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.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Cycling across the border between Colombia and Ecuador

After leaving Pasto, we headed to Ipiales which was the border town at the Colombia-Ecuador border in Colombia. Took the opportunity to visit the Las Lajas Sanctuary, a church built between a valley. Despite the rain, which has plagued the past 7 riding days, and the resulting overcast skies, the view was still amazing. Being close to 3,000m elevation, I could definitely feel my lungs struggling to extract oxygen from the thin air. Walking to get a better view definitely had me gasping for breath and I guess it was a combination of the 700m of ascent, thin air and my general lack of cycling fitness which had me struggling to walk around!

Plaques giving thanks for favors received lined the walkway to the Cathedral.
After the second night, we woke up at 7, had breakfast and headed straight to Rumichaca to cross the border. Getting there was easy as it was generally downslope and it took less than 20mins from Ipiales. Getting through immigration on the Colombian side was easy too though we had to use the pedestrian line (kinda hoped that we could use the car lane as it would have been faster). It was the Ecuador immigration that really took some time. We were queuing up for almost 3 hours before we had a chance to even get within visual range of the counters. There were also a large number of Venezuelan asylum seekers camped outside of the immigration office. I guess it is a good thing I decided not to visit Venezuela after all. The solidarity and camaraderie of the Venezuelans were amazing though and they sang songs to keep their spirits up. Cycling in the Andes has been tough, but I'd imagine waiting outside for days/months without and idea of what will happen and being in limbo ain't easy either! I guess not that many Singaporeans use this particular border as well as the lady took my passport to the back room twice and also consulted 2 other colleagues before returning to the counter and proceeding with the necessary work.

Right after clearing customs, it was off to Tulcan. Needless to say, after the brilliant downhill from Ipiales, there was a climb right from the get go before we could get to Tulcan. It was also odd to have to start thinking in USD which is the currency used in Ecuador.
First meal in Ecuador. 
Based on the recommendation of Oscar from Colombia, we also visited the cemetery in Tulcan before proceeding on the Pan American Highway. It had a topiary garden which made it a really unique experience!

As it was pretty late already we decided to stay at the next town in Julio Andrade as it was only a short 20km away. Asked at the fire station in Julio Andrade, however the station chief directed us to San Pedro de Huaca, a fifteen minute ride away, as it was an actual station and more likely to have space to put us up. Fortunately for us, after one of the firemen consulted the station chief, they let us stay in an empty bunk which had 2 beds. Definitely a lifesaver as it was already dark and none of us wanted to be cycling at night especially with the area being in the clouds it's like perpetually raining!


Up bright and early to head Ibarra, which almost a hundred kilometers away, and the first 70km was magnificent. Downhill most of the way and we covered it in 3 hours with speeds close to 70km/h on some stretches. Barely had to peddle at all and before knowing what was up, we were through Valle de Chota and looking for a place to grab lunch! Happiness for me was short-lived though as the last 30km was where it was really painful. Right from leaving the lunch venue, it was ascending all the way. When I reached a crest, I would realise that it wasn't even flat, it was just that the incline was not as steep as before. With some tailwind, I was happy just to be able to keep above 6km/h when i wasn't stationary! The views at the last climb before Ibarra was amazing though and i used the opportunity to take more photos while resting at the same time!

Took a while but finally I made it to Ibarra, a medium sized town, and met my fellow travellers at Hotel Imbabura. The proprietor is a friendy old man who lives with his family and has a massive collection of airline sized liquor from all over the world. Sadly there isn't any liquor manufactured in Singapore so he had to satisfy himself with showing me one from Japan. He recommended Laguna Cuicocha and the town of Cotacachi which was well known for it's leather goods which we visited the following day and also San Antonio de Ibarra which we intend to stop by on our way to the Equator! From the bus ride out to Cotacachi, it looks like getting out of Ibarra to the Equator promises to be a challenge with something like a 400m ascent over the course of 10km. Fingers crossed for my legs!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Cycling from San Agustin to Pasto

One thing has definitely occured to me the past week of cycling. The main issue hasn't really been meeting up with the couple from Switzerland. It has been actually keeping up with them! From San Agustin down to Pitalito and later San Juan de Villalobos it wasn't too bad as there weren't many continuous climbs. It was pretty flat all the way and any ascents were generally just for 10-15mins. In fact, we covered about 65km on both days. When you consider that our bikes weigh around 50 kilograms, and we're on 26"wheels, it really isn't too bad! I also got some pointers on how the Ibera rack could be fixed in a more optimum position, where the load was mounted directly above the rear axle, which really made a difference in the stability of the bike! While in Pitalito, we stayed in a farm which belonged to a friend of the policeman, Miller, who worked in Villavieja. Turns out Miller also lived in Pitalito and was off work and so we met up for lunch at his house before going to the farm.

All 3 bikes!
Re-attaching the Ibera Rack
Even from Pitalito to San Juan del Villalobos, before the last 30km, I was almost left behind by the Swiss coupe as there was just nonstop climbing and I tried initially to grab a lift from a camioneta to meet them at San Juan de Villalobos. Unfortunately, none of the drivers seem willing to stop and pick up anyone. I ended up walking the bike about 4km to the top of the mountain. Fortunately the rest of the way was downhill and I made pretty good time, one of the benefits of having a bike that's pretty much the same weight as myself, reaching San Juan de Villalobos at 615pm. While buying groceries at small shop, we were also invited to have tinto (coffee) the following morning before we set off.
Really friendly people in the town of San Juan de Villalobos
Looks like the oil industry is still going in Colombia!
Trout farm on the way to Mocoa
At the end of every descent there is always a climb. Always nice to take a break midway!
Sometimes you got to get out of the way of bulls unless you want to get gored!
We were really lucky after reaching Mocoa too! Originally, on the map application MapsMe, we saw that there were 4 possible camping sites. But after going to the first one, we realised that it wasn't actually possible to camp there. Maybe many years ago someone had been able to but the security guards at the first site, ITP, were not going to let us camp. We were going to look for a hospedaje however, MAtin asked a local cyclist if he knew any location where we could camp and he brought us to William, a Couchsurfing host and english teacher, who gladly let us stay the night and use the shower too!
Beer is like liquid energy!

Pasta tonight.

When balance is crap, you always end up with chain grease. not just on the right leg but also on the left!
After Mocoa was were it really got tough. We were on the road know as Trampolin de la Muerte (One of the most dangerous roads in the world). Our host in Mocoa said it was probably suicidal too. This was a 3 day journey and on the 2nd day, I only covered 18km over the 8 hours of cycling. Crazy right... I have clocked over 50km/hr on downhills and even on earlier days, I generally averaged above 15km/h so I was really surprised when I checked my bike computer and found out my mileage for the day. I think if the Swiss couple were not with me, they might have been able to cover it in a day instead of the two we took. I had been told previously that it was more tiring to push the bike than to cycle on it, and this was really apparent on the Trampolin de la Muerte. An all gravel road and only ascending, with my street tires, sometimes I couldn't even push the bike along! Even peddling on the smallest inclines was a chore for me and I was on the lowest possible gear the entire time. We ended up staying the night at El Mirador. The police officer in charge of the station there was really friendly and arranged for us to sleep in an abandoned building which was a boon. None of us really wanted to set up a tent in the rain!
Run in with a chicken. Many feathers not pictured -.-"
Asked a store keeper what the rest of the road was like and he said it was good. Right.........
Spent the night in the school compound in the town of La Tebaida.
Used my filter as what came out of the tap was still yellowish even after a few minutes of flow.
Foggy on almost all of the past cycling days. At least no rain yet.
Gravel roads, rain and climbing mountains! Life doesn't get better!

Small break in the rain and an opportunity to see a smudge of blue sky.
Home for the night in El Mirador.
One of many water crossings.
On the third day, we made a push for Sibundoy. This was also another 2 climbs with a large descent in between before reaching San Francisco and then a short leg to Sibundoy. I cheated though, after the first climb and a hellish descent in the rain, I checked the map and realised that the 2nd climb was was almost 15km long and also a large climb and so I made the decision to take a camioneta from the restaurant "Los Cristales" where we had taken shelter from the rain when it got heavier straight to Sibundoy. Coincidentally there was a Colombian cyclist in the same camioneta which I managed to board. Even in a camioneta, it was still a 1.5hr ride before Sibundoy. I ended up spending most of the afternoon trying to locate the warm shower host we were planning to stay with though. And I think it was the right decision as Martin and Sabine only reached Sibundoy at 8pm. I reckon if I had tried to carry on, I would have only made it after 11pm if I was lucky.
Fellow cyclist from Colombia

5 day old brakes. Done in by the wet weather.
Anyway we ended up staying two nights at the house of our WarmShowers host, using the time to recuperate for the road to Pasto, which also entailed more climbing. I guess when you're already in the Andes, it's to be expected! Sibundoy was a really tranquil town though. It's also here that we did what most bicycle tourist do on rest days. Absolutely nothing aside from eating and sleeping! I had 5 meals on the full day we had! 2 breakfasts which ended up being 5 arepas, popcorn, 2 agua panelas and a tinto, tea of cakes and strawberries and cream, a set lunch of trout, rice and salad and a light dinner of rice and potatoes in peanut sauce.

Fooling around in the cultural park

They do have some cool carvings

Tranquil beauty
It was a bit sad to leave Sibundoy and the amazing Aguillon Chindoy family we stayed in but we had to make our way onwards. Before Pasto, we'd planned to make a stop at Laguna de la Cocha. Even though it was only about 30km and on paved roads, I guess my legs were still not used to the cycling lifestye and after about 5km of climbing, I lagged behind.. At least I wasn't too far behind. I reached the agreed meeting site about 25mins later. But i'm pretty sure that they had a lot of stops for photos and snacks whereas I stopped often as my legs just could not keep peddling. The place really was amazing, just that for some reason weather was not with us and shortly after we had set up our tents, it started raining and continued to do so until Pasto. We scrapped our original plan to visit the island in the lake as well as with the rain it probably would not have been worth it.
Much needed break as we climb up to 3km above sea level

View of the lake while descending

More than 500g of pasta because we are hungry

View from hotel Jardin del lago

Viewpoint just before reaching the top and descending to Pasto

Cuy (guinea pig)

Carrera 40 in Pasto is where all the restaurants serving Cuy can be found.
Mileage so far up to Pasto.