I just leave whenever I wake up, eat whenever I feel like it, pack my gear how I always pack my gear. But now that I have a friend joining me I am adapting and planning with her, and it’s a small price to pay. I miss my friends and family more than I can describe… I wish you could all find a way to join me for a few days! Thanks for being the first brave soul, Lucy!


WHY ECUADOR IS SPECIAL: You already know it is home to the Equator and Darwin’s Galapagos Islands, now here are some observations less widely know.

“Saben comer pollo” (They know how to eat chicken) means “Suelen comer pollo” (They usually eat chicken).

“Tenga la bondad” is my favorite… they say it when they give you your change, which means “Have the goodness.”  After receiving my change I often say, “Tengo la bondad” (I have the goodness).

“Mande?” (roughly translated to “Send it?”) simply means “What?”

Soup. I could live on Ecuadorian soups forever. Sometimes unusual combinations like plantains with fish, or potatoes with chicken feet, typical Ecuadorian Soups have plenty of veggie chunks to fill a cyclist’s expanded belly.

Roads. The roads are steep, windy. In peru the roads followed valleys, while Ecuador bumbles through the middle of the mountainous madness. The geology affects the road planning, of course. Peru has valleys carved by glaciers and rivers. From what I have seen, Ecuador is more volcanic and mountains have sprouted everywhere, blocking what would otherwise be valleys and forcing highway routes that make one think “Why in God’s name do we have to go 20 kilometers up and around that mountain, just to drop down to the river, cross a small bridge and climb back the way we came on the other side of that river?”


From Bolivar, Ecuador to COLOMBIA

23 12 2009

Lucy’s Blog continued… aguyje ndeve!


Bolivar to Huaca      US$spent each: $11

We stayed over night in a Residencial in Bolivar, a very tranquil and picture perfect town with a Colombian feel.  After another slightly late set-off due to the reparations of Sam’s tent following a ravishing from a species of tent-cutter-ants we hit the road again.

Cycling Statue near Bolivar, Ecuador

Cycling  distractions in the form of statues relating to our interests lay in our path; I posed with a wooly mammoth and Sam with a funky

cycle-tastic monument.

The landscape was changing from bleak looking sierra to green, fresh and agricultural. I watched birds of prey soar above and plunge down valleys at the side of the road. A fairly relaxed day’s cycling, we stopped in the mid-afternoon before a pre-warned massive climb (which never really materialised).  We hung out in the town square of Huaca watching the locals play games and regained all our calories in sweets.  We were offered great hospitality in a church and I thought how amazing it was that people are so happy to help us on our way through areas not visited normally by tourists and how lucky we were to experience these gestures in forgotten places.


Huaca to Tulcan     US$spent: $9 each

Leaving Huaca on my first rainy day it was a tough but exhilarating ride to the Ecuadorian-Colombian border at Tulcan.  The ride had two significant climbs and  a brilliant final downhill section to the border line. Bracing the cold rain and looking into the distance at Colombia, the ride was made all the more exhilarating. I didn’t spend so much time looking around. Today was not a leisurely cycle; I was just pounding on the pedals eager to reach the destination and keep warm!

Definitely getting more into the cycling as days go by but this is where Sam and I said goodbye. I watched Sam ride on into Colombia wondering what adventures he would meet next and I turned back and bussed along the route we had just spent 3 1/2 days cycling in just four hours!

Lucy cruising in a shadow-stretching afternoon sun

This time for the whole journey the view was obstructed by low cloud and mist with only a lucky glimpse of a snow-capped peak. It’s great how much more you see and appreciate when you’re cycling!  I feel like I know Northerm Ecuadorian provinces much better now, every lump and bump!

Riding out of Otavalo in good company

17 12 2009

Near Otavalo, Ecuador

After riding two days from Quito to beautiful Otavalo, Ecuador, I got to meet up with an old friend from Paraguay.

Lucy, an English biologist, had just finished studying butterflies in the San Rafael Reserve (the forest Ride for the Trees supports) when I met her. Now, she is a volunteer coordinator with World Vision in Ecuador’s Amazon Rainforest. Coincidentally, her three week vacation began just as I was leaving Quito, so I invited her to join Ride for the Trees for a few days. This section of the blog will be seen through Lucy’s eyes, in italics.

Thanks for the writing break, Lucy!

Imbabura Volcano and San Pablo Lake

Finally leaving Quito I followed in Sam’s tracks North to catch him up in Otovalo, an indigenous market town.  Looking out of the bus window the views of the mountains were amazing- Pichincha, Cayambe and Imbabura’s summits were unusually clear of cloud.  The green mountains rising to grey rocky summits set against a blue sky- the perfect Andean view. Checking out the view from a bumpy bus, an indigenous lady in traditional dress asleep against me and some local snacks in my hand; this is my normal mode of travel in South America. I tried to imagine the trip through the eyes of a cyclist.  It looks hardcore and the mountains ahead imposing.  Did I really say I was going to join Ride For the Trees for a few days?!!

My biking experience is pedaling around Oxford and the summit being Magdalene Bridge.  I didn’t just think it was a good idea after meeting in Quito though, I have thought a lot about Sam’s Epic Ride ever since he told me his idea in Paraguay, and I can’t wait to join for a few days.

I catch up with Sam in the main market square of Otovalo and we head to our sleeping quarters for the night.  I’ve never slept in a fire station before so that’s another first.

Next thing to sleep, find a bike and see how my legs survive a first morning cycling through the Andes clad in some rather swanky spandex Sam has kindly loaned me.

We head off kind of late after an athelete’s breakfast of cake, bread, dulce de leche and mate.  Heading out of Otovalo we take the busy PanAmerican Highway for a short while which is a bit of a shock to me as it is so busy and there is a digger which I have to try and avoid.

We turn on to a quieter road in Peguche and follow this to San Antonio de Ibarra.  This was a lovely road going through small quiet villages, past smiling indigenous children and folk working in the fields and selling cow’s heads in markets.  We arrive in Ibarra earlier than expected, not because I beasted the journey but because it was largely downhill.  We made a quick stop in Ibarra as I insisted that Sam had to try the delicious fruit sorbet Ibarra is famous for (mostly of strange tropical Ecuadorian fruit that isn’t even translated in English).

Lucy riding a road that appears to cut through dry lava flow in the background

Heading North out of Ibarra we had to climb a short distance past Yahuarcocha (Lake of Blood).  Then we continued downhill for the rest of the day passing down through the canyon gorge of magnificent  scenery and sights of (dried) lava flow down the volcanoes.

Zooming downhill the surroundings were becoming more subtropical with roads lined by sugarcane and cactus and lots of annoying biting insects.


After lots of lies from people we asked about the next town we finally arrived to our destination and found a hostel with some really hospitable owners and even went down a broken slide into a freezing swimming pool to cool off after a hot day riding some 60 km.  Great first day riding!!!!


Today we climbed out of the other side of the canyon we had sped down with such ease yesterday.  Do I still like cycling? I don’t know- best ask me tomorrow!  We stopped for an enormous lunch near a sign claiming it for 10km to our destination, Bolivar. Sure, we know we can’t trust what people tell us, but surely a highway sign must be reasonably accurate? Well don’t rely on it in Ecuador! Bolivar didn’t appear for around 30 km of winding continual uphill struggle! I felt fairly beaten and flagged down a police van probably around half way, so  I had my first ride in the back of a police pickup… with detainees no less!


more coming soon… stay tuned!!

From Quito to Otavalo, Ecuador

15 12 2009

Check out this sweet bicycle wheel antenna I found in the Ecuadorian campo! Resourcefulness, recycleness, AND style.


Jumping at the "fake" equator, according to Lonely Planet

The two most famous equator monuments/museums are located off my path, so I bussed to them with a few new friends (one of which, Aussie Anthony, had his camera stolen the next day at knife-point in broad daylight) and then we returned to Quito, where my bike was safely double-locked in El Cafecito’s garage.

But not to worry, this doesn’t mean I missed my opportunity to bicycle across the Equator. Everybody is trying to make a buck, which means equator monuments abound.

Where the Panamerican Highway meets the Equator

I assumed there would be at least a third equator monument on the Panamerican highway. There was. I paid a dollar, shot my photos and videos, and continued northward.

So far, two of the three monuments claim all the others are poorly marked, and that their own monument is REALLY on the equator.

Standing an egg upright on the head of a nail

I must say, however, I trust the interesting Inti Nan museum because I made an egg stand upright on the head of a nail and because, using a portable tub of still water I witnessed water drain in different directions on each side of the Equatorial Line. Truly surprising!

The two days of riding, approximately 130 kilometers from Quito to Otavalo, were typical beautiful Ecuadorian riding days: Green hills (did I say hills? Make that gigantic, heart-pounding mountain climbs and face-stretching descents! I am STILL in the Andes, the longest and second highest mountain range on Earth), volcanoes, swiss-cheese volcanic rock cliffs, waterfalls, delicious $1.50 meals with hearty soups, friendly folks, and fire station campsites.

Quito, Ecuador

14 12 2009

Quito, Ecuador

Quito is a gigantic city, the Washington D.C. of Ecuador.

I arrived in a cold downpour, zig-zagging the steep switchbacks at 50kph into the metropolicious valley. The rain, the switchbacks and the steepness of the hills everywhere reminded me of La Paz, Bolivia. But Quito is much, much greener.

Quito is more beautiful than any city I can think of. The Ciudad Antigua (Old Town) is loaded with colonial buildings, elaborate churches and cobblestone streets… plus it is surrounded by enormous volcanoes. It also has a decent public transportation system including an electric “Trole” that runs the length of the city. But here’s the best part: two sundays every month they close certain roads to traffic and let cyclists ride safely along miles of well-marked bike paths.

But, as I learned, if you ride on any other day Quito is Hell on Earth. I’m surprised I didn’t get hit by a car  (a fast-forward video of the mayhem is coming soon).

I’m also surprised I didn’t get robbed. Nearly every tourist I have met has been robbed in Ecuador and/or Peru. Many of my friends have returned to hostels to announce they just had a knife pulled on them in the middle of the day, or their backpack was stolen from a bus.  It’s hard to believe I have made it through both Peru and Ecuador without getting robbed. I credit my dirty fingernails for that. I don’t go anywhere without my knife anymore, which I take out of my pocket to clean my nails if I feel unsafe.

Anywho, I got my work done in Quito. A cleat screw had been poking through my shoe into left foot for a while. Back in Macas I installed a flat, plastic disc cut from a peanut butter jar which has been protecting my foot for a while. But my Crank Bros. Egg Beater C pedals were also starting to rust and needed new bearings that would have to be ordered from far away. Whenever there is an issue on this tour, the solution is often to simplify. So I donated my shoes, pedals, and an extra pair of cleats to a bike shop, bought a new pair of cheap $10 platform pedals and was back on the road pronto.

Speaking of simplifying, did you hear about the “100 Things Challenge”? Apparently there is a small movement of people who are attempting to own only 100 things. Aguynameddave is living with only 100 possessions for a year, with a few exceptions.

Thanks to Tania for bringing this to my attention: “The 100 Thing Challenge fights irresponsible consumerism” http://www.guynameddave.com/100-thing-challenge.html

Volcano Alley Update, Photos, and a New Video

8 12 2009

Long update simplified

1)      Three tires failed at the same time after days of repairs and a new cheap tire purchase, and got my first flat. So I hitch hiked 40k to Banos, home of hot springs and waterfalls.

2)      Decided to hang out in Banos for a few days and wait for a tire order to arrive.

3)      Rented a mountain bike and went riding with some new friends, doing the section I hitch hiked in reverse. Having a mountain bike with no gear allowed me to go places I wouldn’t have been able to with my bike, like across the hanging bridge to the amazing waterfall in this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wh6b-yH1qAI

4)      Found, purchased, and consumed a wide array of donuts.

5)      Bussed to Ambato to pick up the tires. Returned to Banos, installed tires, went to sleep.

6)      Was accompanied by Matt from California for the tough climb to Ambato. He’s planning to ride from Patagonia to California beginning in February 2010.

7)      I am now in “Volcano Alley” the famous Pan American Highway route that threads the needle between several of Ecuador’s stunning volcanoes. Here’s a photo of the ride past the Tungurahua Volcano.

Men Grabbed My Bike and Ants Ate My Tent

30 11 2009

Yesterday I got to speak with my father on Skype. Before we hung up I said, “Wish me luck. This next portion of my trip might be a bit dangerous.”

The cops and a few other locals told me not to ride through the indigenous Shuar communities because there is too much suspicion that gringos are responsible for the recent decapitations of locals. Peace Corps Volunteers said I’d probably be fine, just be careful.

So my goal was to ride as far and as fast as possible, carry a lot of water and food, and don’t stop in any towns for any reason. I needed to make it to a certain bridge where I was told it would be easy to find a safe place to camp.

I wasn’t there yet. The sun was setting. I needed to figure out where I was going to sleep. I knew the bridge was close, but how close?

I decided it would be okay to stop once to ask how far away bridge was. Just once. I would look for friendly people. Over there to the right, two men and two women. It looked like they were waiting for a bus. I greeted them, still rolling. “Hola!” “Hola,” they responded. Okay. I stopped. The men stood up to shake my hand. Friendly folks. Where am I from? What is my name? Where am I going? I answer the questions, then get a question of my own in: “How far to the bridge?” Ten minutes on a bus. Great, it must be more downhill than uphill, because the bridge goes over a river. I could see a valley in the distance. I bet that’s it. I can probably make it in 30-45 minutes. But I have to hurry.

I said thanks, I had to hurry before the sun set. Their hands were on my handlebars. They said to wait. And they flashed fake smiles at each other. Then the real questions began. Why am I in their town? How did I get into Ecuador? Do I have a passport? They requested my passport.

By now I realized they were drunk. Under the bench, 4 large, empty beer bottles. I kicked myself. Why hadn’t I spotted the bottles before?! I never would have stopped here had I seen the bottles.

Then the men and women started talking to each other in Shuar. Here’s what I heard, “Blah blah blah cortacabeza blah blah blah.” Cortacabeza means head-cutter-offer in Spanish.

I said, “I heard you say cortacabeza. I understand your concern. It’s horrible what is happening around here. The police in Macas were suspicious of me too. They searched my bags and wrote a police report. But no, don’t worry, I’m just doing an environmental project and I write journalistic stories on a website. I’m raising money to help protect a forest where indigenous Paraguayans live.” It didn’t work.

They started opening the bags on my bike. I tried to pull away, but their grip on my bike tightened. They said, “You’re not going anywhere until we say so. We’re the authorities here.” I started getting scared. Really, really scared.

I took the psychological route. “I came this way because I was told the people on the coast are dangerous, to avoid them and travel through the oriente because the people here in the oriente are friendlier.”

“We’re friendly. We’re just talking to you.” They were standing inches from my face, demanding that I provide proof I didn’t kill their neighbors. You don’t have to be a philosopher to understand the difficulty of proving you didn’t do something. Now they were unclipping my pannier saddlebags, unzipping my handlebar bag, looking all around my bike for evidence I was responsible for the deaths in the area. I was physically removing their hands from my bike each time. And I was trembling. There was no sign they were going to let me go and they were getting more aggressive.

“Yeah, you were friendly before but not anymore. You’re disrespecting me. I have travelled through many countries and you are the only two people who have ever grabbed my bicycle and prevented me from leaving.”

“Just show us your passport.” My passport was in a secret place with my cash and debit card.

Suddenly I spotted two young boys, maybe 10 years old, walking down the street. “Help me! Please help me! These men won’t let me go!” I screamed as desperately as possible so the drunk men would realize the weight of the situation. The two boys approached us as I thought Stupid, stupid. What are two little boys going to do against two drunk men?

The men continued to ask to see my passport, saying only a headshrinker would travel without identification. I thought about my sales training when I worked at L.A. Fitness in Arizona. There, I would say, “If I could get my manager to give you a discount would you become a member today?” (Wow, I hated that job.)

Now there were six people around and the drunk men were the minority. I thought it was as safe a time as ever to show my passport. I said, “If I show you my passport, you’ll let me go?” They said yes, kind of.  I explained some rules, talking down to them, treating them like children. “I’ll show you my passport. You can memorize or write down any information you want, but don’t touch anything because I really feel like I am in a dangerous situation, you have both been drinking, and you might be trying to rob me.”

“We’re not going to rob you–” I showed them my passport. They tried to take it out of my hands at least three times. I jerked away each time saying, “I won’t let you see it if you try to take it from me. I don’t want any problems. Just look, please. Relax. Relax. I’m not a dangerous person. Look, I read my full name and passport number out loud.” They each had a hand on my shoulder and a hand on my bike.

After I showed them my passport and read every detail aloud they still weren’t satisfied, of course. They didn’t let go of my bike. Why would they? Of course the cortacabeza would have a passport. A passport is not a difficult thing to get. They started saying ridiculous things like, “We can’t just let you go. How do we know you’re not the cortacabeza? You understand. A gringo is responsible for the deaths around here, and here comes a gringo travelling alone through our community. We can’t let you go until we’re sure.” I was in the Amazon in a town not on my map and it was getting dark. Not good.

We argued for another 5 minutes. I didn’t say much. In the end, it was the two women and the two boys, both in a submissively shy kind of way, who magically convinced the men to let go of my bike. We shook hands goodbye at least 10 times.

I didn’t make it to the bridge, so I found a small path into the jungle and set up camp next to a river. Not as well hidden as I would have liked, but okay. A few meters away was an army of leaf cutter ants. I watched them for a few minutes, impressed as always by nature.

The thought crossed my mind, No, there’s no way leaf cutters could cut through a tent. And even if they could, why would they?

Then I went to bed, but not for long…

I woke up when I realized I had been slapping at bugs in my sleep for a while. Must have been hours. My eyes adjusted to the darkness and I couldn’t believe what I saw. No, those can’t be holes in my tent. No way. I grabbed the headlamp and turned it on.

Ants everywhere.

I posted a facebook and twitter udpate announcing that ants had eaten at least 50 holes in my tent. After the updates I tried counting the holes. In one area the size of my hand there were more than 80. Hundreds of holes. The strange thing is they carried pieces of the tent away. They cut them like leaves and the pieces were nowhere to be found! Any entomologists want to explain this to me? It had been raining a lot. Maybe the nylon was molding and appeared organic to the ants.

Again, I was lucky. As I gave up on killing ants and finished packing the tent full of dead and live ants the sun began to rise. It was not the middle of the night as I had suspected. I got on the bike. It was probably around 6am.

By the end of today I should be in Puyo and out of headshrinking territory. What a week! I decided I’d get a hostel.