Arboletes to Montería
20 November 2017
We woke up with the sun next to this amazing view that we couldn’t appreciate the night before. An open crater of a volcano, full of mud, with the backdrop of the sea just behind it, created the illusion of an infinity pool inside the volcano. It was breathtaking. There were a few sets of wooden steps leading into the crater, and Lenin and I had the pleasure of being the first two to jump in before other tourists started arriving. As the heat from the sun intensified, the mud provided a cooling layer of UV protection. Immersing oneself into a volcano is not the easiest thing to do, but once you can bring yourself to relax, it is incredibly soothing. The mud is so thick, that it is nearly impossible to go very deep, and swimming is very slow-going. This particular volcano was much cleaner and larger than the one we had visited in Necoclí, and it felt safer being in a public place with a caretaker and public bathrooms and showers nearby. We had been playing around in the crater for maybe 15 minutes when I noticed a handful of people working on the far end with shovels, perhaps harvesting mud to sell to tourists in town. The mud supposedly has healing properties, but this could just be a marketing gimmick, and I never researched it further.
Instead of paying to use the shower, we ended up walking down a slippery trail to the beach, where we stripped off our soiled clothing and swam in the sea, with only a fisherman in the distance as a witness. If I ever start a bike tour business, I will certainly take people back to this place to experience bathing in a vulcan de lodo. We talked a little bit with the caretaker and some of the other Colombian tourists before heading off on our bikes.
From Arboletes, we headed directly east, towards Montería. Montería is the capital of Cordoba, a department in northern Colombia that is known for its prized ganadero, or livestock. Ranchers are very proud of their livestock, and some of the highest quality meat and leather come from Cordoba. We passed by many cattle ranches as we cycled inland to the city.
It took us a while to locate our hostess, the woman who we had met the previous day in San Juan de Urabá, but we eventually connected with her and found her house. Montería is quite a large city, or at least it felt like one after riding through farmland all day. We ended up staying two nights there, since our hostess was so welcoming and her puppy was so damn cute.
On our day off from cycling, we walked to downtown Montería and explored the shopping area. Every large Colombian city has an open-air marketplace where you can find pretty much anything. We bought some second-hand clothes for just a few pesos, and on the way back we picked up a machete to bring with us for chopping coconuts along the road. Montería also has a pretty nice bike path that parallels the river. In the trees along this path, monkeys hang out and take food from people. There are some neighborhoods on the other side of the river that are accessible via ferry, and there are several crossings for these rudimentary ferry boats. The boats do not have engines, and they are tethered with a rope to a cable that crosses the river from one bank to the other. The captain just uses a stick to push off the river bottom and move the boat back and forth across the river. They are more like rafts with small shacks built on top of them.
Thanks to our lovely hostess, we were able to stay two nights in Montería and share meals for only the cost of food from the market. On the second morning, we continued on our way towards Cartagena.
Necoclí to Arboletes
19 November 2017
Despite our best intentions to get an early start that morning, Lenin and I ended up leaving Necoclí well after noon. The other bicycle travelers who had generously hosted us under someone else’s roof invited us to share the fish that they had caught the day before for breakfast. It was being stored in somebody’s fridge just a few blocks away, so we packed up our belongings and biked over to where there was a little hut and barbecue set up on the beach. This ended up taking a good chunk of our morning, as we helped to clean all of the fish that they had. The fish were much too small to be kept legally, and I felt so guilty eating them, but they were already dead, so there was not much I could do. While cleaning and preparing them, we did try to explain that the fish were way too small, hoping that they would release such young fish in the future. We each ate maybe three small fish of various species, accompanied by fried plantains, before continuing our journey along the coast.
Traveling by bicycle is a unique experience, invoking all sorts of reactions from people. Most are in disbelief when you tell them you are traveling by bicycle, to the point where they are not convinced until you confirm what they thought they heard you say at least two or three times and follow up with interesting stories to prove that you are serious, albeit crazy. On the other hand, you become privy to a whole network of like-minded people who you never knew existed before you dove into this lifestyle choice yourself. I never would have met Lenin (or Dallas) had I not made the decision to jump off the ledge of a typical American career path to ride my bike instead. Now it seems as though people of similar mindset are everywhere I go. That morning as we sat around the fire eating fish on the beach with the other bike travelers, we were approached by a few people who were interested in our adventures, probing us with questions. One group of 3 people walked over to us with a clipboard, obviously working for the city. They were surveying tourists and wanted to ask about our stay in Necoclí. We answered to the best of our abilities, but our situation couldn’t really be applied to the typical tourist (we didn’t stay in a hotel, didn’t spend money, etc). When people do find out what we’re doing, most people want to help in some way, which normally takes the form of advice against doing whatever we were planning to do, or warnings about the dangerous roads up ahead. Advice must be taken with a grain of salt, since most of these people would never consider riding a bicycle that far in general, let alone between different towns and countries. Anyway, the general consensus of the people we spoke with that morning told us to steer clear of the scenic coastal road and take the shorter main road that cut inland.
As we got a late start, we were pedaling through the heat of the afternoon sun the entire time. We stopped for dinner at a small town called San Juan de Urabá, just 20 km outside of Arboletes. While dining on fish at this restaurant, a man and woman with a German Shepherd puppy came and sat at the table next to ours. The man was local, and the woman was his sister, who had just moved back to Colombia after retiring from a career in the US agricultural industry. Sadly, I only remember the name of the woman’s dog, Trotski. We spoke to them for a while after we finished dinner, and the man paid for two rounds of beer plus our dinner! Before departing, we got the woman’s contact info so we could reach out when we passed through Montería, the city where she had just purchased her retirement home.
We departed San Juan de Urabá with a sense of urgency to arrive in Arboletes before the setting sun, and we made very good time over these last 20 kilometers. We arrived at the local beach just in time to witness the sunset on the horizon, and we shared a papaya that we had plucked from a roadside tree. Arboletes has another volcano that is open to the public for bathing in the mud, just a few kilometers outside of town along the road towards Montería. Lenin and I asked some police officers about camping there, and they unanimously recommended against that, saying that it may be dangerous. We decided to check it out anyway.
Darkness sets in pretty quickly after sunset, although it was only around 7pm when we arrived at the volcano. It was difficult to see anything, but there was a small house where the mayordomo (caretaker) lived with his family. A heavyset woman with rich, black skin was lounging on the porch in front of the door, and two kids were playing outside around the entryway. We walked up and asked if we could string our hammocks up under the pavilion next to the volcano for the night. She told us it was technically not allowed, but if we got everything cleaned out before it opened for visitors, we should be fine. This ended up being my favorite place that we slept during the whole trip. It was wonderfully dark and quiet, with only the periodic sound of the sulfur gas bubbling up from the center of the mud-filled crater, less than a hundred meters away. As we were setting up our hammocks, the kids brought over some food that the woman had cooked for dinner. We were fed very well, without even asking, and I was touched by the generosity of this humble family. That day I learned that you can’t always trust the cops, but the locals are generally overwhelmingly welcoming and eager to help.
Chigorodó to Turbo
17 November 2017
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Getting to Quito (almost)
25 February 2017
We woke up on my birthday to a drizzly, grey sky. Neither of us felt like biking in the rain, and according to my map, there were not many places to stop between Lago Agrio and Quito. It would have taken us three days of climbing to get to Quito, which sits at an elevation of 2850 meters. Over breakfast at the corner bakery, we decided to try hitchhiking to Quito before spending the $24 on bus tickets.
We rode back in the direction of the church where we tried to stay the previous night, in the light rain, to a gas station on the outskirts of town. Hitchhiking requires patience, and we were mentally prepared to be waiting there for a while before we found someone who would agree to take us in the right direction. Luckily, the first person we talked to offered us a ride almost all the way to Quito!
Carlos had a new-looking, spacious SUV that easily fit both of our bikes in the back. Before leaving Lago Agrio, he stopped at a restaurant furnished with beautiful handmade tables and chairs, that the owner had made himself from local trees. Lenin and I shared the local specialty of the season, which was a fish wrapped in banana leaves and grilled over charcoal, accompanied by a tea called guayusa. While waiting for our food, the restaurant owner invited us to look around his house, which was next door and full of beautiful hand-crafted furniture that he had created.
The drive towards Quito took several hours and winded through beautiful jungle as we climbed in altitude. The first hour or so was relatively flat, but once we began climbing, it was very curvy and would have been a tough ride with our loaded bikes. We passed several waterfalls and enjoyed many scenic views across the valley from the mountains we were on. Halfway through the drive, Lenin, who had been sitting in the back seat, had to get out to vomit. We switched places after this and continued on along the twisty mountain road, stopping just once more to use the bathroom and try some homemade ice cream.
From where Carlos dropped us off, we had a quick ride downhill to get to the Casa de Ciclistas, which was actually just outside of Quito in a town called Tumbaco. We arrived just before sunset, and Santiago welcomed us onto his ample property, which is contained behind a wall.
Within the wall was a white, two-story house, a laundry area, bathroom and shower across the courtyard, two garage-sized buildings behind the bathroom/shower/laundry, and several avocado and guama trees. The home had a spacious living area on the first floor that included a piano. The kitchen and stairs to the second floor had separate entrances from the house, as well as a room where Santiago’s mother lived. There were already 5 other bike tourists hanging out in one of the garages. Four of them were from Argentina, and one was from Belgium. Another cycling couple from England had also been staying there for the past week, but they were out getting dinner when Lenin and I arrived.
For dinner, we walked a few blocks to an artisan pizza place, and on the way back we stopped to buy an ice cream cake to share with the other travelers. Where Lenin and I stayed on the second floor, there were two other rooms and a bathroom. The property could accommodate a lot of travelers, and Santiago didn’t charge anybody to stay there. He even wanted us to stay longer than the two nights we stayed.
Crossing the border: Orito to Lago Agrió
24 February 2017
From Orito we backtracked to the main road, which was under construction for a good stretch of the way to Hormiga, the only town of any significant size on the way to Ecuador. The lack of pavement made for slow progress, and we had to wait a few times in places where only one lane was open to one direction at a time.
Along this road was a bridge that had been taken over by guerrillas years ago. The guerrillas basically killed anyone who tried to cross the bridge, dumping the bodies in the river. Many towns in Colombia, including the one where Lenin grew up, were accustomed to the guerrillas coming in several times a year to massacre the police and steal supplies. First, the electricity to the whole town would go out, announcing their arrival. Then, you would hear the bombs and gunfire. They would usually target police stations, and sometimes the entire police force in a town would be killed. Then, the guerrillas would rob everything they needed from the town, including food, ammunition, and medicines. The next morning, when there was daylight, people would come out, inventory the damage and see who had died. Lenin lost friends this way who were caught in the crossfire, or who had been too close to the police station when a bomb went off.
The towns in Putumayo seemed to either be common victims of this type of warfare, or protected from it, depending on who lived in the town. Orito, for example, didn’t get attacked very much because most of the people living there were related or connected to the attackers in some way. Or, it could have been because the town was dominated by the oil industry and was heavily reinforced by military protection. El Tigre, on the other hand, just north of Hormiga, seemed to have a darker history of oppression by the guerrillas. It was chilling to think about what had occurred at the bridge while we crossed over the Guamez river outside of El Tigre.
One of the best parts of riding in Colombia are the many delicious fruits that are so readily available everywhere. Guava was in season, and as we neared the Ecuadorian border, we passed hundreds of trees full of ripe guavas. We also passed sugarcane, and when we saw a farmer loading the back of his truck with freshly cut caña, Lenin asked if we could have some. Without hesitation, he shared four stalks with us, expertly removing the hard, outer skin with a machete. The last snack we bought before reaching the border was a turron de maní. This is a roll of panela that has been kneaded by hand to the point where it is a taffy, or nougat consistency. It is mixed with peanuts, making for a crunchy, sweet and salty treat that resembles a Payday candy bar.
When we came to Puente Internacional, the bridge that crosses from Colombia into Ecuador over the Río San Miguel, we asked a policeman to take a photo of us. On one side of the bridge were Colombia police officers, and the other side were Ecuadorian police officers. The immigration office was still a few kilometers down the road into Ecuador, so after getting a photo from both sides by two different officers, we rode on to this office. Most of my border crossings on land have been between the US and Canada, where photography is always strictly forbidden. I thought it was novel to actually have the police officers take our photos at the border for us.
We pulled up to the immigration office to get our passports stamped. Beyond this point, we passed cacao farms, more guava trees, and many properties for sale, as well as many abandoned houses. During the time when the guerrillas were most active, they would frequently cross over the border to hide out in Ecuador. The Colombian president at the time, Uribe, had a vengeance for the guerrillas since his father was killed by them when he was a boy. Disregarding the fact that this wasn’t his territory, he ordered the military to bomb the jungle, trying to find and kill the leaders of these guerrilla groups who were reportedly hiding in Ecuador. As a result, not many people live near the border, and there is a lot of abandoned property.
When we got a little further south, we started seeing green murals painted with Lenin’s name on them in huge blue letters. Ecuador has recently had an election, and one of the presidential candidates was named Lenin. They actually need to hold another election because the results were so close, so it’s possible that Lenin may very well be the next president of Ecuador.
Continuing to the south, we approached Lago Agrió, or bitter/sour lake. This town was originally settled by people who had migrated from a town in southern Ecuador called Loja and had named it Nueva Loja. However, when the big oil company, Texaco, started taking control of the area, they renamed it Lago Agrió. The town is not pretty, and it appears far removed from the beautiful jungle that we were surrounded by closer to the border.
We had the contact info of a man from WarmShowers who lived in Lago Agrió, so we headed towards the address listed for him. We tried stopping at a few places to use a phone and call him, but nobody seemed to have a working phone we could use. Just after sunset and just shy of 100 kilometers from where we began in Orito, we came to the church where this WarmShowers host was supposed to be. At first glance, it appeared that nobody was there, but when we got closer, a pregnant woman stepped out of the darkness. She told us that the man who used to host people was the pastor, but he had left the church a few months ago, and she didn’t know where he had gone.
We decided to go back towards the downtown and ask if we could stay at the fire station. The fireman who greeted us told us that they were understaffed, and the people working there were just covering for the actual employees while they went to a training in Quitó. He didn’t have the authority to let us stay at the station, so we settled for a cheap hotel around the corner. My birthday was the next day, so it was kind of like an early birthday present to splurge on a hotel, but I still felt guilty about spending $15 on a room (they use US dollars in Ecuador).
While walking around to find food, we found another bike traveler. He was from Bogotá, and he may have been more talkative than Lenin. We were both very tired, but we listened patiently to his stories from the road before retreating back to our hotel.