Thursday, 26 April 2018

Quito, Latacunga and the Quilotoa Loop - Ecuador

1) Quito to Latacunga
After a second stint in the amazing Revolution Hostel in Quito, it was time to leave Quito and continue South. We'd chosen to leave on a Sunday as like Colombia, there would be a main drag of road closed (Cicliopaseo) which we hoped would make riding out of Quito easier. We'd decided to ride on the Pan American highway to Machachi and then make a detour on Via Cotopaxi and cycle through Parque Nacional Cotopaxi instead of continuing directly to Latacunga. Just as Quito was not easy to cycle into, cycling out was likewise a challenge for me. It took 3 hours just to get out of the city and I was lagging behind Sabine and Martin almost from the get go. I guess getting sick on the bus ride from Puerto Lopez to Quito had taken it's toll on me! (Then again I'm not the strongest cyclist around either) It was almost a relief when I finally reached Machachi. Being a Sunday, we'd also forgotten that almost the whole country shuts down and while I was looking out for either of the Swiss couples bikes parked outside an eatery, I never did see one until finally at 2pm, I decided to stop by a gas station which had a restaurant and grab something to eat myself! Fortunately there was Wifi and  I was able to receive a message telling me they had detoured into Machachi and had lunch in another restaurant. We arranged to meet in the main square and after a short discussion, I decided to join them on the turnoff into Cotopaxi. It was only 10km to a small town after all and I figured it couldn't be that bad! Well it was! Once you were on the outskirts of town, it was a rock path. In fact, I'd reckon it was even worse than Trampolin de la Muerte in Colombia. The rocks were all bigger than my fist and there were also holes the size of car rims dotted all over. No wonder I was getting lots of thumbs up from drivers. Needless to say even from the first 200m, I was already lagging behind and within 20mins, I could no longer even see a smudge in the distance of where my fellow travellers were. With my street tires sliding all over the place I decided after 2 hours and probably pushing the bicycle for 3-4km of the 5km I had covered to hail one of the white trucks plying the road for a ride. 15mins later I'd whizzed past the Swiss couple who were stopped by the side adjusting their tire pressures and shouted to them that I'd meet them at the next town. Even in a 4x4 truck, it still took the better part of another 30mins before the driver dropped me off saying it was as far as he'd go as he was headed back to Machachi and that it was just a short distance more to the next town. Of course he made sure to extract, what I thought was way too exorbitant considering he was already carrying passengers, 5usd from me before leaving me on my own.

Anyway I saw a small restaurant while coasting into town and figured I'd grab a hot drink since it would be a while before the others would arrive. Thankfully, the owner not only agreed to cook dinner, he also offered to let us camp in the field behind. Thus, I got a cup of hot chocolate, left my bright orange safety vest on the doorway and waited for Sabine and Martin to reach. It took almost an hour before I saw them coast past the restaurant and it kind of vindicated my decision to get a camioneta to carry me up even though it was only a few kilometres more. I already was almost an hour behind them and I doubt I would have been moving at the same pace which meant it would have been probably after 8pm for me to have reached the same point on my own power. Anyway as most cycling days, after we had dinner, I had trout, it was time to turn in and rest up for the next day where we would enter the park.

Cycling the following day was definitely much easier than the last leg the day before where we continued past Machachi. Even though it still remained a dirt road, there was not as many uphill climbs and we made fairly good time enjoying the amazing views as we had a clear day. I'd unfortunately forgotten to stock up on food however and had to eat at the restaurant/lodge which was situated inside the park, near the north entrance. That did burn a hole in my pocket though. After getting used to 2-3usd Almuerzos, it was a bit of a shock when the waiter told me it would be 13usd for the same thing here. I ended up just having a spaghetti which still set me back 8usd. Definitely going to make sure I have a 2-3 days of dry food permanently in my panniers so I don't have to pay cut throat prices in future! Awesome view all throughout and leaving Cotopaxi, we got to descend on a paved road! After the main bit we did veer off and cycle through some towns instead of sticking on the Pan-American to limit the number of vehicles that were passing us. More sand but definitely beats going uphill for hours on end!

2) Latacunga, the Quilotoa Loop and my new bicycle! #specializedawol

Entering Latacunga, we stopped for a quick lunch before going to an accommodation as Martin and Sabine were still deciding on whether to stay in Latacunga or carry on immediately. As I really wanted to hike along the Quilotoa Loop, I knew that we would have to part ways here and maybe i'd catch up again since i was on a shorter time scale and figured I would have to take the bus or hitch if I wanted to keep to it. I also took the afternoon to take a look at the bike shops as I was considering climbing Cotopaxi volcano and maybe take a bike ride down it since we'd only seen the volcano from a distance earlier! While walking around, I figured i'd also ask how much it would cost to get a good bicycle to replace the one I currently was using and guess what, One of them said they could get a base AWOL as it was already in the country!! As i was already planning to leave for Quilotoa, I asked him to bring it in so I could try it out when I got back!

Quilotoa was a fairly nice walk. With hostels that also provided breakfast and dinner at all of the towns along the route, there was no need to bring much. Just a change of clothes to sleep in and toiletries. It did get pretty cold at night and in the mornings so I'd definitely recommend bringing some layers which you can strip of as you're walking as when the sun comes up, it gets warm too! Quite surprisingly, despite all the cycling i'd done with dogs chasing after me, This was the first time I'd been bitten by a dog as well. Fortunately i had on pretty thick khaki pants which i'd not rolled up so I didn't feel the need to get rabies shots as although there was some bleeding, it was more from the pressure of the bite as the dogs teeth had not penetrated my pants! I would definitely recommend having a stick while walking to beat off those aggressive dogs should they decide to get too close!

After doing the hike, it was back to Latacunga where I immediately visited the bike shop only to be told they hadn't actually had the bike shipped. I guess they weren't sure how serious I was especially since I wasn't even staying in Latacunga and thus I had to wait 2 days more for them to bring the bike in. They did volunteer to pay for my accommodation though I declined, saying they should just give me a better price. Gotta say, it was worth the wait though. The Specialized AWOL is in another world compared to my old Trek. With a 15% discount plus trading in the Trek mtb, I still ended up paying more than US retail value though. :'( Anyway, It was back to Quito to get front panniers for the bicycle so that I could have a more balanced bike!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Puerto Lopez and Isla de la Plata

If you've read my previous post, then you know that I made a side trip down to the coast as I wanted to visit Isla de la Plata, also known as the Galapagos for Pobres! A trip to Galapagoes, even with last minute deals would still probably set one back at least 1Kusd although i think it'll probably be around the region of 1.5k. I'm gonna leave Galapagoes for when I don't sweat paying 150usd to go snorkeling. 'sides, I had kind of decided to use the budget for Galapagoes to upgrade the touring bicycle instead. By upgrade I mean trash the existing one and get another which was built specifically for touring. But I digress. this short post is going to be about Isla de la Plata.

From Quito, you can catch a bus from Quitumbe Terminal down South. The journey is supposed to be 8 hours, but thanks to the race car driver mentality of the Bus drivers in Ecuador, it'll more likely take 6 hours meaning if you take the night bus at 9pm, you'll likely be in the Puerto Lopez terminal around 4am. The terminal itself is located on the outskirts of town so it may be a good idea to take one of the many taxis or tuktuks waiting to ferry passengers to their accommodation in town. The Swiss couple and I were fortunate to snag the last 3 seats on the bus despite not having made any reservations. As such I would recommend making a reservation if possible in advance. Taking a taxi to Quitumbe terminal from Central Quito is not cheap, the journey took over an hour, and it won't be fun having to turn back if you weren't able to get tickets.

Surprisingly, upon reaching Puerto Lopez, I discovered that it was not warm as I'd expected. I had to keep my ultra light down jacket on as, being right by the ocean, there was a constant strong breeze. One good thing about reaching at 4am in the morning was that we got to take a look at the fish market. Every morning, and even throughout the day, the fishing boats would come into the bay. Smaller boats would ferry people and their catch right to the shore where buyers, who had pulled up with their trucks would be waiting to view, weigh and purchase the catch! We even got to see some swordfish being gutted and cut up before getting thrown into the back of a refrigerated truck

Even when the sun came up, if you weren't doing any physical activity, it still stayed pretty chilly which really wasn't something I was expecting. I mean when you're by the beach near the Equator, you kind of expect to be warm!! I didn't really help that most of the first day was cloudy and overcast with light rain as well for a couple of hours. We did however manage to make a reservation to visit Isla de La Plata the following day with Aventuras which cost 42USD and included the boat ride to the Island as well as a chance to snorkel with turtles nearby. As it was also whale season, we were graced with some of these gentle mammals breaching the water surface on the way there!

Anyway once you're on Isla de la Plata, there are a couple of walking trails to choose from and once we'd split into 2 groups, one doing a shorter easier hike, we set off with our guide. Known for the birds, especially the blue footed boobies, you can barely walk a hundred meters without running into them on the trail. I guess years of tourists hiking along the trails has desensitised the birds to human presence though they do squawka lot louder when one approaches. Generally though we were advised to keep a meter or so away so if they were on the walking path itself, our guide would divert and walk around them. There were one or two occasions where we did have to make quite a big detour off the track due to the birds being everywhere!

Having enjoyed the tour, I also decided to go on another whale tour, as I had really not gotten my fill of whales having never seen them  before in my life while Sabine and Martin went on a horse riding tour of the surrounding town. The following night, it was back to Quito where we'd pick up our gear and carry on South to Latacunga where I'd planned to hike the Quilotoa Loop and visit Banos!

Friday, 25 August 2017

Cycling to Quito plus some side trips from Quito.

After 3 nights in Ibarra, my legs finally stopped aching. Of course I had to carry on doing something stupid like pack up all my stuff, get back onto the bicycle and make my way to Quito. The owner of Hotel Imbabura definitely did not make it easier by recommending that we take a bus out of Ibarra to avoid the ascents since Ibarra was surrounded on all sides by mountains. In fact, during the side trip where we took a bus to Cotacachi, I couldn't help but notice that the initial 20-30mins of the bus ride was all uphill. It was probably a 200m ascent just to get to San Antonio de Ibarra, a short 4km away, where there were many artisan wood carvers. Needless to say, I struggled while trying not lag behind by too much. I have to say that just like in Colombia, the Ecuadorian people have also been very welcoming to us. One of the owners of a wood carving studio invited us to have coffee and even bought bread for us. When we went up to his house above the shop, his mother had also prepared juice and cheese. A second breakfast is always welcome for hungry cyclists! After spending a bit more time looking at the other shops, it was time to get back on the road as we still had a few more kilometres to cover. We'd decided to use a different route and avoid the highway, instead cycling on the smaller roads and going through some of the small towns. This was a different experience from just sticking on the Pan-American highway. We barely had any vehicles on the same road, maybe at most a truck or 2 every hour, we also got to see a lot more indigenous people as the main highway mainly went beside any towns.
Lagoon near Cotacachi

Lagoon near Cotocachi
Making ice cream the traditional way

Artisan from San Antonio de Ibarra

Being about 120km from Ibarra to Quito, we decided to break the journey into 2 cycling days. We'd been given a recommendation for a camping site near Cayambe where it was only 3USD to camp including shower and WiFi. The site was run by Valentin and his family and we were warmly welcomed by Valentin's son who also invited us to visit his sisters cafe which was just near the Quitsato Sundial, near Cayambe (Fun fact, the Mitad del Mundo monument in Quito isn't actually on the equatorial line). Originally we weren't too keen as it had been a hard ride to get there and we were a bit worried about how late it'd be when we got back and had to prepare dinner. Shouldn't have worried though. They were really nice and kind enough to make up a plate of potatoes with avocado and cheese for all of us. Additionally, we were also treated to a special drink, Colada Morada. This normally is only prepared during "Dia de la Muerte" or Day of the Dead, but it can be found during other times as well. (I did see it in Otavalo when I visited the market a few days later and definitely made it a point to have another mug!)

Packing up after spending a night at Campng Valentin

50% in the Northern hemisphere, 50% in the Southern

Taking a short breather after entering the outskirts of Quito. 

Made it into Quito! Cathedral in the old city.

After another round of Colada Morada and Torta back at Valentin's farm as he was back and his son had brought back a pot for his faily who had stayed behind, we turned in for the night sated. After all it was still about bit of a cycle( approx 40km) to get to Quito from Cayambe and we did want to see the sundial before we left. Entrance was $2 which included a short description about how the sundial worked as well as a bit of history of the Quitsato organisation. By the time we had breakfast and were ready to go, it was already 12 noon. If only we'd known just how hard it was to cycle into Quito. Getting to the edge of town was easy, but it took me 3 hours just to cover the remaining 10km. After taking the wrong turn, I ended up having to push the bicycle 6km uphill on a crappy narrow road as it was too dangerous for me to cycle and cars to pass. By the time I cleared that section, I decided to take a taxi as it was already dark and I did not really want to cycle at night. Surprisingly, despite having split from the couple at the entrance, they'd only reached 30mins before me, which just shows how tough it was to get in. Thankfully we did have 4 nights booked at Hostel Revolution, which was a lot of time to recuperate. We also took the opportunity to visit the Otavalo Saturday market, the largest in South America, which we had missed on our way down as we had stayed an extra night in Ipiales.