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Turbo to Necocli

18 November 2017

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I almost kitten-napped this little guy from Tata’s house.

Lenin and I left Tata’s place just after breakfast, reriding the last several kilometers back into Turbo to collect our helmets, which we had forgotten at Tata’s market. The ride out of Turbo was uneventful aside from a flat tire and a short stop to eat fruit at a finca along the road. We stopped again for fresh juice just outside of Necocli, in El Totumo. I didn’t think it was possible, but there were still fruits I hadn’t ever heard of that Colombians eat or use to make juice, and I tried two more of them at that fruit stand.

Just on the outskirts of the town of Necocli is Hacienda la Virgen del Cobre, an estate that belongs to Antonio Ocampo, one of the most infamous Colombian drug lords and business partner of Pablo Escobar. Lenin led me onto this property and alerted the family living in the house that we were going to check out the volcano. He had been here twice before, and he knew the manager, so dropping his name got us through the gate with no problem. We pulled our bikes into one of the corrals of the horse stables and unloaded our bags, tucking them into a corner where they would not be visible from outside. Then we continued by bicycle down a dirt road, which quickly became too muddy to bike on. We decided to abandon the bikes for the moment, locking them to a chain link fence under a tree just off the main path. The road was even difficult to walk on – it was a soft, peanut buttery mud that had been trampled over by numerous herds of cattle. The parts that were dry enough to walk on without sinking were hard and crusty and very uneven from the hoofprints. We walked barefoot because our flipflops were getting stuck in the mud, but I somehow had the misfortune of either stepping on all the sharp thorny things or sinking into the deepest mud while Lenin skillfully avoided every obstacle.
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This thing was bubbling constantly. Inviting, isn’t it?

Eventually we did make it to the volcano, which resembled a small pit of filthy, boiling concrete. I thought Lenin was out of his mind if he expected us to put our bodies in that thing. I stood there, watching, as Lenin undressed and slowly lowered himself into the mud. Seriously? I could see garbage floating among the dried leaves on the edge of the pit, and it smelled like sulfur. I didn’t care what healing properties it supposedly had. I could not imagine touching the mud, let alone immersing myself in it. Somehow, Lenin coerced me into joining him. The mud was much denser and cooler than it appeared, and it was difficult to get my legs to sink. I didn’t want to let my legs sink. Every little bit of debris, which Lenin assured me was nothing more than dried leaves, creeped me out. I had trouble relaxing, while Lenin was having the time of his life, rolling around, smearing mud all over his face and posing for selfies. This place was totally isolated, and we didn’t see a single person while we were out there. There was also no fresh water to rinse off after climbing out of the volcano. We had to walk back along the muddy trail, covered in thick grey mud.

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The cows line up to stare at us. No manners, these creatures have.

On our way back, I felt all of the cows were watching us. They lined up in groups, just staring at us as we walked. It was great fun to scare them all at once and watch them simultaneously take off running. When we reached our bikes, the two bags that we hadn’t bothered to leave in the stables had been opened, and it was clear that someone had rifled through everything. Nothing appeared to have been missing, except for our phone chargers, which we later discovered we had left at Tata’s house. We made it back to the stables and used a hose to rinse off and wash our clothes before heading into Necocli to find a place to spend the night.

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Sunset on the beach in Necocli.

We headed straight for the beach in Necocli and watched the sun set into the sea before going into the main town square to eat. While we were in the plaza, a bohemian guy selling handcrafted jewelry off his bicycle approached us and invited us to come pitch our hammocks in the place where he was staying with another bike traveler. We followed him to what looked like an open air restaurant, situated directly across from the beach. It was quiet and dark, and it offered a roof over our heads while we slept. Both bike travelers were Colombian, and one of them claimed to know the owner of the restaurant who let them stay there. The guy who was already in his hammock was suspiciously friendly and kept repeating to us how welcome we were, but Lenin assured me that he was just drunk. The other guy soon went back into town to continue selling his jewelry, and we fell asleep.

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Chigorodó to Turbo

17 November 2017

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The road was basically like this the whole day.

The road from Chigorodó was totally flat, plus, we had a tailwind, so we really had no excuse to be going so slowly except that it was our first day back to touring on loaded bikes. We did decide to stop and visit a banana plantation, which set us back a few hours.

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One of the many roadside stands selling handmade bags, hammocks, drinks and snacks

Uraba is dense with banana and plantain trees, and for a good portion of our ride, we had been passing these plantations. After passing so many, Lenin stopped to talk to some kids on the side of the road, and they agreed to show us one of the plantations. We walked with them across the street and started down a long dirt road surrounded by rows of banana trees.

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One of the boys tries to help by pushing my bike through the mud.

This walk definitely brought our average pace down, but it was worth it. After walking for maybe a mile, we turned off the road and onto a narrow trail between more rows of trees. We even had to cross a few streams, carefully balancing with our bikes over skinny planks of cement. Running along the row of trees was an overhead track, that was part of a network of tracks connecting all of the rows and aisles throughout the plantation. We finally arrived at the processing plant, where a huge conveyor belt was rising up and dropping bunches of green bananas onto a mountain of more bananas. Apparently, these were the rejects that were not fit for exportation but would be sold to Colombians.

We observed the entire process of banana processing, from the branches that get pulled along the tracks to the last conveyor belt that carries the boxes of cleaned, cut and stickered banana bunches into the trucks that would haul them away for exportation. The factory workers even let us try pulling the stalks that arrived in waves from somewhere within the plantation. The tracks all converged back at the factory, and bananas could be coming from as far as 2 or 3 kilometers. From there, they were cut into manageable bunches of 5 or 6 bananas and dropped into an enormous vat of water to be cleaned. They floated across the water vat to the workers who would support out which ones were good enough and which were the rejects for the concept belt I had seen when we first arrived. The good ones get dropped into another water bath, floating over to more workers who put stickers on them and add them to plastic bins on another conveyor belt. Each bin pauses for a few seconds while the conveyor belt takes them under a glass box where they get misted with a mineral that prevents them from ripening too quickly. Then the conveyor belt continues and the bananas get transferred from plastic bins to cardboard boxes, which get loaded into the waiting trucks. The bananas we watched were bound for Europe. Before leaving, we gave some money to the boys who had led us to the factory.

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Back on the road, we didn’t get very far before it started raining, and we ducked under the cover of a furniture maker that happened to be along the side of the road at the time. They were making bed frames, tables and chairs out of teak, which is another common crop of the region.

We had only completed 38 miles before stopping in Turbo, a port that is projected to grow to be one of the country’s largest, due to its proximity to Medellín. Shortly after arriving in town, a friend of Lenin’s from Uramita pulled up on the back of a motorcycle and greeted him. We followed Tata to her grocery store, where she led us into a small, air conditioned office and had one of her employees bring us fresh juice. Shortly after, Tata drove us to a restaurant near the port so we could share lunch. Fish is plentiful and cheap in this region, and we would eat it nearly every day while touring along the coast.

Back at the grocery store, Tata invited us to stay the night at her house, so we loaded our bikes into her pickup truck and rode with her in the direction from where we came, backtracking several kilometers. On the way to her house, Tata pulled in front of a butcher shop and started ordering meat, calling out over the blaring music to the butcher from her window. After several exchanges of meats and money, we were off to her house.

Tata lives in a nice house outside of Turbo with her three kids, her sister, and two women hired to clean and cook. Her husband has been in prison for the past two years, and Tata was preparing to visit him the following morning. I helped her and her sister pack basic dry goods like oats, coffee, sugar, and crackers into clear plastic bags to bring to the prison. Tata goes to visit every week, but this week she had another family member joining her, so she could bring an extra portion of all of the food she usually brings for her husband. The extra bags would be for her husband’s cell mate so he doesn’t have to share half of his food. While their family doesn’t live too far away distance-wise, their family rarely ever goes out of their way to visit them in Turbo, so sadly, Tata is normally her husband’s sole visitor.

Another Colombian bike tour begins

8-16 November 2017

After a busy summer of working on bikes in Newport and playing trombone with What Cheer? Brigade, I reluctantly left New England midway through cyclocross season to return to Medellin with Lenin. Two days later, we had secured a ride with his brother, Edwin, to Uramita. Within hours of this decision, our bikes were tied onto the roof of Edwin’s van, and all of our belongings were packed inside as we journeyed in the night along with 6 other family members through the mountains to their home pueblo, 3 or 4 hours away.

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Part of the Fiesta del Campesino involves a parade of people on horses.

We arrived around 1 in the morning, but the town was in the midst of a lively fiesta, despite heavy rain showers. This weekend Uramita was celebrating Fiesta del Campesino, a party that happens once every two years for the farmers and involves dancing to live vallenato music until sunrise.

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Lenin skates for the first time at the track in Uramita, nestled in the mountains.

Exhausted, I just wanted to sleep. We spent the next few days talking to people, playing tennis, inline skating, and immersing ourselves in the community. One day we cycled to Frontino, a town just 25km away, but mostly uphill. We returned later that day to begin organizing our gear for another bike tour.

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Biking to Frontino from Uramita.

Lenin had wanted to bike from Medellín to Uramita, but we ended up riding with Edwin to save time. Similarly, we were hoping to ride all the way to the coast, but we ended up hitching a ride on a bus that one of Lenin’s many cousins operates between Medellin and Turbo. We were missing a part for the rear bike rack, and we wanted to get another rack to install on the other bicycle, both of which were impossible to find in Uramita. The bus left us in Chigorodó, where we stayed with Lenin’s aunt for a day.

Chigorodó is part of Uraba, a region of Antioquia that stretches from Dabeiba to the border with Cordoba, and it is full of cyclists. People of all ages and on all types of bicycles constantly ride up and down the main road through the town, often carrying another person on the handlebars or top tube. It is not uncommon to see entire families balancing on a single bicycle, or someone using their bicycle to carry a large or heavy item such as furniture or a ladder. This was the perfect place to find the last few things we needed for our tour.

Cali

4-9 March 2017

Lenin and I biked from the bus station in Cali to an overpriced cafe for breakfast. This is where we start spending money a little recklessly, compared to our earlier time on the road. From there, we went to a gelato place and splurged on gelato. We were the only ones there. After spending an hour or so using the Wi-Fi at Ventolini’s, we went to a sushi restaurant around the corner for lunch. I was really appreciating all the different food options we had in Cali after traveling through small towns that only offered the same type of rice- and meat-based dishes at every meal. Lenin noticed this, and he went above and beyond to appease my wandering appetite.

One of the many murals in Cali

We headed to a neighborhood where all the hostels are located to inquire about working in exchange for free room and board. We went into every hostel we could find but had no luck in finding a work exchange deal. Most of the places already had an Argentinean traveler working for them.

We ended up going to the cheapest hotel we could find, which was cheaper than all of the hostels for a reason. The room looked like it had been lived in. The girl who showed us the room had to unplug her phone that was charging in the outlet and remove some of her personal items before letting us in, and there was still a half full cup of something (juice? soda?) on the table that served as a desk when we rolled our bikes in. There were holes in the ceiling where daylight was peeking through, but fortunately rain was not in the forecast that night.

Lenin sits on the edge of a park overlooking Cali

The next day, we resumed our search for a room and started following a lead about a chocolateria that was rumored to need help at the moment. We passed an Arabic restaurant, and then backtracked a few steps to talk to the owner, Olga. Lenin did most of the talking, explaining that we were looking for a place to stay for a few days and were free to help in exchange. Olga was interested in learning how to make baklava the right way, and I could teach her. She agreed to pay for us to stay at a hotel for a few days in exchange for sharing the recipe I learned from my grandmother.

Before we solidified a deal with Olga later that evening, we went to a hostel that was owned by the friend of a person who had couchsurfed with Lenin in Medellin. This guy had recommended we go there, but we couldn’t find it on our first day. The owners of Mi Tierra hostel were a mother and daughter, and they were in the process of renovating the building so it would pass inspections. Their next inspection was coming up that week, and they still had some work to do to get it to comply with the fire safety regulations. The woman who was friends with Lenin’s former couchsurfer wasn’t home when we stopped in, and her mother was too busy to talk with us then, so we made plans to come back the next day.

That night we went to the apartment of our friend Catalina’s grandmother. We knew Catalina from Providence, and she hooked us up with her grandmother’s contact info and address and told her we would be coming. She lived alone in an apartment complex on the north end of Cali, and she honestly scared me. She refused to try to understand me when I attempted to speak with her, and she insisted that Lenin do all the talking. From what I gathered of their conversation, it was all about how she loved traveling, but she hated Americans and that there was no reason to go to the US except to see the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the Brooklyn Bridge. The only reason she thought the Brooklyn Bridge was so interesting was because of how long it took to build and how many people died in the process.

While we were at Catalina’s grandmother’s apartment, we confirmed plans to meet Olga at the Arab restaurant. In the morning, we heard from the owner of the hostel about a work exchange there, so we were able to rearrange our agreement with Olga to teach her the baklava recipe in exchange for a meal at the restaurant and a lesson on how to make a semolina cake with orange syrup. We worked that morning at the hostel, scraping paint and adding a non-skid grip to the stairs. Then we biked over the restaurant to make baklava and cake.

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Trying to follow along on one of the band member’s trombones.

Work at the hostel got us a free place to stay, plus lunch every day. We just had to work 4 hours a day. The next two evenings we went salsa dancing, and the last evening we met Olga and her husband to go to her husband’s band practice. Olga’s husband is a percussionist in a salsa band, and I got to borrow a trombone from one of their trombonists and sit in on a song. It was nice to play again, but I felt a lot of pressure as the special guest of their practice when the solo section arrived and everyone was just waiting for me to solo (I’m terrible at being in the spotlight).

After the band practice, Lenin and I caught a taxi back to retrieve our bikes and biked to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Medellín. This bus ride ended at the top of a mountain, just shy of Medellín, when we were caught behind a truck thay had flipped over on the narrow, winding road. Sleeping on the stopped bus for about an hour before noticing that it hadn’t been moving, we looked up where we were. At the top of Alto de Mina! We had both biked this road from Medellín before, and we knew the ride down was quick and easy. We also had no idea the bus would be backed up, so we asked the driver to get our bikes from under the bus and we were off. It was a beautiful morning, and it felt great to be back in Antioquia (probably the most beautiful department).

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Riding back into Medellin from Alto de Mina

We passed several buses and trucks in the line of traffic before rounding a hairpin turn on the descent and seeing the cause of the backup. A big tractor trailer truck had tipped over, completely blocking both lanes of traffic. It lay on its side, and we first saw the underside of the long truck, with its wheels sticking out uselessly. We were able to pass by with our bikes, and left behind a crowd of people standing around and staring. The top of the truck was ripped open, and it looked like it was carrying water bottles. The remainder of our descent was incredible, with absolutely zero traffic to worry about coming from behind. We also passed at least 30 or 40 other cyclists on their routine morning rides.

Things fall apart

3 March 2017

In the morning, Anita brought us out to the back of the house and picked two young males from the wooden crate full of cute, furry guinea pigs. These large rodents reproduce rapidly, and she has to continuously kill the males or else they will fight and kill each other. She prepared a pot of water to boil and then grabbed the first cuy to kill. I stood there and watched as she quickly stooped down to smash the poor animal’s head into the concrete floor, face first. Then she held it by the back legs over the pot, letting blood pour out of the nose as its body dangled above the boiling water. The creature struggled just once, flexing all of its muscles in a final attempt to hang onto life before going limp. Anita then dunked the cuy into the hot water for a few seconds, so the hair could easily be removed. She expertly pulled out all of the fur, revealing wounds that indicated this cuy had already begun fighting with his cratemates. Repeating this process with the other cuy, we saw that his back was covered with deep scratch marks from being clawed, probably by the first cuy she had killed. Anita used the edge of a knife to gently scrape away any stray hairs and clean the skin before moving on to the next step, which involved slicing open the bodies and separating the organs. Certain organs were thrown away, but most of them went into a pot for soup.

Lenin and I took a walk around town at this point, searching for some more local honey since we had finished the honey we bought two days ago. During our walk, Lenin started telling me how hurt and abandoned he felt that I was going back to the US a month earlier than we were anticipating when we first landed in Colombia. I was considering coming back to continue bike touring for the month of April, but the cost of traveling back and forth was an issue. We were thinking about starting a bike tour business in Colombia, and we still had so much of the country to see by bicycle. Lenin was really upset, and we ended up arguing until he exclaimed that he was going to call my dad and complain. He went into the nearest shop that offered international calling, and I walked away, not wanting to fight anymore.

After wandering around the town for a while, I found Lenin again outside of the house. Anita had finished making the cuy, so we sat down for lunch, to continue our discussion later. The cuy tasted a little bit like dark turkey meat, but better. Very moist, and different from any other meat I had tasted.

Everything rapidly declined after lunch. I spoke with my dad on the phone, telling him about our argument, feeling like we couldn’t come to a mutual understanding. My dad reinforced the idea that it was too costly to go back to keep traveling after going to Portland.

I decided to buy a one way ticket to Portland for the moment and make up my mind later about continuing the bike tour. At this point, while I wanted to keep traveling, I was irritated by Lenin’s attitude towards this project that I was going back for, and I didn’t want to keep traveling with him if he was going to be like that. I still had three weeks to bike around Colombia, see how far we could get, evaluate whether Lenin’s mood was tolerable, and then decide if it made sense to come back again from Portland.

As soon as I announced that I was buying a ticket, Lenin got extra mad. Maybe I should have waited, but there was a 99% off sale on Spirit Airlines, and I had to buy a ticket by the end of the day to take advantage of it. I wasn’t sure when we would have internet access again. Lenin tried to unplug the internet to prevent me from making the purchase, but I managed to buy it just before losing the connection.

We left Anita’s house abruptly while she was out. Lenin was so upset, and I didn’t know what to say or do to console him. We stopped several times to have long discussions on the side of the road, but nothing was very productive. He had decided to end the bike tour and take a bus from the border back to Medellín. I wanted to keep touring for the last three weeks until I had to leave, but Lenin insisted that it was me who was ending the tour early by going back to the US.

We did more arguing on the roadside than cycling, and the darkness crept up on us while we were standing there. When we started riding again after one of our stops, a truck had pulled over to ask if we needed a ride. The driver helped us haul our heavy bikes, fully loaded, into the back of the truck, and we climbed in after them. The truck was empty except for a  layer of sawdust and a few personal items that presumably belonged to the driver. Lenin and I lay in the darkness, holding one another in silence until the truck stopped to let us out, just a few kilometers from the border.

We had to stop in the customs building on the Ecuadorian side first, and then into the Colombian customs building up the road. A few more kilometers uphill from the border lies the town of Ipiales. Lenin was on a mission to get to the bus station, and all I could do was follow him, secretly hoping that the station would be closed for the night, or that he would change his mind before buying a bus ticket.

We arrived at the bus station, and Lenin immediately went to the counter to buy tickets. I told him that I wanted to keep riding and begged him to let me reorganize the contents of our bags, so he could keep all of his stuff on one bike, and I could take the other with my stuff. There was no time. The last bus was leaving in a few minutes for Cali, and Lenin had bought two tickets, not really giving me a choice to stay behind. I started frantically trying to separate our things, but it was useless. I felt like I was being swept towards the bus with no regard to what I wanted, much like Lenin probably felt I was doing to him by leaving Colombia prematurely. I was unprepared for this bus ride, and it felt like I was observing everything in a dream as I reluctantly helped take the front wheel and bags off of my bike to put it under the bus.

The bus ride to Cali was hellish. Our assigned seats were next to each other, and Lenin used the time as an opportunity to further express his dissatisfaction with everything about me. I couldn’t escape, and all I wanted to do was turn my ears off so I didn’t have to listen to his constant berating me.

Somehow, when the bus pulled into Cali the next morning, we were no longer fighting. Maybe we were just too exhausted to keep arguing. It was a long ride. We decided to stay in Cali for a few days before going back to Medellín.

Ambuqui to Julio Andrade

2 March 2017

In the morning, we left the fire station and pedaled about 5 kilometers up the road to a restaurant for breakfast. There was little tension from our arguments the day before, or maybe we were just ignoring it. We looked at our options on WarmShowers for a place to stay that night and took down contact info for three different people. We were hopeful to get to the border that day, but just in case we fell short, we had hosts in two other towns before leaving Ecuador.

The elevation profile for our day from Ambuqui to Julio Andrade

The riding was tough, with a lot of climbing. Worse than that was that we were breaking mentally, and we were losing the motivation to keep going strong. The rainy weather we were subjected to every day was not helping. It rained while we ate breakfast, and when it stopped enough to venture out, we simply had to push ourselves uphill. The distance to the border appeared, in my mind, to be out of reach if we were to climb discontentedly on loaded bikes all day. All I needed was to have a minor mechanical issue, and I probably would have wanted to take the rest of the day off.

We made a stop for lunch at a restaurant on the road, and Lenin talked them down in price for the meal we shared. This meant that we couldn’t get ice cream, since he told them that we didn’t have enough money to pay the full price for the lunch.

Just keep climbing…and smiling…

We felt some relief from the climbing after passing San Gabriel, but it was only a short distance of downhill before we had to go up once again. When we reached Julio Andrade, the first town where a WarmShowers host resided, we were ready for a break.

We stopped at a bodega for ice cream and asked the lady there if she knew our host, Richard, who owned a bakery called Anchwy Hwan Chae. She directed us further into town, and as we climbed a steep hill, a man must have recognised us as some of the crazy bike travelers that always visit this one guy in town. He showed us exactly where to go.

A young boy answered our knock at the door and let us in as if he had been expecting us. He introduced himself as Darwin and asked us where we were from, and then his mother came to greet us while he proceeded to finish his homework. Darwin and his mother, Anita, were very nice and social, both warning me of the cold water when I asked to take a shower. With maybe one or two exceptions, none of the places we stayed in had warm water, so I was used to the cold and actually looking forward to a refreshing shower after sweating from climbing all day. This water, however, must have come from some icy mountain spring, because it was more frigid than any water I had bathed in before. Within seconds of standing under the icy stream, my hands and feet were numb and I barely had any dexterity left in my fingers. They weren’t kidding about the cold water. For the rest of our time there, I was reluctant to volunteer to wash dishes.

A sculpture of bicycle racers out on the hills outside of San Gabriel, before we made it to Julio Andrade. Note the beautiful sky we are biking towards.

Lenin and I were almost considering to keep going on to the town by the border, Tulcan, or Ipiales, which was just over the border in Colombia, but once we got a taste of Anita and her family’s hospitality, it wasn’t a hard decision to stay. She gave us the most delicious bread and cheese with hot coffee, showed us the cuy she was raising in the back yard, and helped us to set up a mattress to sleep on. The mattress was in the back of a room shared by all three of her sons, one of which had been hiding on his bed, using a laptop the entire time we were there. He was clearly less social than his mother and younger brother. We squeezed between a bunkbed and another twin bed to get to the back area where we laid the mattress down. The eldest son we heard on the radio before we met him. Anita turned the volume up when she recognised his voice, telling us that it was her son on the radio. Richard was out of town for a few days, selling his bread near the border, so we wouldn’t get to meet him.

Lenin and I both were curious to try cuy, which is guinea pig, and since it had been a year since we met, Lenin figured we should celebrate by eating one. Anita offered to cook it for us the next day.

Over dinner that night, Anita shared her own experiences with Yaje and told us about the shaman who was going to be visiting them in 4 days. It really sounds like this stuff is amazing, and if you have any kind of health problems it would allow you to see inside yourself and understand how to fix your problems. Anita started taking Yaje because she had cancer and acid reflux. She swears by it as a cure for any disease.

In spite of the discouraging time we had earlier in the day on our bikes, the day actually turned out to be pretty good. We made it through the whole day without any serious arguments, and we slept heavily on that mattress in the back of the bedroom.

Climbing in Zuleta, and cycling to Ambuqui

1 March 2017

Before we left the hostel in Esperanza, Emerson invited us to go climbing with him. It was just a short bus ride back from where we came, and he had all of the necessary gear. We were up for the experience, so we set off by bus to Zuleta and walked down a gravel road to someone’s house, where we paid a dollar each to climb on a huge rock on their property. It was cloudy and cold when we left the hostel, but the sun had come out by the time we started climbing, warming us up enough to shed all of the extra layers we had worn on the way to Zuleta.

Lenin belaying while I climb on the rock that Emerson brought us to in Zuleta, Ecuador

Emerson climbed first and hooked up the rope to the existing caribiners on the rock. It really is nice to do something other than cycling once in a while during a bike tour, and this was my first time climbing on something other than an indoor rock wall. It was challenging, and the fear of falling gave me an extra zap of energy, allowing me to really extend my muscles beyond what I thought they were capable of. We only climbed up three or four times before heading back.

We hitchhiked back to the hostel and packed up our laundry that we had washed that morning. When we were finally ready to bike again, it began raining. Emerson told us it was only 5 kilometers into Ibarra, so we left anyway, heading out into the light rain. Ibarra was all downhill, and the road took us away from the rain rather quickly.

In town, we asked for directions to the fire station. Talking to the firefighters, they offered us lunch and told us we were welcome to stay if we wanted. We ate lunch, but decided to continue to try to cover more distance that day. The firefighters told us that there was another fire station about 40 kilometers up the road in the town of Ambuqui. They even said they would contact them to let them know we were coming.

We passed by this place on the way out of Ibarra, opting for ice cream instead.

On the way out of Ibarra, Lenin and I stopped for helado de paila at two different places, one of which was supposed to be famous. They both tasted like the usual watered down version of homemade ice cream that we had had in Quito. Disappointing.

It grew visibly drier and less green from Ibarra as we neared Ambuqui.

At some point, Lenin got mad at me for some reason. I felt like he was picking a fight with me while we were descending a long hill at a high speed, and it didn’t feel safe to try to argue at the time, so I picked up my pace and rode away from him. I stopped to regroup and switch bikes at the bottom of the descent, and we rode the rest of the way to Ambuqui in silence, quietly observing the change in climate from cold and wet to dry and warm.

When we got to the fire station, around dusk, there was a volleyball game going on between the firefighters. I explained to one of the guys on the sidelines that the firefighters in Ibarra recommended we come here. They welcomed us in and showed us the game room where we could set up our sleeping pads. They even told us about another bike traveler who was staying with them when she had to terminate her trip suddenly due to a family emergency. She left everything, including her bike, at the fire station, telling the fire fighters they could have it all if she didn’t return.

We walked from the fire station into the town to eat dinner, which was a 20 minute or so walk off of the main road. Much of this walk was spent arguing, but we collected ourselves before returning to the station. Lenin was upset that I had to go to Portland for the documentary that I was accepted to participate in, and this would create some pretty unsettling feelings between us for the next few days.

Cycling in the rain

We were followed by dark clouds for most of the day.

28 February 2017

We left the house in Santa Rosa de Cusubamba early and stopped for breakfast at the junction at the bottom of the hill. After breakfast, we began the climb that we had almost completed the day before. The clouds were threatening to rain on us from the moment we woke up, and the ground was wet from a heavy rain overnight. We had been rained on pretty much every day that we were in Ecuador, and, with the exception of Lago Agrio, it was not warm.

Here is another middle of the world site, where we actually could stand on the line on the ground signifying the equator.

Not far from where we began, we came to two other sites for the equator. One of them was free, so we got a photo there, and then we passed the other site that had a special line where you could balance things easily or something. This one was not free though, so we couldn’t get close enough to investigate.

When we reached the town of Cayambe, where we had hoped to stay the previous night, we stopped to ask for some soup at a restaurant. To my surprise, the lady gave us each a generous helping of soup without hesitation. Everywhere we have gone, the people have been so nice, and I seriously feel that I owe many good deeds to the general public for pretty much the rest of my life.

Continuing down the main road, we noticed that nearly every restaurant was advertising biscocchi. This was the region from where biscocchi came, so before leaving town, we had to stop and try some. Lenin and I sat and shared a basket of fresh, warm biscocchi with hot chocolate. Just as we were getting ready to leave, it began to rain.

We stayed at this bakery for maybe an hour, using the Wi-Fi while avoiding the rain. Once on the road again, we had a lot of climbing from Cayambe. We didn’t make it very far before the rain came back, and this time we ducked into a small shop to buy local honey. We ate a good portion of the honey before getting back on our bikes, only to go to the next bodega window down the road where we could hide from the rain again.

The trees in this area were very interesting.

When the rain lightened up enough for us to venture out again, we made it all the way to a small town called Olmedo. We probably should have kept going right through while it wasn’t raining, but we stopped to have some ice cream and use the Wi-Fi at a park for almost an hour. It was actually almost sunny when we arrived in Olmedo, but by the time we left it was almost dark from an impending rain cloud.

We were trying to make it to Ibarra that night, but the rain interfered with us once again just a few kilometers shy of the large city. This time, the sky opened up and downpoured on us relentlessly, showing no signs of stopping. The sun was setting, and the last stretch to Ibarra was a steep downhill, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing in the heavy rain.

Riding between rain storms. At least the scenery is nice.

Fortunately, we were in a tiny town called Esperanza where there happened to be a hostel, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Refugio Terra Esperanza was empty, aside from one woman from France and the owner, who introduced himself as Emerson. Lenin and I joined them by the fireplace, making conversation to pass the time, in hopes that the weather would allow us to continue to Ibarra.

When it became clear that the rain was going to continue all night, Lenin asked Emerson if we could set up our sleeping pads on the floor for the night. Emerson agreed, only asking for us to help him collect more firewood the next day. It was a deal. We bought some eggs and bread from the bodega across the street, cooked dinner, and slept on the floor by the fireplace.

North from Tumbaco: short distance, long day 

27 February 2017

Lenin gazes at the beautiful church in the town square of El Quinche, where people were in full Carnival celebration mode

While we left Santiago’s house in the morning, Lenin and I stopped for breakfast before leaving Tumbaco, and it was almost noon by the time we actually got on our bikes that day. We had a lot of climbing ahead of us, all the way to the border with Colombia and beyond. The riding was slow, and we had a hard time feeling motivated. When we came to a small, lively town that was celebrating Carnival, we had to stop. We really hadn’t gone very far at all, and it was still fairly early, but we both liked the vibe of the town, and we considered staying there for the night. The only problem was, when we asked where the fire station was, we were told that it was back from where we came just a few kilometers. Okay, so maybe it was less than one kilometer, but we didn’t want to backtrack at all, especially since we had just come downhill into town.

Inspired by the Argentinian travelers that we met at the Casa de Ciclistas, Lenin wanted to start trying to get food for free. The Argentinian travelers he had met in the past all had specific tricks for not spending money while traveling, and he learned some valuable things from them, such as asking to stay at fire stations. However, all of the Argentinians had a parasitic tendency to overstay their welcome while trying to squeeze every last drop of hospitality out of their hosts before moving on to their next victim. They were all incredibly warm and friendly people, but they were in the business of taking advantage of people – notoriously thrifty and scheming. Lenin didn’t want to be that bad, but he did feel ashamed of how much money we were spending in comparison to them (which really was nothing compared to what we would be spending if we were living in the US, but hey, we had no income).

I couldn’t bring myself to ask for free food, but we wandered around the market in El Quinche and eventually landed at a fruit stand where Lenin struck up a conversation with the woman selling fruit. She was with her daughter, who knew a few words of English that she had learned in school, so he tried to get her to speak in English. Like me, she was very shy and didn’t say much, allowing Lenin to do most of the talking. The next thing I knew, her mother asked her to grab some apples to give to us. Before we said goodbye to them, she had talked the fruit vendor across from her into giving us a few bananas for the road. There was our first taste of getting some food for free. I felt a little guilty taking food from them, but they were happy to give it to us.

Instead of backtracking uphill to the fire station in Quinche, we agreed to continue another 35 kilometers to the next one in the town of Cayambe. However, shortly after we got back on the road it started raining, so we stopped and ducked into a bakery to stay dry and wait for the rain to pass. The only other person in the bakery was the baker, a cheerful young woman who welcomed us to stay as long as we wanted. While we were waiting, she gave us each a roll of bread for free! We were doing pretty well without trying very hard at not spending money.

The rain didn’t last long, so we were back on the road in no time. We had a nice stretch of riding downhill before we came to a small junction at the bottom of a long climb. As we approached the top of the climb, we stopped to switch bikes and realized that we no longer had our backpack. Trying to think back to when we last had it, and dreading the thought of riding all the way back to Quinche, we realized we must have left it at the bakery. I took a mental inventory of what was in the bag, briefly considering to just leave it and go on without it. All of our dirty laundry was in there, plus the bananas that the fruit man had given us. We would have to buy all new clothes, which didn’t seem as bad as backtracking all that distance. But then I remembered that both of our passports were in there, so we had no choice but to go back.

We turned around and descended all the way back to where the long climb began, but we hesitated to begin the climb up to the bakery. Lenin thought that maybe we could find a place to sleep at that junction, leave our bags there, and have an easier time riding up to the bakery and back without the extra weight. We asked a man at a small shop if there was a place like a community center, where we could set up our sleeping pads for the night. He told us there was something in that town, but he warned us that it was uphill. People often tend to exaggerate their voices when something is a long distance or uphill (“bien arriiiiiba”), even if it isn’t really that far or that steep. Lenin asked how many blocks it was, and after giving it some thought, he answered that it was six blocks. We set off to find this place, thinking it couldn’t be that bad.

The first block wasn’t that bad. Then the road became very steep, and it was really hard to keep pedaling. We came across a boy walking his bike with a flat tire, and he told us the name of his uncle who was in charge of the community center and could let us in to sleep there. From there, we started asking people outside of their houses for this man. Everyone knew him, of course, and they kept telling us to keep going uphill, very far uphill. I’m not sure how many blocks we really went, because the road wasn’t really the type to have blocks. It was just long and steep and twisty. The last part of it was so steep that we couldn’t pedal anymore and had to walk our bikes. It was even harder to walk. The man we were looking for was not home.

Not many people were around, it seemed, because everyone was down at the main road celebrating the end of Carnival. We eventually came to the police station, and we pulled up to ask to stay there. Nobody was there either, but we could hear them talking on the radio from inside one of the rooms. At this point, we were exhausted. We still didn’t have a place to sleep, and we still had to go to the bakery for our backpack. We decided that I would wait at the police station to ask for a place to sleep when someone returned while Lenin biked down to the main road and took a car service up to the bakery and back to the police station. Lenin unloaded the panniers from the road bike and set off, while I settled in on the ground to write while I waited. Maybe an hour later, Lenin returned with the backpack. There was still no sign of the police, and the street was dead. Only one person had passed by me in the time that Lenin was gone, and I explained to him that I was waiting for the police to ask for a place to stay. It never occurred to me to ask him for a place to stay, which Lenin would have done in his own charming way if he had been the one waiting. We kept waiting.

It grew cold, and dark, and even colder before we started walking around the deserted street, looking for someone to talk to. The police station was next to a small hospital, which was next to a school, both of which were dark and quiet. The only activity on the street was a window where an old woman was running a bodega out of her house, selling small packaged snacks and staples like milk and eggs. Lenin and I walked to her a few times to ask about the police and the community center. Lenin must have found out from her where the people who run the school and the hospital live, because he walked down the street to another house and called out a name I didn’t recognize. Nobody came out of that house, but the lady across the street from them came out and asked us what we were looking for. She told us we could sleep in her living room, and she signaled for us to meet her in the back, just around the corner. When we went inside, the man who I had talked to while waiting for Lenin was there, asking why I hadn’t asked him in the first place for a place to stay. I felt pretty dumb, but I also hate asking for things, and trying to navigate a request like that in Spanish makes it even harder. We were so happy to not be waiting outside in the cold, drizzly rain, and we fell asleep almost immediately after setting up our sleeping pads.

Quito

26 February 2017

Since we spent most of my birthday traveling, we decided to celebrate the day after by having brunch in Quito. The ride to Quito was pure uphill, and it was not easy, even without our bags. It was just about 15 kilometers, or 9 miles, and we climbed 1930 feet to a fancy brunch restaurant.

From there, we rode to the middle of the world, just north of the city and all downhill. Just as we reached the site where they have a line on the ground representing the equator, we got distracted by a huge parade. It was Carnivale, and all of the towns were celebrating over the next few days by holding parades and partying in the street. It reminded me of a cleaner version of Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where all the people spray each other with sweet-smelling foam instead of throwing dangerous objects like shoes at people. We tried not to get sprayed while we watched the parade, but it wasn’t easy. The poor people who were in the parade got the worst of it, with beauty pageant girls especially being targeted, trying to shield their eyes with sunglasses, and musicians trying to play their instruments while totally covered in foam.

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Visiting the middle of the world from a distance

After we had had our fill of watching the parade, we went back to where the touristy equator site was. Just to go inside would cost Lenin and I each $6, so we decided to just observe from behind the gate and read the interesting facts that were posted near the ticket sales outside. Did you know the actual location of the equator is constantly moving, and it only approaches the yellow line marked on the ground during the summer solstice? It’s a total tourist trap, and $6 could buy us a very nice meal at a fancy brunch restaurant.

The ride back to Tumbaco was fast, once we got back into downtown Quito. From the fake equator we had to ride uphill to get back to Quito, and we made a stop to try the helado de paila (ice cream that is hand-made in a pail). I was never impressed with any of the ice cream I had in Colombia, and Ecuador was no exception, really. They advertised helado de paila in many places, but it still was never as satisfying as the ice cream I missed from back home. Most of the flavor options are fruit-based, and the ice cream tastes watery, like the milk-fat content is not nearly high enough to even legally be called ice cream in the US. At this point of our journey, I would do just about anything for a rich, creamy, coffee-based ice cream filled with chunks of chocolate or cookie pieces.