Hiking, not biking

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This adventure is a bit off theme, as there was no biking, but it was too wonderful not to share.  Last week, Margaret and Julia traveled to Kauai, Hawaii for a week of hiking, snorkeling, and general enjoyment.  It was a bit of a spur-of-the-moment trip, and we have to say that everything seemed to work out perfectly.

Julia arrived in Kauai exactly 24 hours before Margaret and enjoyed a day of relaxation.  She spent the night at Kauai Beach House Hostel after taking a taxi ride from the airport.  The taxi driver was so friendly and helpful, offering tips about what to see, including a kayaking trip up a river that we ended up doing later in the week.  The ride was a bit pricey (about $30), but Kauai doesn’t have Uber, and it was too late for any public transport.  Even though it was dark, you could tell that there were mountains looming on one side and the ocean on the other.

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The morning brought a wonderful sunrise over the ocean, which was just out front of the hostel!  Julia walked over for a massive breakfast at Kountry Kitchen Kapaa, then did some grocery shopping to prepare for our upcoming backpacking trips.  Around noon, Julia decided to go for a run, forgetting that it was blistering hot.  She ran along the ocean on a wonderful new bike path that runs ten miles along the coast from Lihue north.  At one point, she saw a turnoff and ran a few miles up into the hills to check out Opaeka’a Falls – a worthwhile diversion.

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In the afternoon, she did some oceanside relaxing, then spent the evening at Sam’s, sipping some local beer and eating amazing food.  Margaret was set to arrive around 10PM, so Julia waited for her at the hostel, having moved into the “private room” which was, hilariously, not very private at all.  It had slatted glass windows open to the outdoors, from which about 20% of the slats were missing, and it had two doors, only one of which locked.   It was nice that we had a separate room, though, because we were filled with stories and laughs once Margaret arrived, and we created quite a ruckus!

Margaret made it to the hostel a bit later than expected, after a tight connection had gotten Margaret on the flight, but not her bags.  They were about 16 hours behind her.  We strategized about what to do, since we’d planned a full hike and camping for the next day, a task that would be difficult without Margaret’s tent and backpack.  We decided to have a relaxing morning (with traditional Moco Loco breakfast, pictured below) and check out some river canoeing before getting Margaret’s bags from the airport and heading out to camp.

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We rented canoes from Kamokila Hawaiian Village and set out paddling upriver, first to a beautiful fern grotto and then on to a swimming hole.  We reached the “swimming hole” sooner than expected when a fast current flipped us right out of our boat!  There was a minute of fairly intense panicking as we floated downstream, flailing about and hoping that we still had the boat and our bags, but we soon found a part of the river that was shallow and regrouped.  Pulling the boat out on a steep embankment to flip it over and get the water out, we discovered that almost all of our belongings – with the exception of one flip-flop – had been trapped underneath the boat!  We had been given a dry bag that kept our phones dry, and we even managed to recover Julia’s camera, which had been loose in the canoe, but inside a sealed plastic bag.  It seemed somewhat miraculous.

Now that we were soaking wet, we were ready to head into town for some lunch.  We hit up the Kalapaki Beach Hut for an amazing taro burger that really hit the spot.  By the time we were done, Margaret’s bags had arrived, so we swung by the airport on our way up north towards the Kalalau Trail.  By the time we arrived at the trailhead, it was about 4PM, and we knew we needed to hike 6.5 miles to the first campsite, a task that seemed unlikely in the less than two hours of remaining sunlight.  Instead, we camped at a nearby county beach.  Permits for camping on the beach are required, but a lifeguard informed us that it would be possible to simply buy a permit for $5/person when the ranger came around, and that turned out to be true!  We watched some hard-core surfers in the big waves, then set up camp and rested up for the next day’s adventures.

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In the morning, the alarm went off to the pitter patter of rain on the tent, so we were reluctant to climb out and start our hike, but we eventually got moving and were rewarded by amazing views right away!  We hiked along the Kalalau Trail, making our way very slowly along the narrow, steep, muddy track that has a reputation for being one of the world’s most dangerous hikes.

Shortly after setting out, the rain stopped, but we still got our boots and legs thoroughly muddy as we continued along the trail.  We had set out hoping to make the full 11 miles in one day, despite the fact that we’d originally planned two days for that hike, but by lunchtime we realized that we wouldn’t make it before dark.  Since the last few miles of the trail are a bit treacherous, including a portion called “Crawler’s Ledge”, we decided not to risk it, and instead stopped at mile 6.5 to set up camp.  We got there around 4PM, so we set up camp and then walked a bit further without our heavy packs, precisely to Crawler’s Ledge (a sheer several-hundred-foot drop straight to the ocean below).  Margaret braved the cliff, and Julia was happy to sit back and take photos.

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We enjoyed the evening at our muddy campsite in the woods, complete with an attentive mouse that encouraged us to hang our food in a tree as we slept (a nickname for mice being “tiny bears” for their voraciousness).  The next morning, we were able to get an early start and caught some amazing views on the way back.

We were back at our starting point by the early afternoon and jumped right into the ocean to wash off the sweat, mud, and general grime that we’d built up.  We were glad to be at a beach with a lifeguard, as the other beaches along the coast that don’t have lifeguards are quite dangerous, with people drowning multiple times per year.  Fortunately, the ocean was calm where we went in, and we relaxed on the beach for a few hours.  Once we’d “freshened up” in the ocean, relatively speaking, we headed to the town of Hanalei for dinner at Tahiti Nui.  There, Julia found vegetarian poke, where the traditional sushi rice bowl was made instead with mushrooms.  Delicious!

From there, we drove back to the same hostel in Kapaa that we’d stayed at before and settled in for a night of planning and relaxing to the sound of ocean waves.  On Wednesday morning, we packed up and set out for the next phase of our trip:  hiking in Waimea Canyon!  On our way to the canyon, however, we stopped at Poipu beach for some snorkeling.  We rented gear from Nukumoi Surf Shop for $6/each and jumped into the calm waves.  The fish were stunning!  There were so many and such diversity that it’s hard to describe.  We also saw a Hawaiian green sea turtle sunbathing on the beach.  The lifeguards were quick to put up signs around him asking swimmers to keep their distance and give the turtle some peace and quiet.  He sat on the beach for a few minutes, then turned around and dove right back into the water!

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After we’d taken in some sun and eaten a shave ice with macadamia nut ice cream, we got back into the car for the last few miles of the journey.  We headed to the Kukui trailhead for our 2.5-mile hike down into the canyon where we’d be camping near the canyon river.  We’d decided to start this hike later in the day to avoid the heat, and that decision seemed to pay off–the uphill hikers we passed were clearly suffering from the sun.

It was a pretty steep descent, but by the time we arrived most of the muddy parts had dried up, and it was easy going.  We arrived at our campsite quickly and set up camp, exploring the beautiful river and meandering a bit further along the path.  After we’d ventured a bit outside of camp, we returned and were surprised to see two baby pigs near our campsite!  They were cute, but we were a bit afraid of their parents and kept our eyes wide open the rest of the time for wild boars (especially since we’d heard the angry grunting of one boar on the first hike and had gotten the boar’s message to stay away!).

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We had a very peaceful night by the river, just us and one other camper hammocking nearby.  The river was the perfect place to watch the stars; the night sky over Kauai was unbelievably dark.  In the morning, we tried our best to get moving early and beat the heat for the 2.5 miles uphill to get back to the trailhead.  Again, we seemed to time it right, as we climbed mostly in the shade and the cool of the morning and were back at the trailhead by about 10:00.

We decided to drive back down to the beach for a few hours, and on the way we stopped for some Thai treats on the side of the road – fried apple banana lumpia!

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From there, we drove through Hanapepe, which looked too cute to pass through without walking around.  It’s an old town, filled with quaint buildings, half of which are now cutesy stores and cafes, and half of which are just abandoned old houses.  We did some window shopping, paying lots of attention to the wonderful local art that was on display.

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Once we’d seen the sights in Hanapepe, we headed to Salt Pond Park for some beach time. It was super relaxing, but also a bit chilly, so we ended up passing on snorkeling and just soaked up the sun.

In the early afternoon, we returned to the Waimea Canyon area to check out a few more vista points before our last night of camping, which would be at a car camping site we could easily access.  The canyon in the evening light was stunning as always!  We also drove out to the Na Pali Coast overlook to see the last bit of the Kalalau Trail that we hadn’t been able to see on our hike.

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We were so pumped to have our final night be an easy night of camping after some tough hikes to our backcountry destinations.  As always, we slept well, although we weren’t ready to get up for our last day of the trip the following morning! Luckily, there were dozens of roosters wandering around and helping us wake up with their cock-a-doodle-dooing.

We took one final hike into the canyon before heading back down to the coast to wrap up our trip with some delicious brunch in Waimea (complete with rice and gravy, an apparent Hawaii staple).  From there, we drove to the beach to quickly repack some things and get Margaret to the airport.

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Julia had about six extra hours to kill before her flight, so on a whim we stopped by the Marriott in Lihue, about a mile from the airport, to see if Julia could store her bags there since she’d be without a car and wanted to swim.  We were lucky that they said yes, even after Julia repeatedly reminded the staff that she wasn’t staying at the hotel.  We dropped Julia’s stuff, and then headed to the airport with Margaret and the car.  It was tough to say goodbye, especially after such an amazing week, but we know that we’ll see each other again soon!

Julia wrapped up her last few hours in Hawaii with a quick surfing lesson.  She even caught a couple of waves!  Tired from that, she relaxed to some live music on the beach and had one last taro burger before catching the complementary airport shuttle from the Marriott (unbelievable – the staff said that anyone going to the airport from the Marriott property could use the shuttle!).  It was an amazing trip, and we can’t wait for the next chance we get to go back and explore more!

Getting into our “Granite Gears”

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So, it’s been a while since the last post and since the last ride, but this week, 2/3 of the original gang (Julia and Margaret) hopped back on the bikes for a short tour around Colorado.  We started in Boulder and planned to do a loop of the Peak to Peak Scenic Byway that would take us up into Rocky Mountain National Park, along the mountain ridge, and back into Boulder.

Luckily, the bike that Margaret had borrowed for Julia fit her perfectly, and without too much fuss everything was ready to go on Wednesday morning.  On recommendation from Margaret’s roommate, we decided to head a bit east into the prairie country to enjoy some more peaceful roads with less traffic instead of making a straighter shot up to the mountains along a major road.  It totally paid off!  We got to see an insane number of gophers and the beautiful McCall Lake.

Before the climb really began, it had already gotten quite hot, so we decided to pull over in the small town of Lyons for a cup of coffee and some peanut-butter-and-honey tortillas.  It was a very relaxing stop, and the coffee got us motivated for the climb that awaited us.

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From Lyons, we had about 20 miles of a slow upward grind.  At first, we were a bit apprehensive, but as we got going, we realized that if there’s one thing that the US is good for, it’s grading the roads!  It was so much easier to just knock it out, slowly and steadily, on a max grade of 6% than it was many times in Latin America fighting with higher grades.  We did still need to grind down into our granny gears, which we renamed our “granite gears” to fit in with the surroundings.

It took us a few hours and numerous snack breaks, but we finally made it to Estes Park!  The peak of the climb was a few miles outside of the city, where we had a great view looking down over the town.  Then we descended to the lake before rolling over to the grocery store to stock up (we’d kept our stash pretty light to facilitate the climbing).  Note the interesting sign we saw just outside Estes Park:  “Residential Neighborhood.  PLEASE no discharging of firearms.”  Oh America.

At the grocery store, we met another cyclist – a competitive road racer who had ridden the Peak to Peak in the opposite direction and planned to do what we would do over three days in just one day!  He’d already ridden 100 miles to get to Estes Park (and bear in mind that we arrived at the same time despite leaving 5 hours before him) and was headed back to Boulder.  Impressive!

After we’d stocked up, we rolled over to a restaurant, Nepal Cafe, where we had more curry and momos than we thought we could.  The owners of the restaurant were very sweet, helping Julia to find a place to charge her cell phone and making sure we had everything we wanted.  We were able to eat outside near a river that ran through the town.  It was heavenly!

As we were finishing up eating, we heard some thunderclaps and remembered that we’d been warned about afternoon thunderstorms.  Hoping not to get hit by lightning, we headed into a cute café/bookstore, Inkwell and Brew, for some hot chocolate and entertainment while the storm passed.

When the skies had cleared about 45 minutes later, we headed out for the last few miles to our campsite at Mary’s Lake.  It was more uphill to get to the site, but well worth it!  The people who checked us in were super nice, and we snagged a nice quiet campsite on the edge of the property.  We were able to have a campfire because there were fire rings to protect against the wind and prevent forest fires, so we enjoyed the flames while we watched the sun set.

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The next day, we had a peaceful morning before mounting onto the bikes and riding over to Rocky Mountain National Park.  It was a bit of a ride to get to our trailhead, which was a few miles past the toll gate where we paid $10 each for a daily pass into the park.  We decided to do a loop that started at Cub Lake trailhead, circled back near Fern Falls, and let out at the Fern Lake trailhead.  Although it was a short hike, our legs were a bit tired from the previous day, and we jumped at the opportunity to take the shuttle back the last mile from the Fern Lake trailhead to the Cub Lake trailhead where we’d left our bikes.

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From there, we pedaled back to camp, stopping for just a minute to pick up some Colorado beers to go with our s’mores!  It was another beautiful night.

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On day 3, we packed up and rolled out towards Allenspark, CO.  Soon enough, there was more climbing.  It was a beautiful ride between peaks and cliffs that took us through more of Rocky Mountain National Park, past Lilly Lake (pictured below).

Later on in the day, we stopped at a beautiful historical church, Saint Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic Chapel.  Its founder, Monsignor Joseph J. Bosetti, described his connection to the mountains in the following way:

“The very reason for going to the mountains for camping is to camp in the mountains; to study them in their infinite moods, to understand their multifarious messages, their inexhaustible revelations, to read in them the remote past of the universe and the ultimate destiny of the world; to realize our smallness in the presence of God’s power and magnificence; to emancipate ourselves from the muddy and slimy and stifling vicissitudes of city life and exchange it for a few breaths of pure oxygen that alone can add immeasurably to health of body and soul.  There is no such thing as too much mountaineering just as there is no such thing as too much virtue.”

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Before lunch we’d already arrived at the spot we’d picked out for our next night of camping, so we decided to pedal on and look for another place.  Around noon, we rolled into Allenspark, which was an adorable tiny town where all the houses were log cabins.  We got some delicious pizza and much needed coffee at Rock Creek Tavern & Pizzeria, served by an amazingly friendly waitress.  The whole experience was wonderful.

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From there we pushed on, turning onto the newly paved peak-to-peak scenic byway.  But before long, that pizza was coming back to haunt us.  We stopped at various points along the road to rest, and once we got pretty high up, we pulled over at a very old school bar (looked like it was straight out of a 19th-century mining town) named the Millsite Inn for soda water and advice.  The bar owners were more than happy to tell us what they knew about the area, pointing out a few places that we should be able to wild camp in the nearby area.

The place that the owner had pointed out was a short two miles…uphill.  We sweated it out to the gate of the Brainard Lake Recreation Area, where we asked if there were any remaining campsites.  The woman in charge at first burst into laughter: “You guys rode up here on a Friday night, without a reservation?  What a waste of energy.”  But fortunately, there was exactly one remaining site!  And it was a good thing too.  We’d been planning to wild camp near the entrance, on intel from the bar owner that it was legal, but it turns out that the rules had recently changed and no wild camping was allowed in that area anymore.

Our excitement, however, was short-lived when we heard that the open campsite was another two miles up the hill!  Fortunately, the woman in charge took pity on sick Margaret and gave us a ride up the hill in her truck, alongside her adorable husky.  We got to the campsite, where we had to pay the camp master the $19 camping fee – in cash or check only, no credit.  Again, we were lucky!  We had just $19.25 in cash.

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The site was beautiful, surrounded by mountains and sitting at just over 10,000 feet.  Taking the altitude into consideration, we gathered fallen wood for a fire to keep warm as long as we could.  When the fire died out, we went straight to our sleeping bags to keep out the nighttime chill.

Although the site was open for the following night as well, we were out of money, so we needed to ride into the nearest town for some cash and food.  Not really wanting to climb back up that big hill, we decided to head on down the peak-to-peak, so we packed up camp and moved on.

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Our first stop was the minuscule town of Ward.  We’d seen on the map that there was a general store there and had planned to buy some more food.  Unfortunately, it was downhill into town, mostly on dirt roads.  Margaret stayed with the bikes up top while Julia walked down into town.  At the store, she was greeting with an unexpected surprise:  no credit cards accepted at the store!  After a moment of panic, she crossed the street to The Glass Tipi Gallery where the shop keeper was nice enough to give cash back after buying a postcard.  She only had $20 cash to give, though, and we were worried we might need to spend the night at another cash-only campsite.  The shop keeper agreed that we should keep the cash for an emergency and suggested that we solve our food shortage by going over to the local food pantry, where Whole Foods had just dropped off dozens and dozens of eggs one day past the “sell-by” date.  We were able to scrounge some eggs, potatoes, and bread, and left confident that we’d make it through the day, money or no!

We continued to ride keeping our eyes open for places to camp, but it seemed too early in the day to stop.  By around noon we were in the much-larger town of Nederland, where we stopped in the visitors’ center to ask about wild camping.  Again, our options were limited.  Thinking it over, we decided that our best bet was to ride it out all the way back to Boulder! We grabbed some fresh-made mini-donuts for energy and started the ride home.  There were two fairly significant climbs, but besides that it was a downhill coast.  By 5:00 we were out of the mountains and on the main road home.

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We were glad to make it home in time to shower up and head out for a celebratory dinner at Mountain Sun.  It was walking distance from Margaret’s place, so we sauntered over there for as many free beer tasters as we wanted (Julia still can’t believe that this much free beer is a thing), followed by a delicious food.  Before long, we were ready to crash into bed.

Sunday morning we were able to have a leisurely morning before setting out for a ride to the nearby town of Golden.  We took a new bike path that followed the Boulder-Denver highway and was stunning with all the blooming flowers.

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We also spotted a ton of gophers on the way!  We rode past North Table Mountain and were very glad that we didn’t decide to take the “shortcut” up and over it to get to Golden.

Once in town, we marveled at the cutesy-ness of everything, wandering around a bit before getting sandwiches at D’Deli.  After we’d finished eating and left, we decided to go back for dessert.  We walked in, but were informed that the shop had run out of bread and closed early. But when we told them we wanted brownies, the said the registers were already closed, so we could just take as many as we wanted!

Once we were stuffed, we headed over to Clear Creek, a river that runs through town, to watch people tubing down the river and to stick our feet in.  It was a very relaxing afternoon!

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Around 6:30, we set out on the return journey.  It was much easier than we expected, and soon we were back in Boulder, with a craving for more Mountain Sun beer.  So we returned to our same place, and ended up being seated at the exact same table, with the same wait staff, us wearing the same outfits (Julia had not anticipated so many nights in “civilization” and had not packed many non-cycling clothes).  At 10:00, some live folk music came on – the perfect celebration for a successful cycle tour!

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Although it was a short 5 days of riding, we enjoyed every minute of it.  Can’t wait for another adventure on the bikes!

 

Stats:

Mileage: 49.9 / 26.2 (20.1 riding, 5 walking, 1 bus) / 29.8 / 53.6 / 54.8

Elevation Gain (ft.): 4,812 / 2,635 (1940 riding, 695 walking) / 4,613 / 3,016 / 3,559

Maps: Boulder to Mary’s Lake / Mary’s Lake to Rocky Mountain National Park and Back (Including Hike) / Mary’s Lake to Brainard Lake / Brainard Lake to Boulder / Boulder to Golden Round Trip

Totals:  214.3 miles and 17,940 feet of climbing!

Back in Quito

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We arrived at Colonial House Hostel in Quito around 6:30 A.M. We were pretty tired from our overnight bus ride, so we took advantage of the endless coffee, which we hand ground ourselves just before we brewed it! We also made friends with the rabbit that lives in the hostel garden (so cute!). People started waking up around 8:00, when breakfast begins. We met two nice couples around the breakfast table, and enjoyed swapping stories and tips over the delicious meal.

While we’d been riding around Ecuador, our friend Jack (who we’d ridden with in Colombia) had been making his way south from where we left him and had made it to Quito! The timing was perfect, and we were going to be able to see him again. We had made plans to meet up with Jack and his girlfriend Antares to visit the “Mitad del Mundo,” a complex of museums, shops, and silly tourist things that honors the equator. To get there, we took the rapid bus. These electric buses have their own lanes and only stop at designated stops, which cost 25 cents to enter and feel just like metro or subway stations, except that they’re above ground on the road. At the end of the line, we transferred to a bus that took us directly to Mitad del Mundo. The whole 1.5 hour trip? 40 cents.

We arrived at the “official” equator and purchased tickets to go inside and see the line. This is the line that was measured by French scientists in 1739, and its accuracy is disputed. But there’s a big monument on the site! So we took some silly pictures and enjoyed ourselves.

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By the time the photo shoot was complete, we were ready for some lunch, so we had some typical food from one of the vendors in the park. We tried two types of empanadas, including one called “empanada de viento” (“wind empanada”); it was all puffed up and filled with air! We also tried humitas and quimbolitos; they were both a bit like tamales. The humitas were savory while the quimbolitos were sweet, with raisins on top.

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We wrapped up at this equator, and then walked about 200 meters further down the road to a second supposed equator. This is the spot that was more recently marked by the Canadian military as the true equator, and there is now the Inti Ñan museum at the site. Everyone is led around by a tour guide to see different representations of the indigenous groups of Ecuador and their lifestyles. We started out by learning how the Shuar people created shrunken heads. This process was done to both slain enemies and deceased loved ones; the idea was that the soul of the deceased would be contained within the shrunken head. We also saw the shrunken head of a child who died of an illness. His head was preserved by his family in memory of him. To preserve the head, they remove it from the body, take out the skull, steam the skin and scalp, then fill the shrunken head with stones to preserve the shape. The whole process was illustrated on this mural.

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We learned about several other indigenous groups, from the Amazon to the Andes to the Pacific, before we walked down to the equator line that is claimed here to be the true equator.  We were shown a sundial that was remarkably accurate!  (While Alex’s watch, the one that a Colombian cyclist we met riding to Buga gave him as a gift, shows 4:06pm the sundial actually shows slightly before 4pm.  This difference is due to the fact that the solar calendar isn’t 365 days long.)

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On the equator, we performed a series of “experiments” to see how being at the equator affects things.  We saw a “demonstration” of water spinning different ways north and south of the equator, but it was most certainly rigged because that phenomenon (known as the Corlolis effect) only applies to large bodies, like hurricanes.  We also balanced an egg on the head of a nail.  The myth is that the yolk will be pulled straight down, rather than to one side or the other, so it’ll be easier to balance. Alex “NAILED” it right off the bat, but Julia had to work at it for a while.

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The next day, Jack and Antares ate breakfast with us before heading south to Latacunga. We were sad to see them go, but so happy that we were able to spend a day together! Alex and Julia had some errands to run, starting with getting a zipper replacement for Julia’s front handlebar bag. We walked a few blocks from the hostel and found a tiny repair shop tucked in between other buildings, and the man there was able to replace the zipper in about 5 minutes! The way that things are fixed in Latin America is incredible, and we hope that the US catches on one day.

From there, we hopped on the fast bus and went over to the center of town to check on a bus for Alex to head back to Bogotá (and from there to Oaxaca). Unfortunately, the bus that he wanted was already full, but the salesman said that there was a possibility that more seats would open up later. The bus was coming all the way from Lima, Peru and going to Caracas, Venezuela, but apparently they don’t decide which physical bus from their fleet will make the drive until the last minute, so it could be either a single or a double-decker bus. We’d have to check back with the office later.

From there, we hopped in a cab to check out the house of Guayasamín, a very famous Ecuadorian artist. His home is located up on a hillside with an incredible view of Quito, and we really enjoyed the grounds. We hopped onto a tour of the house, where a guide took a large group of us through the space. Guayasamín had several important art collections – colonial art, pre-conquest art from Ecuador, and his own art, of course. We saw his studio, and watched a video of him painting the piece that’s on display in the photo below. It was very interesting to see his style – throwing paint on the canvas and then strategically scraping it away to form the final image. While we were in the studio, there was a woman sitting at the desk – turns out it was Guayasamín’s daughter!

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We had missed the first part of the tour, so we went back to the beginning to catch that part. We joined another group, and their guide was letting people hop over the velvet rope and play Guayasamín’s piano, so Julia got in on the fun!

Once we’d seen all of the house, we walked to the lower patio to see the Capilla del Hombre (Chapel of Man), which Guayasamín constructed in remembrance of all the people who suffered and died during the 20th century – which Guayasamín called the most violent era in human history. The space was filled with pieces by Guayasamín and other artists depicting tragedies and offering hope for a better future. The space is designed to invite meditation and peaceful thinking. We were very impressed. Unfortunately, Guayasamín died before the space could be completed; the ceiling in the main room remains half-painted, just as the artist left it before his death.

When we left the chapel (things were closing up, and they’d turned out the lights on us!), we walked outside to find an incredible view of Volcán Cotopaxi and its snow-capped peak! It’s certainly not a bad view to have in your backyard.

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We wandered around a bit more through some archaeological excavations that were done on the property. The findings are preserved in their original locations under glass that you can walk over. But soon we had to leave so that the guards could lock up.

We walked a bit before finding a cab to take us to Kao bike shop in the center of town to pick up a box for Julia to pack up her bike in for the flight home. There was a bit of traffic, and it was already about 6:15, so we were worried we wouldn’t get there before the store closed. When we saw the Kao sign, we hopped out of the cab, but it was the wrong store! Fortunately, the correct store was very close, and we were able to get there just as they were locking up the front gate. Although the store was already closed, the owner was nice enough to run back inside and get us our box. Incredible!

We took the bus back to Old Town, where we headed straight to a vegetarian restaurant we’d seen and wanted to check out. We knew it closed at 8:00, so we ran to get there at 7:50. Although they too were shutting their doors, they agreed to let us be their last customers. After we’d eaten, we wandered around a bit looking for a few ingredients of the next morning’s pancakes. A big shout out to Alex: thanks for carrying the bike box all up and down Old Town while we ran our errands!

The next day, we had a nice pancake breakfast before packing up and heading out towards the TelefériQo, a cable car that takes passengers up to about 13,000 feet for stunning views of Quito. We took the bus, then a taxi to arrive at the start of the cable car. We purchased our tickets ($8 round trip) and got in line for the ride up. There was a bit of a wait, but we were entertained by the group of kids in front of us, on a summer camp trip up the mountain.

When it was our turn, we hopped in the car and began climbing up the side of the mountain. It didn’t look that far up from the start, but as we got moving and had a better perspective we realized just how up we were going. As we got higher, we spotted three snow-capped mountains peeking out of the clouds!

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We disembarked at the top and put on some extra layers, as it was much chillier at the higher altitude. We planned to take a hike up the final 2,500 feet to the top of Ruku Pichincha, so we grabbed a quick snack at the (overpriced and poor quality) snack shop. Next time, we’ll be sure to pack our own food.

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The trail was extremely clearly marked, and we hiked up with the whole trail visible ahead of us. We were a bit winded as we went up, but the views were breathtaking. Unfortunately, we’d gotten a bit of a late start in the morning, and also didn’t plan on such a long wait to get up the cable car, so we were short on time to reach the summit. After rising about 2,000 feet, we hit a landslide area and decided it wasn’t worth it to push on, so we headed back. The hike was incredibly enjoyable, and we climbed onto the cable car for the ride back down.

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We decided to walk from the TelefériQo back to the bus station, since it was all downhill. On the way, we ducked into a HUGE grocery store and bought altogether too much stuff. We rode the bus back to the hostel and prepared a salad for dinner. At dinner, we met Mitz, a Swiss traveler who had just arrived in Quito. It was great fun swapping stories and giving advice about what to do in Ecuador.

On Friday, we gathered up our belongings, storing most of them at the hostel, and headed out with just the essentials for an overnight in the town of Otavalo, which is famous for its Saturday morning craft market. It was a bit of a journey getting to Otavalo on public transportation, as it required three buses! The whole thing took about 4 hours. But the drive was spectacular! We passed Laguna San Pablo and a number of small rivers far below us in deep valleys. The mountainous countryside of Ecuador is unforgettable.

We got to Otavalo around 1:00 P.M. and quickly found a place to stay at Rincón del Viajero. As we were quite hungry, we grabbed some food at a local café, then set out walking along the train tracks towards the town of Peguche. It was great to get out of the more urban areas and off the beaten path. In Peguche, we ducked into a great crafts store, which got us excited for the market the following day! We were also intrigued by the weaving that we saw being done at the shop. The traditional style of weaving is very similar in design to that done in Oaxaca; weavers use wooden loom and everything is done by hand. Since trading took place from Mexico to Peru, you can also see similar designs. The technique, however, is quite different, as the rugs are made of wool with cotton threads and they are not reversible; the backside is three-dimensional as different colored yarns are layered atop one another to create the pattern on the front side.

Once we’d seen the crafts, we headed back towards Otavalo but took a detour to a waterfall in a nearby nature reserve. The park was nice, with space for camping and a few triangular, windowless cabins. The waterfall was beautiful! We hiked up a bit further and found a second waterfall and a very cool tunnel. We were able to crawl all the way through the tunnel to the river, which we hiked up a few feet to see a third waterfall.

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By that time, it was approaching sunset and we headed back to Otavalo along the train tracks. As we walked, a train passed! This train is for tourists, and it is adorable. It looks like a life-sized toy train!

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For dinner, we ate at a typical restaurant where the German couple at the table next to us were eating cuy (guinea pig!). They were fun to watch, taking photos and trying to decide whether the food was delicious or disgusting. Although we never tried the traditional roasted guinea pig, we got the experience second-hand through them.

On Saturday, we enjoyed the free breakfast at the hostel up on the rooftop. From there, we headed over to the craft market. It was huge! There was so much to see and choose from that it was a bit overwhelming. We had fun trying on knitted hats and llama sweaters and checking out the painted bowls and woven rugs. We had a great chat with Rafael, a weaver from Otavalo who told us all about his experience as a weaver, as well as his travels to the US to sell his products.

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Before we knew it, we had a bag full of souvenirs and gifts. Everything was well priced, too. Julia was able to snag a llama sweater for only $18! We packed up our new things, grabbed our bags from the hostel, and began the journey back to Quito. It was another long bus ride, and we were happy to arrive back at Colonial House Hostel when we finally did. We had just enough time to grab a quick beer at a local brew house before we hopped in our cab to the airport.

We can’t believe that after 3,000 miles and nearly 5 months our trip is coming to a close. It has been an unforgettable journey, and though some may say it’s the trip of a lifetime, we know its just one of many incredible trips that we’ll take in the future!

Literally had a whale of a time

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We had a leisurely morning in Montañita, as we had a short 30 mile ride ahead of us to arrive in Puerto López to go whale watching. We enjoyed our beach view out the hotel window, watched the surfers, and ate up some pancakes before setting off.

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Before noon we were a few miles outside of our destination when a car pulled up in front of us and motioned us to stop. We pulled up alongside and met two other cyclists, Ivan and Veronica. They asked us about our trip, then invited us to stay at their beach house just up the road. Of course we said yes!

They led us to their home, right on the beach in the idyllic town of Las Tunas. They introduced us to their daughter, Isabella, and her friends, and as we were saying hello, we saw a whale swimming through the water just off the beach!

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We settled into our room (with full floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the ocean) and walked out to the beach to relax with Isabella and her friends. Soon, it was time for lunch, so we returned and gobbled up some delicious home-made Ecuadorian food. After lunch, we prepared for our next outing: snorkeling! Ivan happens to be a professional underwater photographer, specializing in photography of extremely small sea life. He has an incredible closet full of all sorts of diving and snorkeling gear, which he invited us to check out to find the perfect wetsuit, fins, and snorkels!

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The fun started before we’d even begun snorkeling, as we spotted a number of birds on the island, including the famous blue-footed boobie! We also saw some frigate birds; the males puff up their red chests to woo the ladies. The boat pulled up to the rocky island, and we hopped off as quickly as we could to avoid unnecessary boat-on-rock grinding.

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Once we were on the island, we put on our gear and hopped in the water. Although the water wasn’t crystal clear, we were able to see some great fish: angelfish and trumpet fish, among others. When we started to get a bit chilly (remember, it’s winter in Ecuador, so it’s warm, but not hot), we headed back towards the island. But on the way, we came across one of the scariest things we’ve ever seen: a pelican skeleton! We raced up onto the island after that, and calmed down enjoying the views.

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Meanwhile, Ivan had been scuba diving nearby, so we waited for him to use up his oxygen tank, hop on the boat, and motor over to pick us up. We all headed back to the mainland tired and happy. On the way home, Ivan and Veronica were kind enough to take a short detour into Puerto López so that we could confirm a reservation we’d made for a whale-watching tour the following day.

Back at the house, we ordered up some delicious pizza from Guillermo, the housekeeper who is also starting his own pizza and bread shop across the street. We were quite impressed – and had no problems scarfing down the whole pizza, despite its large size!

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It was a peaceful night with a sea breeze and the sound of the waves relaxing us. When morning rolled around, we sprung out of bed in anticipation of the whale-watching tour that awaited us! We grabbed our bikes and rode the 10 miles into Puerto López to the tour agency, where we’d park the bikes for the day. From there, we met up with about 15 other people and headed over to the main dock. We paid $1 for the right to use the dock (a popular practice we’ve seen in a few countries) and loaded onto the boat. Interestingly, we were all asked to take off our shoes; the boat was nice and clean as a result!

We took off on the speedboat, heading towards Isla de la Plata (Silver Island), a small island that is part of Machalila National Park. The seas were a bit choppy, but nothing too extreme. The sun was bright and we soaked up the rays. There is an interesting weather pattern around Puerto López – since it lies just about on the equator, it’s the meeting point of two different weather systems from the two different hemispheres. The result? It’s almost always clear right around Puerto López as storms blow to the north or to the south.

Although we didn’t see any whales on the hour-and-a-half ride to the island, we would have another chance later. Plus, as we pulled up to the island we spotted two green turtles!  You might be able to spot one in the picture below.

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We all hopped off the boat and gathered together for our hike around the island. The island is notable because it is a dry forest and it shares much of the same flora and fauna as the Galapagos. So basically, it’s the poor man’s Galapagos ($40 for a day tour vs. several hundred for the Galapagos). The island is very meticulously cared for, and our tour guide had to sign in the exact time that we began and ended the hike, down to the minute. Park rangers were standing nearby to regulate when we could set off and checking in on our return time as well. We were lucky to have Eduardo as our guide – he was both extremely knowledgeable and also very respectful of the wildlife. While we saw other guides trample noisily past nesting birds, Eduardo made a special point of explaining what the birds were doing and escorting us widely around the area so as not to disturb the birds.

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We saw a great number of blue-footed boobies, and Eduardo explained that the birds with some black around their necks were the males (the one on the left in the picture below). The males come on land and choose a nesting site. Then, they whistle and wait for a female to come close and check him out. Although the birds are born with grey feet, when they reach sexual maturity their feet turn bright blue; the bluer the feet, the younger (and more desirable) the male bird.

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We walked over to the cliffs above the ocean and were stunned by the masses of birds flying overhead. We were able to spot a Tropical Bird, a beautiful creature with a long, white tail. Eduardo also pointed out its nest!

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When we were able to get a view of the beach, Eduardo pointed out some of the trash that had washed up on shore and told us that there had been much more, but about a month back he and a crew of park rangers had cleared 400 kilograms of trash off the beaches on the island! It’s incredible to us the impact that humans have had on the environment, and how far from the original source that impact can be felt.

We walked for about an hour and a half (although we didn’t walk very far; most of the time was spent taking photos and listening to Eduardo’s explanations), then loaded back up onto the boat for lunch. Immediately after eating, it was time for snorkeling; there were no concerns about waiting 30 minutes first! We jumped off the roof of the boat and began to enjoy the diverse sea life beneath us. We spotted an incredible school of angelfish in the crystal clear water. Unfortunately, there were also a number of very small jellyfish that made us feel tingly all over, and we soon climbed back on the boat to dry off.

Once everyone had gotten a look underwater, we set off towards the mainland and renewed our search for the whales! The seas were a bit rougher on the return trip, and we were splashed with water so much that even our rain jackets were soaked through. It was a bit chilly as the clouds had rolled in, but we were full of anticipation and enjoying the journey. Soon, the whales were spotted! We saw a momma and her baby bouncing through the water, the big fin and the little fin emerging from the water side by side.  It’s a bit difficult to see in the pictures; we had a hard time both watching the whales and taking pictures at the same time!

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We had another peaceful night’s sleep and woke up slowly in the morning, staying in bed and listening to the waves. We took advantage of the beach and just chilled out until mid-afternoon, when we packed up the bikes and headed to the town of Salango, where Ivan and Veronica had recommended that we check out a local museum. It was a great stop! The museum is actually a whole complex, with an archaeological museum, a historical museum, lodging, and conference rooms. The whole thing is now managed by the town, which has been working to restore the traditional communal nature of the village. It was quite interesting to read about the history of the area, which was an important center of trade in conch shells. The shells can be found here and were a valuable item all along the Pacific coast from Mexico to Argentina. The inhabitants used to sail around on balsa rafts like the one in the picture below, visiting islands fairly far off shore and going up and down the coast.

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After we’d checked out the museum, we rode into Puerto López for some dinner on the beach before our overnight bus to Quito. We arrived at the bus station around 6:30 and the bus arrived on time, just a few minutes before 7:00. We had a bit of difficulty avoiding a surcharge on the bikes, but Alex stood his ground and we didn’t pay anything extra. By 7:10, we were on our way to Quito! The bus ride was uneventful (besides the fact that the bus driver was going quite fast and we were feeling the curves), and we got into Quito at 5:00 A.M. We’d made reservations at Colonial House Hostel in the historic center of Quito, a different (quieter) neighborhood from where we stayed before, so we headed there once we’d unloaded off the bus. It was about 7 miles, so it took us a bit of time, especially since we weren’t used to the newfound elevation, but it was great to see the sunrise over Quito!

Day 136 Stats:

Mileage: 18.9

Elevation Gain (ft.): 1,141

Riding Time: 1:44

Maps: Day 136

…and with a 15,000 foot downhill we cross the 3,000 mile mark!

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After a surprisingly comfortable and warm night up in the mountains, we slothed out of bed and back into the cold. We packed up and rode out, looking forward to a few hundred more feet of climbing before our epic 15,000 foot downhill! It was a hard slog up to 13,500, made extra difficult by the cold rain. We had to bundle up a ridiculously large amount to keep warm. Julia’s feet went mostly numb, but it was worth it for the adrenaline of the following downhill.

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The coast down was incredible! We began up in the clouds, feeling pelted by the mist as we raced downhill. Soon, we were far enough down that we were out of the first layer of clouds and looking down on the second set.

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Around halfway through the descent, we hit a 1,000 foot climb. At the same time, some deep fog set in. It was extremely eerie; we could only see about 15 feet in front of us at any given time. We put on all our reflective gear and flashing lights and stayed well into the shoulder to avoid traffic. It was almost as if we were blinded, as we could hear cars and trucks coming but couldn’t see them until they were very close.

When the fog cleared (or rather, when we cleared out of the fog), we were much more confident and cruised along at about 30 miles per hour. The views were impressive, especially as we spotted houses here and there, 1,000 feet up or down the side of the steep mountain slope. How people live in these areas is still a bit of a mystery to us!

By the end of the day, we were back to nearly sea level in the hot, humid tropical environment that we’ve grown to love. Check out the proof: before and after altitude (and the fact that Alex had been wearing two pairs of gloves earlier in the day!).

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Once we were out of the mountains, we had a bit more pedaling to go to reach our destination of National Park Manglares Churute where we planned to camp. We arrived around 4:00 P.M. The visitors’ center area was under construction (they were adding some new cabins and meeting spaces), but the ranger allowed us to camp right on the porch of the main office, since no one else was around.

We set out for a quick hike, but we soon turned back after a rapid and effective mosquito attack for which we were unprepared. Instead, we relaxed at the campsite and enjoyed the sunset. Alex did us the favor of running back to the closest town (about 1.5 miles away) not once but twice to pick up some “necessities” (cold beer and eggs). It was a peaceful night, and we were glad to be warm again after our experience in the cold mountains.

In the morning we set off towards the coast, hoping to pass through Guayaquil (Ecuador’s second largest city) and find a quiet place to stay a bit further on down the road. The riding was a breeze – thick, oxygen-filled air and flat roads – and we made great progress. We stopped for a quick snack at a roadside stand, where we got fresh squeezed orange juice and fried bananas. We crossed the impressively large bridge into Guayaquil around 11:00 A.M., thankful for the bike lane that eased us across out of traffic. Until, that is, the bike lane abruptly ended and had us scurrying across several lanes of traffic to make our turn. We began up an overpass before seeing the “no bikes” sign, which was inexplicably posted at the top of the bridge. So, what were we supposed to do when we realized bikes were prohibited at that point? Turn around and ride against traffic? We carried on and made it safely through town. We grabbed some lunch at a café (although it was about noon, most of the restaurants we passed were still closed, so we settled for a brunch-like option) then carried on.

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Leaving Guayaquil, we were in for a very pleasant surprise: a bike lane! Not only does Ecuador have incredible roads, they also have been working on adding to their growing collection of bike lanes, or “ciclovias.” This one is about 40 miles long and was a pleasure to ride! It was separated from traffic (well, mostly).

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We planned to ride about 70 miles to the small town of Cerecita. We arrived there around 4:30 P.M. and asked around about a place to stay. The people were very nice and politely suggested we ask at the fire station and police station. The firefighters told us that new regulations prohibited them for inviting any non-firefighters onto the premises. Darn! We walked next door to the police station, and Julia knocked on the door. After no one came out, she opened the door and went in, called out, but found no one. Some locals suggested that there was a place to camp about 10 miles out, so we hopped back on the bikes and pushed hard to make it there before dark.

Fortunately, after just about 2 miles, we spotted Finca La Gloria, a roadside tourist stop complete with just about everything you could imagine: restaurant, bar, swimming pool, cabins, camping, playgrounds, a banquet hall, wifi, horses, trails, and more. Although it was a bit pricey at $15/night for camping, we were eager to be off the road before sunset, so we decided to stay. We were shown to the back of the property where Alex was able to negotiate us a sweet camping spot underneath a roof with our own bathrooms, kitchen area, and neighboring horses.

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We went back up to the main area to use some wifi, and while Julia worked on the blog, Alex got the complete tour of the premises from the property manager. The FULL tour (“…and these are the bathrooms. Here are the urinals, and here are the stalls…”). When we were ready for bed, we carefully walked back to our camping area, as we’d been warned that the hounds were loose! Apparently, the finca has some guard dogs that are quite fierce (or not, depending on which staff member you ask) and we were escorted the long way around to our tent to avoid their jaws. We slept peacefully, with no dog problems, and got up and out in the morning to pedal the last bit to the beach after saying goodbye to our new friends!

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We continued along the bike path until it ended and we rode on the shoulder (which was wide and nearly as good as the bike path). It was a great ride with some clouds overhead that kept it from heating up too much. When we took the turnoff for Puerto López, we hit another bike path. Well, it was mostly for bikes. And goats.

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We rode on and hit the coast, then followed the road along the water, spotting a few cool spots along the way, including an ornate wooden church. We also passed by a marine center with a neat statue out front!

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Around 4:30, we reached Montañita, a popular surfing and tourist town. We found a quiet hostel, Hostal Flores, with an ocean view for $20/night for a private room. The owner was very friendly, and let us take his cool double bike for a spin!

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We took a stroll down the boardwalk along the beach, and when we got further into town, it was like a whole other world! Apparently, we’d stopped a bit short of the center and while our street was nice and quiet, the center was a party zone, packed with bars, restaurants, clubs, and foreigners. It was a sight to behold, but we were glad that we had found a place outside all the ruckus. For dinner, we ate at “Rastapan,” which sold pizza breads. Then, we grabbed a drink at a tapas bar and people watched until we were ready to crash for the night.

It was quite the journey from the high mountains to the beach, and we’re glad we have been able to experience so much of Ecuador and all its diversity!

Day 133 / 134 / 135 Stats:

Mileage: 64.1 / 69.3 / 75.7

Elevation Gain (ft.): 1,793 / 1,626 / 2,332

Riding Time: 4:22 / 5:53 / 6:37

Maps: Day 133 / Day 134 / Day 135

Taking it up to 13,500 feet on the bike!

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We had an enjoyable but curvy ride from nearly sea level in the Amazon region back up to 8,000 feet in the colonial city of Cuenca.  Although the roads were beautiful and well paved, we were glad that we weren’t pedaling all that uphill, fighting off buses that whipped around the hairpin curves.  We arrived in Cuenca around 10:00 P.M. and rode into the center of town to find a hostel.  We ended up at Mochilliers Hostal, a cute family-run place.  It was a bit cramped and up a flight of stairs (carrying the bikes is a good way to build arm strength, at least), but the staff were very friendly and accommodating.  They showed us a three-bed private room and said it was $20/night, but then out of the blue asked if we wanted to make it a shared room for $14/night, saying, “probably no one will come, so it’ll be cheaper for you.”  How thoughtful!  In the morning, we walked around the corner to El Cafecito, a restaurant and hostel with great breakfast (although a bit pricey) with infinite coffee refills!  Later, we walked over to the Museo del Banco Central “Pumapungo,” following a beautiful path along one of the central rivers through Cuenca.

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But since it was a Monday, the museum was closed.  Fortunately, the park and ruins behind the museum were still open, so we were able to wander around in the drizzling rain.  The ruins are from the 15th century Ingapirca empire.  We enjoyed the replica of one of the houses that was built on the site – it really helped bring to life what it would have been like to be a member of the ruling class living at this site.

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We also walked through the botanical gardens below the ruins.  The gardens feature plants from the area as well as information about where the plants grow; in Ecuador, this depends mostly on elevation.  A relief sculpture also illustrated how the Andean people were able to cultivate crops in the wet environment of the high mountains by building up mounds of earth that allowed excess water to flow past; it’s sort of like reverse irrigation!  There was also a small zoo on site with the birds of Ecuador.  We got a better shot of the type of toucan that we had spotted at El Laberinto.

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From the ruins, we wandered up and down the streets of Cuenca and stumbled onto El Maíz, an upscale Ecuadorian restaurant with a menu that intrigued Julia (especially with its wide vegetarian offerings).  We went in and started off with a complementary appetizer of toasted corn (kind of like popcorn, but not fully popped) with a sweet and spicy sauce.  Julia ordered quinoa, and was blown away by how flavorful it was!  It was a welcome change from the standard vegetarian eggs, rice, and beans.

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Full of Ecuadorian flavors, we continued to head back to the center of town, ducking into a few artisan shops on the way.  There are some great fabrics in Ecuador that are especially cozy and warm to fight off the high-altitude chill.  We were also impressed by the hats that we saw.  Although its known in the US as a “Panama hat,” these woven straw hats are actually from Ecuador, and we saw lots of shops selling them.

Our next stop was the Museo de Artes Populares, which showcases artisan work from around Ecuador, but we had another spot of bad luck as the museum was between exhibits and closed for the moment.  No worries, though; we headed further into the center of town to the Plazoleta del Carmen, where flower vendors set up shop in front of the church.  It was a beautiful, colorful sight!  We picked up a very fragrant flower to bring back to our hostel room, hoping to fight off some of the lovely smells emitted by our sweaty biking clothes.

We also wandered into the church’s chapel, where cloistered nuns sell a variety of wines.  Since they’re not allowed to have contact with people outside the nunnery, they sell their goods through a revolving carousel that keeps them hidden!

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering around and taking in the beautiful colonial architecture of Cuenca and running a few errands.  We walked to the city market to pick up some fruits, to the grocery store, and to a bike shop for extra brake pads (planning ahead for the 15,000 foot downhill that awaited us in two days!).  Later, we grabbed dinner at a café-bar type place and headed back to the hostel to catch some sleep.  We had a long day ahead of us as we sought to climb up to the National Park El Cajas at around 13,000 feet – a short 5,000 feet above Cuenca.

In the morning, we got rolling early and the climb began almost immediately.  We were very pleased, though, that the road was in excellent condition and that the grade was quite reasonable, staying around 2-3% for the vast majority of the ride.  It was a cloudy, drizzly day, so we bundled up against the cold and the wet, trying to figure out the perfect combination of layer to keep us dry and warm but not sweating too much during the climb.

As we rode, we passed through small towns and lots of roadside shops and restaurants.  We were very glad that we didn’t need to take too much extra water, as we could refill along the way.  That certainly helped to lighten the load and make the climb easier!  The views were stunning the whole way up as we slowly made our way back into the paramo.

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We passed a gate that marked the entrance to the National Park El Cajas.  For you Spanish-speakers who are wondering why the park is called “El Cajas,” we read that “cajas” is actually in this case a word borrowed from Quichua meaning “high place.”  Since the government decided to make all national parks free of admission, we didn’t need to pay anything at the gate, but simply stopped to ask for more information.  The guard told us that the visitors’ center and camping area was close by, but further up the hill.  We took some pictures with the beautiful flowers and pedaled on!

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As we climbed up we passed a few people hiking along the highway, and they motivated us to push through the final few hundred feet upwards into the thin air.  We also passed a sign warning us about animals (specifically llamas!) crossing the road, and just around that same area, we spotted some!  There’s been a program to bring back the wild llama population within the park, and it seems to be working.

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We were very close to our final destination when we stopped for the llamas, but at that moment, it also began to sleet cold, icy rain.  When we finally pulled into the visitors’ center, we were freezing!  The park ranger gave us permission to camp in the area for $4/person.  She also informed us that we could stay in the “refuge” (a small cabin with dorms, a bathroom, and a kitchen) for $4/person.  The house seemed like the obvious choice.  We unloaded our stuff, then headed over to the cafeteria for some hot soup and hot chocolate.  SO worth it!  We were soon feeling much warmer, and we enjoyed the spectacular views from the cafeteria out over the laguna below.

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After our snack, we checked out the small museum next door, which had information about the park’s ecosystem, flora and fauna, and human inhabitants.  By this time, it was bout 4:30 P.M., when the park closes to daily visitors.  We asked the ranger who would be spending the night there if we could go for a short hike and he suggested we follow the path around the laguna.  We were ready to get moving to keep warm, and the path was fairly easy to follow.  It was a bit muddy, so we put on our poor-man’s hiking boots (our regular shoes with plastic bags inside to keep our feet dry) and set out.

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The hike was stunningly beautiful and the trail dipped down to the water, where we saw a few intrepid ducks swimming in the cold.  It was great to look back and see our little cabin up on the hill, waiting for us when we got back.

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We arrived back “home” just as it got dark, and immediately put on a pot of water to boil and make some hot coffee.  We had a nice chat with the ranger Hugo before dinner.  Although we were inside, there was no heat, so it was still quite chilly and we could see our own breath as we exhaled!  We heated up our socks and shoes over the stove to keep our toes warm and maintained a steady intake of hot beverages until it was time to get tucked into bed.  Since we needed more drinking water for the following day, we also boiled up two big pots of water, then put them into our bedroom with us.  They served as an excellent makeshift heater, and we were soon sleeping cozily, dreaming of the next day’s impressive downhill!

Day 132 Stats:

Mileage: 23.9

Elevation Gain (ft.): 5,013

Riding Time: 4:26

Maps: Day 132

Dropping down into the Amazon!

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In the morning, we packed up, thanked our hosts, and rolled out towards Baños, a town to the southwest famous for its hot springs. Javier had tipped us off to this alternate route to the eastern part of Ecuador; he’d ridden it just 6 months back and showed us some stunning pictures. We jumped at the opportunity to drop down from the cold mountains into the warmer Amazon rainforest and changed our route!

It was another tough day of riding through cold rain and up some unexpected hills. Fortunately, we found a great spot for cheap lunch; when Julia went to pay the bill, she tried to correct the woman for giving her too much change, but it really was only $1.75 per meal. In the afternoon, we passed through a few indigenous villages and saw some of the traditional dress of the towns; the identifying feature of each town is the color of the poncho.

The last part of the ride into Baños was certainly the most beautiful. We broke from the main highway onto a two-lane road that appeared to be relatively new and in great condition. It brought us right into the valley with mountains towering thousands of feet above us on either side. We descended dramatically, braking against the speed and bracing for the winds as we came around curves. As we’ve come to understand, what goes down must come up, so we bottomed out at the river and faced a short but steep climb into the town of Baños.

We grabbed a room at Santa Cruz hostel before heading out for dinner at an Italian restaurant. Then, we grabbed our swimsuits despite the chill air and headed out to the hot springs in town. Just three blocks from the hostel, we rounded the corner to see a 250 foot waterfall! We were stunned.

Next to the waterfall, there was a public bath house with a hot tub fed by volcanic water. It cost $3 to go in, but once we were inside we realized that we also had to pay $0.50 to rent the obligatory swim cap that everyone had hilariously perched on their heads. And after we’d changed into our swimsuits, Alex was informed that his shorts didn’t fit the code because they were too long; he’d need to rent a pair of trunks as well!

Finally, we were in the appropriate clothing and we gingerly inched into the hot water. After a few minutes, we switched to the cold pool and submerged ourselves until we were nearly frozen, then hopped right back into the hot water pool. It was the perfect way to relax after a long day of riding in the cold! On the way home, we stopped in a restaurant called “Qué Chévere!” (“How Cool!”) and got a brownie with maracuyá ice cream just before the restaurant closed up. It was the perfect topping to a wonderful day.

We took our time getting moving the next day as we knew it was an easy downhill ride along the “Ruta de las Cascadas” (“Waterfall Route”) from Baños to the Amazonian town of Puyo. This route is made for cyclists and is dotted with “ciclovías” (bike lanes) here and there. We were joined by a number of riders, mostly tourists who’d rented bikes in Baños to come enjoy the views.

Just outside of town we passed a large hydro-electric dam, which was even more impressive than usual due to the high volume of water passing through after the past few days’ rain. Apparently, the rain is out of the ordinary and even caused a landslide on the route we were taking. The road had been temporarily closed the day before but was now declared safe for passage.

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As we continued downhill, we saw waterfall after waterfall. Before long, we’d lost count of all the different cascades we’d seen. We also passed a number of places offering zip lines and cable cars across the river for more views of the waterfalls. We even saw a few people bridge jumping!

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Near the bottom of the mountain, it began to feel like the jungle. We rode through Río Negro, where we saw a few people white-water rafting. It had begun to get warm, but still wasn’t as hot as we’d expected. We began to see signs for “Amazon” this and “Amazon” that – Aeropuerto Río Amazonas, Café Amazonas, Base Militar Amazonas, etc. We’d made it!

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In the early afternoon, we rolled into the town of Puyo. It wasn’t anything special, but we hoped to organize a tour deeper into the jungle from here, and it started to rain, so we decided to spend the night here. We talked with Pascal from Papang-Atacapi Tours about day tours in the area. He offered us some great information and seems like the guy to take a tour from; he is a member of the indigenous community that the tour goes through and the profits are used to benefit the community. However, while we were talking with Pascal, someone stole Alex’s phone off of his bike! That spoiled our mood, and we called off the tour. Instead, we found a place to spend the night and get Internet access to change passwords and try to disconnect Alex’s device. Although most people are good and we’ve been overwhelmingly lucky so far on this trip, it was a bit disheartening to have this bad encounter.

When Alex had his information protected again, we went out for dinner at EscoBAR, a silly jungle-themed café just around the corner. We asked, but the owner is Juan Escobar, not Pablo.

We meant to be on the road early the next day, but we slept through the alarm and got rolling slowly. We dropped by EscoBAR for a coffee on the way out and had a nice chat with the waitress about the Quichua culture in the region. It seems that the bilingual education program is working and people are continuing to speak the language!

We had rolling hills through tropical landscapes on our ride out of Puyo. Although there wasn’t much along the road, houses dotted the roadside becoming fewer and farer between as we went along. In the late morning, we stopped at a scenic overlook and took in the Amazon valley below. We also had lots of fun with the two little kids who were there with their grandfather and seemed to know everything about the jungle. We spotted some beautiful birds – black with yellow tails – and also a house with a pelt on the outer wall (it was some type of large cat, but we’re not sure which). There were a number of indigenous villages on the way, some with signs for tourist spots and others discretely tucked off the highway.

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In the early afternoon we crossed a large bridge spanning the Pastaza river. This bridge was built about 10 years ago; before that, the only river crossing was a pedestrian bridge (pictured below). We’d heard that during that time, you could take a bus from Puyo to Macas (the route we were riding), but that everyone disembarked at the river, walked across, and grabbed another bus on the other side. Things sure have changed!

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We stopped for lunch just across the river and were glad we had when it began to rain. We took our sweet time eating and relaxing until the rain died down. But we didn’t have far to go; we’d read about a lodge just about a mile up the road, El Laberinto, and we wanted to check it out and maybe spend the night. We turned off the highway onto a dirt road and pulled up at El Laberinto.

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The owner, Rómulo, was super nice and helpful. We decided to set up our tent under the roof of the restaurant/entertainment area and spend the night. The place had all sorts of services. There were three pools, although the largest of them was not working at the time because the river had risen due to the heavy rains and dumped massive amounts of sand into the pool. Everyone was hard at work cleaning up when we arrived.

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Rómulo also showed us the water massage, and Alex didn’t hesitate to jump right in!

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On the other side of the property was a pond with a tightrope. Alex gave it a go and made it well over the water before tumbling down. Although it took her a while, Julia managed to get across without falling in! There was also a cable car that you could use to pull yourself across the pond. It was great fun behaving like kids and trying out the exciting new toys!

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Soon the rain was back and we relaxed under the roof. We even spotted a toucan on the old pedestrian bridge as the sun began to set. It felt wonderful to be out of the city and relaxing in nature again. We woke up refreshed and ready for our hike with Germán through the labyrinth. It was going to be a bit muddy, so Germán lent us each a pair of rainboots.

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Germán led us up the hill behind the property, and we were surprised to see that it really was like a labyrinth! Supposedly, this land was under the ocean hundreds of thousands of years ago, and the rocks that are left behind are a remnant of that. We even spotted a few fossils! We were sure glad that Germán was with us to lead us through the maze of rocks.

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Once we were through the maze, we got a great view of the river and the bridge below. From there, we explored a few caves, saw some bats, and then swung back to camp to pack up and push out the few remaining miles to get to Macas.

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The ride to Macas began with a bit of a climb, but mostly it was rolling hills along the way and we eased into Macas just around 4:00. We asked about buses to Cuenca at the bus station, and it turned out that one was leaving just then at 4:00. The woman selling the tickets told us we could hop right on, or catch the 5:30. We opted to hop right on, but when we went to load up the bikes, the attendant was in quite a hurry. Julia calmly told him that we’d either load up the bikes slowly and properly, or we’d be taking the 5:30. In the end, it was a compromise: we threw the bikes on quickly so that the bus could pull out of the station before it got a fine for late departure, then stopped immediately across the street to rearrange them and pack them safely. It was a bit chaotic, but it got the job done! We wrapped up our time in the Amazon and watched the jungle turn to mountains as we drove upwards towards new adventures in Cuenca!

Day 128 / 129 / 130 Stats:

Mileage: 40.8 / 43.7 / 48.9

Elevation Gain (ft.): 1,686 / 1,998 / 2,884

Riding Time: 3:47 / 4:07 / 4:13

Maps: Day 128 / Day 129 / Day 130

We finally get going in Ecuador – it’s been worth the wait!

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Since we had planned on arriving in Quito around 4:00 P.M. rather than 4:00 A.M., we hadn’t made any hostel reservations, thinking we’d have the evening to check some places out. Instead, we quickly pulled out the GPS and tried to find the closest place we could as we started to feel the chill of the Quito air. Quito is chilly for two reasons: it’s at about 9,350 feet and it’s winter in the southern hemisphere. We rolled around for a while, having a hard time pinpointing any hostels (it didn’t help that our guidebook was about 8 years out of date) before finally stumbling into the Mariscal district around 5:00 A.M. This neighborhood is quite popular, packed with restaurants, bars, nightclubs, and (thankfully) hostels!

In the morning, Julia woke up feeling sick. We limped over to a nearby plaza, called “Foch Yeah Plaza” (this is the real name of the plaza – not making this up) and grabbed some breakfast. Unfortunately, that didn’t cure the problem and Julia ended up spending the next three days holed up in the hostel, with a short visit out to the doctor.

The doctor’s visit was well worth the $25, although not so much for the medical advice as for the experience. We weren’t sure if Julia’d picked up a bug from some water she’d drank on the bus from Colombia or if it was the altitude that was making her feel down, so we figured we’d ask a professional. Turns out he couldn’t pinpoint anything specific, but he suggested that if Julia was feeling lethargic she take some vitamin B – in the form of an injection to the butt. Julia was hesitant, but ultimately decided that she’d do whatever it took to get feeling better. Until, that is, the doctor led Alex to his car and pulled out a box from his trunk. Inside were a syringe and a glass vial of vitamin B. Then, the doctor drove away, leaving Julia to load the syringe and inject the vitamin herself! Nope. Not happening. We opted to assume that she had some sort of parasite, so she took some over-the-counter anti-parasites and was feeling better about 24 hours later.

While Julia was down for the count, Alex did some scouting around and found a number of great bike shops. He also encountered a good outdoors store, Explore, which we would later discover is a country-wide chain. But ultimately, Alex is such a supportive boyfriend that he ended up spending most of his time in Quito nursing Julia back to health (THANK YOU!).

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Finally, on Monday morning Julia was feeling well enough to get back on the bike, so we packed up and headed out for what was (supposed to be) a short ride to Amaguaña and Pasochoa Natural Park. Quito turned out to be quite the sprawling city and it took us nearly all day to get out of town. The main road through Quito wasn’t very pleasant to ride, as large trucks and busses passed us and cut us off.

When it began to drizzle cold rain, we pulled over for a late lunch at a local restaurant with a fixed menu (although they made some changes for the vegetarian!). The food was delicious, the portions large, and the price ideal at $2/meal – including everything in the pictures below!

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We pushed on and finally made it out of Quito and onto the beautiful new highway, with three lanes and a wide shoulder. We rode only a few miles before taking a turnoff to Amaguaña. The road wound down and down, until we hit a line of parked cars and trucks. We came up cautiously alongside them until we found the cause of the backup: an 18-wheeler had crashed into a pickup and was blocking the road. Fortunately, everyone involved was okay, but we had to wait for a few minutes while the tow truck struggled to get the semi-truck out of the ditch. The tow-truck even did a wheelie for a minute as it struggled against the weight of the larger truck!

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We got going again and were soon at the turnoff to Pasochoa Natural Park. It was only 5 kilometers to the park entrance, but it was uphill along a poorly maintained cobblestone road, so we opted to pay $10 and take a truck-taxi with our bikes in the back! It was a beautiful ride up, and we were soon at the ranger station where we checked in and the ranger showed us where we could camp. We couldn’t bring the bikes to the camping spot, as they are prohibited for fear that they’ll damage the plant life, but the ranger locked them up in a spare room for us.

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Pasochoa is home to humid Andean forest, which is quite different and lusher than the parramo we’d experienced in the Colombian Andes. We enjoyed a quick evening hike alongside a partially underground river that bubbled up every now and again next to the path. When we turned around to head back, we were surprised to see the whole town of Amaguaña lit up below us!

We set up camp in the new facilities in the park, so we were under a roof with access to a bathroom, running water, and electricity. And the best part – it was all free! There was no entrance fee or camping fee for the park. If we’d had more time, we’d have loved to spend a few more nights there and make our way further into the park. However, we’d only brought food for one night, and it was barely food at that. Julia had been skeptical when she purchased the “salsa de tomate” packet (depending on the country, “salsa de tomate” is either pasta sauce or ketchup), but the woman had assured her it was to be used on pasta. Guess we can only conclude that Ecuadorians like their pasta with ketchup!

As we were still at a high elevation, it was quite chilly, and we were thankful for our layers of clothing, sleeping bags, and even our rain fly to keep heat in the tent. It was still brisk in the morning when we packed up and walked down the hill for our bikes. There was no need for a taxi on the way out, as it was a beautiful roll mostly downhill.

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We made it back to the paved road at Amaguaña, climbed up, and hit the highway. From there, we struggled along a slight uphill with a big, cold headwind. We stopped for coffee and egg sandwiches – another steal at $2 for both of us. A bit warmer, we carried onwards and upwards. It was a long, difficult ride to the top of the hill, where we peaked at 11,519 feet of elevation. It was the highest riding we’ve done so far! The views were stunning, but we didn’t linger as the wind ripped right through our jackets.

From the top, we had a dramatic descent that made our fingers and toes numb from the wind, and the rest of the ride was more-or-less a gentle downhill roll. Just about 10 miles before our destination of Latacunga, we turned around to see the snow-capped peak of Cotopaxi peeking out of the clouds! It was an impressive giant towering above us at a height of 19,347 and we craned our necks backwards for the rest of the trip to catch more of this beauty.

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Although Cotopaxi is currently active, we didn’t see any erupting.  We were reminded of the threat very frequently as we rode, though!

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By 5:00 we were in Latacunga and ready to meet up with our WarmShowers host Javier. He’d told us to meet him at his computer shop, so we pulled up and were greeted with a warm smile. Javier had to work for a while, so we dumped our bags and rode off to the Explore store in the nearby shopping mall for a new stove (ours had clogged up camping the night before and we didn’t think that we could rely on it anymore). On the way, we noticed that many people were wearing their traditional dress of a felt hat and poncho. By 7:00, Javier was closing up the shop and told us to head over to his place for dinner.

We were welcomed home by Javier’s wife Rosa. The place was incredible and we were shown such hospitality that we felt right at home. Javier and Rosa have a detached garage that’s been converted into somewhat of an in-laws apartment, with a kitchen downstairs and a living and dining area upstairs.

When Javier got home from work, we all got together in the main house for dinner – us, Javier, Rosa, and their two teenage children. It was a lovely meal and we enjoyed getting to know one another. Julia, Rosa, and Rosa’s son bonded over their vegetarianism, and we also chatted with Rosa’s daughter about her experience going to high school in California. Hearing the family’s perspective on Ecuador was also quite enlightening; it seems that a lot has improved in the past few years, from education to roads, and everyone was very proud of their country.

The following day, we walked to the center of town and caught an hour-long bus to Tigua, a small community high up in the mountains that is known for its crafts. There were a few other tourists on the bus headed to the Laguna de Quilotoa another hour-and-a-half along the road, and everyone hilariously kept asking us when we were going there. Bus driver: “You’re going to Tigua? Okay. So when do you want to be picked up to go to Quilotoa?”

We hopped off the bus in Tigua and walked down the hill into the “center” of town, which consisted of a school and a few homes. There was a posada as well, but when we rang the doorbell, they said they weren’t serving food at the moment. They did have a great llama out front, though!

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Since we were a bit hungry, we asked if there was a shop nearby to pick up snacks. The woman at the posada helpfully suggested that we check the artisan gallery just up the hill. We began walking, but the hill turned out to be a bit bigger than we’d anticipated. We stopped and asked a young boy for directions, and he told us to keep going up until we ran into a shepherd; the shepherd would be able to give us instructions from there. So, we continued up and as we crested the hill we found the shepherd! It’s incredible how small towns seem to work this way, with everyone knowing the whereabouts of everyone else.

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The shepherd pointed us back in the direction of the artisan gallery, and we were soon there. It wasn’t quite what we expected, as there wasn’t really anything on display, but we saw a couple hard at work carving wooden masks that they would later paint. They seemed content working outside in the cold rain despite the covered shelter just behind where they were working and were patient in explaining to us what they were doing.

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We thanked the artisans for their time and began walking down the highway back towards the bus stop. After about 45 minutes, the bus pulled up and we jumped on, thankful to be out of the drizzling rain. We rode back down the mountain and got off in Pujilí, a larger town just a few miles outside of Latacunga. It was the town’s market day, so we got some delicious fresh fruits as well as some local treats. We had quesadillas (haven’t seen these delicious things since Mexico!) and breaded and fried bananas with cream. And as if that weren’t enough, we tried a local dessert of bread with honey.

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We walked further into town and checked out the old church, which had an incredible construction. It was made of thick stone bricks and had arches along both sides that were closed only with glass. Light filtered into the space and emphasized the enormity of the building, especially considering the era in which it was built.

Once we’d toured the town, we grabbed another bus back to Latacunga. During the ride, we watched a very strange comedy performance that had the whole bus laughing, despite its overtly racist theme of “Indian” vs. “White Man”. We walked back home and enjoyed another delicious dinner with Javier and his family before turning in for the night. It was such a pleasure to stay with Javier and Rosa, and it certainly made our time in Latacunga special.

Day 124 / 125 Stats:

Mileage: 24.1 / 46.9

Elevation Gain (ft.): 1,679 / 3,392

Riding Time: 2:36 / 5:25

Maps: Day 124 / Day 125

From Salento, Colombia to Quito, Ecuador – pure insanity!

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We set off from Salento with our bellies full from the delicious breakfast that Jack had prepared for us at his hostel. From Salento, we rolled down the hill to the river. We’d planned to take an alternate route out of town to avoid the uphill that we’d face taking the main road, so just past the river we turned off onto a dirt road that ran alongside the river, with a gentle descent into Armenia. Fortunately, the road was in fairly good condition. Plus, since it was a Sunday, we passed hoards of other cyclists! There was a ride in progress, and numerous riders passed with their race numbers on display. It was quite motivating to ride in the company of so many other cyclists.

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Soon, we hit the main road, which branched off in two directions. Here, we had to say a sad goodbye to Jack, as he headed east across the mountains to the Tatacoa desert and we headed south towards Ecuador. We wished we’d been able to travel together longer, but hopefully we’ll meet up again soon!

Alex and Julia rolled through the large town of Armenia, past the main road which was closed for Sunday morning activities (running, walking, biking). It was fun to see so many people out and active!

We had a good deal of mileage to tackle to our destination of Buga, but fortunately it was mostly downhill. Mid-morning, we were joined by a mountain-biker who stuck with us for some time, asking us about our travels. When it was time for him to peel off and head home, he gifted Alex a watch and Julia a bicycle light! It was such unexpected generosity that we are beyond thankful for.

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Around noon we stopped for arepas de choclo (sweet corn pancakes) and had a nice chat with the waitress and some policemen who were also stopped there. But we couldn’t get too comfortable: we had about 60 miles left to ride! We pushed on and made good time until the headwinds hit around 3:30 P.M. Tired and a bit demotivated, we had to dig deep to push on. Finally, around 5:30, we pulled into Buga! We bought some minutes from the famous cell-phone renters and called our WarmShowers host German. He said he lived nearby and would come out and meet us. Soon, the three of us were riding back to his place.

German was nothing short of a wonderful host: he made us feel at home and helped us get to know his city of Buga. German is working on a campaign to promote bicycles in Buga (called “Proyecto Aura”) and he invited us to come with him and some friends to participate in a ride around Buga…on antique bikes! After we’d rested up a bit, we headed back out to borrow some old bikes from German’s friend Leo, who restores these classic bikes as his hobby. We scored some sweet wheels and began riding around town, honking our horns and ringing our bells so that everyone would see us coming!

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We rolled into the central park, which was humming with excitement since it was also the town’s annual fair (this year, Buga is celebrating its 445th anniversary!). We parked the bikes on display and left Leo in charge as we checked out the fair booths, which were jammed full of silly trinkets and cheap souvenirs. Once we’d toured the fair, we grabbed the bikes and set off across town for dinner together. It was such a fun time, getting to know fellow bike enthusiasts and to hear about their adventures together riding bikes around Buga. Before we knew it, it was 11:00 P.M., time to head home and turn in for the night.

The next day, we had breakfast together with German and chilled out all morning. When it was time for lunch, German took us to a great spot that he likes: cheap, good food. We filled up, then rolled over to his favorite panadería (bread shop) for something sweet to top it off.

All day, friends of German bopped in and out of the apartment, many of them helping him with Project Aura. German is hoping to turn Project Aura into Foundation Aura this year, so he has a lot of work to do, but he also has a great deal of support from the community.

In the evening, German took us for a walk up the hill behind his house, to the cross that towers over Buga so that we could enjoy the sunset and the views of both the West and the Central mountain ranges from the Cauca Valley that is nested between the two. The scenery was stunning, especially as the sun began to set and turned the sky a dark, vibrant pink behind the mountains.

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Once the sun had set, we wandered back down into town to meet up with German’s good friend David for dinner. We enjoyed Venezuelan-style arepas again (the kind that are stuffed with cheese, meat, and/or veggies and topped with any of a multitude of sauces) and rolled back home to chat until it was time for bed.

The next morning, we were off from Buga heading towards Cali. It was a short 45 mile ride, so we took our time setting off. German had helped us with a route that diverged from the Pan-Am for a bit and was much quieter, passing by miles after miles of sugar cane farms. Although it was mostly quiet, we were shocked by the “trenes de caña” (sugar cane trains) – trucks with as many as five carriages lined out behind them!

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About halfway into our ride, we ran into another cyclist. Gerardo was an older man (he had just turned 68!) riding a bicycle with impossibly small tires, like a trick bike. He had ridden from Cali out near Buga and was on his way back to Cali when we met up. He accompanied us on the rest of our ride and motivated us to keep going.

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Soon, we were in the big city of Cali, fighting traffic and navigating confusing over- and under-passes. We rolled over to Sunflower Hostel and grabbed a room before rushing out for lunch. Sunflower is located in a great neighborhood with a number of restaurants just around the corner in the Parque de los Perros. We found an Italian restaurant with a pizza lunch special and ate up.

In the afternoon, we spent some time relaxing in the hostel and planning the rest of our trip. By the evening, we’d gotten in touch with Vero, a friend of a friend who lives in Cali, and we’d agreed to meet up for dinner. Vero and her husband Carlos picked us up from the hostel and walked us to a nearby pizza restaurant (you really can never get enough pizza!).

After dinner, we walked over to their house/school. They have a school, Agora, that gives small group and one-on-one tutoring sessions for students over a wide range of subjects – from elementary school to high school to university test prep – and the school has been quite successful. They have a group of 60 part-time teachers and about 700 students who take classes in their beautiful facilities. The classes are held in a traditional house that was built at the turn of the 20th century and has retained many of its original features, giving it a very special feel. Vero and Carlos live in a small guest house off the back (although even that space has been turned into makeshift classrooms in order for them to have enough space for all their students!).

From there, Carlos took us on a tour of the city in his car, getting us oriented to our new surroundings. We headed up to a beautiful scenic outlook above the city and took in the lights. We curved along the river, which had a nice walking path that we vowed to check out the following day. We ended up at the Parque de los Gatos (Park of the Cats). This park is well-known in Cali as it is the park that hosts a large statue of a male cat created by the famous Colombian artist Hernando Tejada. After the statue was erected, other artists were challenged to create female cats to vie for the love of Tejada’s grand Gato. Now, the park is home to a few dozen other cats who all have their own special ways of charming their beloved Gato.

After the city tour, all four of us were exhausted, so we said our goodbyes. It was a memorable evening, and Vero and Carlos are such wonderful people. We are overjoyed that we were able to meet them, and we hope that we are able to meet up again at some point in the future!

The next day was a bit of a whirlwind. We woke up and slowly had breakfast at the hostel (the meal wasn’t very well organized, so it was a game of waiting) before finally pushing off to a WarmShowers host, José Miguel. It turns out that this WarmShowers host is also the owner of Kingbird Hostel, a new hostel in the San Antonio neighborhood of Cali. The hostel had a great vibe and we loved the paintings of native birds all on the walls. It was so great of him to put us up!

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We grabbed lunch at a comedor with a bit of a Mediterranean flavor near the hostel before we grabbed our bikes to ride over to the bus station to find out about buses to Quito, Ecuador. Although the bus station wasn’t far away, it was quite difficult to get to on bikes in heavy traffic. We were relieved when we finally got there. After asking around at a number of different companies, we discovered that buses did not leave daily; we had to choose to leave that day (Wednesday) or wait until Saturday. Although we wanted to have one more day in Cali, it didn’t seem worth it to spend three more days so we bought the tickets for the Wednesday night bus to Quito, a short 18-hour drive away.

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We had a few hours left in the afternoon, so we returned to the center of town to walk around. We visited the Gold Museum and saw some interesting historical photos of Colombia. We also walked along the river and saw La Ermita Church, which looked like it was plucked right out of Disney World. The river walk was very quiet and nice, and we soon made it back to the Parque de los Gatos and enjoyed the cats once more.

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Before we knew it, it was time to head back towards our hostel. We stopped at a grocery store to stock up for our big road trip, then walked back to the San Antonio neighborhood and found a nice vegetarian restaurant for a quick dinner. Once we’d eaten, we returned to our hostel, thanked José Miguel, and headed off to the bus station.

Once we arrived at the bus station, the real adventure began. We rolled our loaded-down bikes up the escalator ramp before we were directed to the elevator (a more sensible choice).

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We were at the gate a few minutes before 9:00 P.M., ready to document our baggage and make sure that our bikes made it onto the bus without any problems. At 9:00 sharp, a bus-line representative showed up and we formed a haphazard line to begin weighing our things. We had been told that we were allowed 30 kilos of baggage and would be charged $2700 pesos per kilo extra (about $1). We’d tried to pare down our things a bit, but we knew we’d be over. When we got to the front of the line, Julia pointed to the bikes, and the attendant said, “No, those aren’t going.” Julia began to panic and put on her best angry face to get the job done, but a second later the attendant smiled. “Just kidding. The bikes won’t be any problem. You don’t even need to weigh them.” Sweet! We got on without any overcharge for the baggage or bikes.

As we’ve grown to expect, the bus didn’t exactly arrive on time. The plan was to load up the bus from 9:00 – 10:00 P.M., then push off towards Ecuador, but instead we waited until the bus pulled up around 10:45. We spent the time chatting with our fellow bus-mates (some of whom were headed all the way to Chile – a three day bus journey) and teaching some of the kids some patty-cake-like hand games. We were finally on our way around 11:30 P.M.

Exhausted as we were, we were able to sleep like angels on the bus. Until around 3:30 A.M., when Julia awoke as the bus ground to a stop. Shaking off the sleepy haze, she looked ahead and saw a line of trucks stopped up ahead, all with their lights off. There was a bit of a hullabaloo aboard the bus as passengers woke up and wondered what was the matter. Soon, we heard some gunshots and the bus did a quick 180 and headed back in the direction from which it had come.

The reason that we’d decided to take the bus in the first place was that we’d read that there was a bit of a security risk in this area of Colombia, but that the highway itself was heavily patrolled and considered safe. Nevertheless, we felt vulnerable on the bikes and had decided that the bus would be a better option. We had also wondered whether an overnight bus was safe or if we should take the day bus, but as the overnight was the only option and we’d been advised by a few people that it would be fine, we’d gone for it. Well, fortunately everything was fine; we’d come near (but avoided) a skirmish between FARC guerrillas and the Colombian military. The bus driver drove a ways away from the conflict and we parked in the dark, listening to the faint sound of the shots as we fell back to sleep. The noise of the conflict continued through the early hours of the morning, finally ending around sunrise. But unfortunately, that didn’t mean that we were back on the road. Apparently, before we’d pulled up, the guerrillas had launched a more powerful weapon that had taken out a good chunk of the highway, and we had to wait for that to be repaired before we were off again.

We disembarked and grabbed breakfast from the gas station across the street, stretching our legs before the journey continued. And just as the road was declared passable, our bus driver noticed that we had a flat tire, so we spent another hour waiting for that to be fixed. All in all, it was about a 7 hour delay. When we finally did get moving, we passed the damaged section of the highway, where Colombian soldiers flashed us thumbs-ups from their tanks and armored vehicles.

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Although we were eager to get moving and make up for lost time, it seemed that no one else on the bus shared that emotion. Just two hours after starting up again, we took an hour-long break for lunch. We crawled up the mountains, driving an average speed of about 25 mph, finally making it to the border around 8:00 P.M. (four hours after we were scheduled to arrive in Quito!). We waited for all of the passengers to go through immigration on both sides of the border, and were finally moving south into Ecuador around 11:30 P.M. Then (surprise!), we stopped for a snack. The casual nature of the journey is something that we’re not sure we’ll ever understand.

After a long 30 hours on the bus, we finally pulled into Quito at 3:30 A.M., beyond thankful to have arrived safe and sound in our final destination after such a memorable and lengthy bus trip. So, from here on out, let’s stick to the bikes!

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Day 117 / 118 Stats:

Mileage: 83.5 / 47.2

Elevation Gain (ft.): 2,478 / 1,055

Riding Time: 6:40 / 3:49

Maps: Day 117 / Day 118