Which would you prefer: Cycling at 12,000 ft above sea level on a dirt road where the thin air steals more breath per pedal revolution than expected and the air is cold an crisp, or cycling at 5,000 ft with plenty of oxygen and below the blazing sun of a hot valley? It seems that in Ecuador, you have a choice of spending your time either climbing to one or descending to the other without flatland in between. It is a feast for the eyes as the climate and landscape transform at a magical pace.
Following our adventure of the rocky and waterfall-laced highway to Sibundoy, we rode a short day to the fishing village of El Encano on the edge of Laguna la Cocha, the largest lake in southern Colombia. There, we hired a boat and a fisherman to take us trout fishing. He was patient with our many inquires and my rusty translations of the specific wild-life, ecosystem and preservation questions from Manna. The calm lake and warmer weather made for shy trout but for the first time I pulled in a fish before Manna. Yessss! Once ashore, the fisherman took us to a family restaurant and they grilled our catch (four small, yet legal trout) for next to nothing. Reading the Footprint travel guide we carry with us, I am reminded of how how fortunate we are to be visiting Colombia now, shortly after it has become a safe country to travel through, but has not yet been stripped down by over-tourism or ramped-up with high prices. Footprint reads: “Then the road descends steeply to Sibundoy and Mocoa. For many years this has been a guerrilla territory and a drug growing and processing area. It is also the centre of the government-led cocoa eradication programme. The road Pasto-Mocoa is poor.” Yes, the road is poor. No, there haven’t been guerrillas roaming this territory for over five years.
After lunch, with our rain gear sealed tightly to our bones, we managed to get a short ride in over a good pass and arrived in Pasto, a fairly quaint city with much of its old charm still remaining. The looming Volcan Galeras was hidden in the clouds, but our hotel room (El Koala) offered a great view of the city as well as loud sample of its many noises (small towns are just as noisy as large cities, but the roosters are replaced by honks). Also, we had all of our clothes washed in a washing machine for the first time in three weeks. Although this left me walking through town wearing the sarong I’ve used as a towel, pick-nick blanket and sponge, it was worth it as the next morning we were rewarded by the sweetest smelling clothes ever.
Our final night in Colombia took us to a wide spot in the road called El Pedregal. After a healthy climb leaving Pasto, we descended over 6,000 feet into a canyon that was so narrow our breaks had no time to cool off before starting the steep climb back out. We decided to stop after just 25 miles and found ourselves a hotel with an entertaining view of the off-duty soldiers and the traffic jam of trucks that slowed just enough to buy arepa (fried bread), a baked potato, pork, or tomato-tree juice before heading south to Ecuador.
We rose before dawn the next morning and dug our way out of the valley towards the border. It took an hour to stamp ourselves out of Colombia and into Ecuador. I wish that the US immigration offices would play Marilyn Manson over their loud speakers as Ecuador does. We slept in Tulcan, a cold city filled with Colombian tourists enjoying their three day weekend (I think they have been celebrating 200 years of independence from Spain for a few months now) as well as a large cemetery filled with cypress trees that are the medium of topiary sculptures taken to impressive extremes.Ecuador has used US currency since 2000 but the change is a mix of US and Ecuadorian coins. The Ecuadorians have at least had the wisdom of printing on each coin its numerical value. They are probably the only tourists to visit the US who can easily navigate their way through our unidentifiable coins. The use of the dollar has not caused inflation, however, as we witnessed first hand after paying $4 for our drinks, soup and dinner.
It was less than 3 miles south of Tulcan when we veered away from the PanAmerican highway and headed southwest on another dirt road (we apparently handn’t learned our lesson yet) to El Angel Ecological Reserve. We debated this choice long and hard after scowering our two most frequently visited cyclist blogs from Paul and Alli & Anna and decided that the described beauty of the reserve would be worth another bone-rattling ride. We couldn’t have been more pleased. The route was the most remote we had been – a total of one vehicle drove by us while we were in the park and no houses or farmed land were seen until we descended from our grand altitude of 12,650 feet into the town of El Angel. The reserve itself is blanketed by the frailejon plant, a velvety-leaved beauty found only there and in the Andes of Colombia and Venezuela. Two cristal clear lakes filled with trout made Manna yearn for his fishing poll, but I was happy he’d left it at home this time since the altitude pulled at each breath and the cold air turned ears to icicles.
But not for long. The following day started in the foggy highland of El Angel and after a short climb, took us soaring down 6,000 feet into the dry, hot desert valley of the Panamerican Highway. After the 12 mile descent, we were surrounded by sugarcane and our legs were bitten by small, sand-colored desert flies where we stopped to take pictures of the opuntia (beaver-tail) cactus. Even the race of the Ecuadorians changed as dramatically as the climate: we saw primarily black Ecuadorians harvesting the sugarcane, selling sweet drinks by the road and walking along under the hot sun. In true Ecuadorian fashion, the road did not follow the valley for long before ascending 2,000 feet into Ibarra, where we have found shelter from yet another rain storm.
In Colombia, although I had several conversations with students, and received many hollers from children filling playgrounds as we rode past, I did not visit a school. This will change while in Ecuador. Manna can go catch all the trout he wants while I visit a few classrooms and exchange ideas with fellow teachers. We even rode past a “Centro Educativo Albert Einstein” which made me smile as I thought of my students back home and how much each and every one of them would love to sit on my handlebars as I rode them south and fed them the most enormous papayas they’d ever seen.
Tomorrow we have a short climb to Otavalo, home of the largest craft market in South America. Auntie Kathy, I promise I will find you some fabric and if I can’t find a post office, I will send a donkey north to deliver the package to your doorstep.
p.s. After 2,500 miles, my chicken legs are still holding true to their name.