I spent a couple of nights in Cajamarca and treated myself to a thermal bath in Los Banos del Inca and some of the best locally made dutch ice cream: lucuma, poro poro and sauco being the new exotic flavors I tried. The town itself has a nice colonial center and seems quite busy after the back country of the north. Here I met Anna, a New Zealand girl hanging out surfing on the coast with some guys from my village, and we spent the next couple of days together. She introduced me to a great local textile shop were we ended up drinking coffee with the owner Warren and his friend Carlos and discussing quantum physics in Spanish for hours before being allowed to shop. We than carried on to Cajabamba, which is a quaint little town with a particularly nice feel to it. But unfortunately the next day saw us on the road again to the mining town Huamachuco, which had a quite different feel to it. I didn’t particularly like the place and decided it’s time for me to see some real mountains. In Trujillo Anna’s and my way parted and I took the luxury night bus to Huaraz. I thought I should have spent some time in Trujillo, but the mountains were calling and I saved the sightseeing for a later trip….maybe a future surf trip along the coast?
I arrived 5am in Huaraz (3091m) and was greeted with some chilly air. I checked into the nice Akilpo Hostel, run by 3 super helpful, knowledgeable and nice brothers, and after a hearty breakfast in a local gringo cafe thought it was time to give the bike a workout. I took a collectivo up the Cordillera Negra to Callan Punta (4225m) and from there headed north on a dirt track with amazing views to the Cordillera Blanca. I loved riding without the weight of the panniers, on a dirt road all to myself with vistas to snowy 6000m peaks….wow!! I road along for about 15km before having to find a way down as the road on was owned by mining companies and closed for access. The downhill started of well, but got rougher as I got lower. I crossed through some tiny local villages and thoroughly enjoyed my day. The next day was spent organizing myself for the well known Santa Cruz track, which crosses some of the nicest parts of the Cordillera Blanca with some of the best views.
A 6 am a tourist bus took us straight to the start of the day track to the stunning Laguna 69. We stopped for a cup of coca tea on the way, which gave me the time to meet a nice French couple Julie and Daniel ….and we spent the next 4 days walking together. I convinced them to follow my route: from Cebolla Pampa (approx. 3900m) to the Refugio Peru (4665m) for lunch and than via a high route over 5000m down to the Laguna 69 (4600m approx.) where we camped. It’s been an amazing day with fantastic views, surrounded by 6000m peaks and not a cloud in the sky. We had the Laguna 69 to our-self as all the day tourist had left by than. We left early the next morning to catch the bus at Yurac Coral over another 5000m pass to the start of the Santa Cruz track. It was a rough ride and we were happy when we got to Vaqueria (3700m). The skies had clouded over and we made our way up the valley past some villages as it started raining. The next day we headed over the pass Punta Union (4750m) with more amazing views and some fresh snow. Down the other side we made a small detour to the mirador of the Alpamayo but didn’t quite get to see the most beautiful mountain. We camped one last night in the valley and walked out early the next morning in beautiful sunshine. A collectivo took us back down to the valley floor….the road was exiting and the car beyond repair, but the driver was an expert….Just as well!
I successfully avoided the mud between Vilcabamba, Ecuador and San Ignacio, Peru by using public transport: a bus , a ranchero and collectivos. The road has been badly damaged after a lot of rain and was extremely muddy! Very sticky mud with a lot of clay content, good for building houses and making your bike unrideable. The border crossing was super relaxed and after signing out of Ecuador I had to look hard to find the immigration office on the Peruvian side. I was greeted with a lot of cheerfulness and friendliness. From San Ignacio the road dropped back down to a tropical hot valley floor and run along a river with many rice plantations. I stopped on the turn off to Bellavista and got invited to stay with a young family living on the side of the road in very basic conditions but with a huge flat screen TV which the whole neighbourhood came to watch. Since it was my birthday the next day I decided to stay, enjoying the company and experiencing local life….. The next morning after a hearty breakfast I left for Bellavista, took the boat across the river and carried on to Bagua Grande. At 400m it was humid, hot and sticky and since it was about to rain I caught the bus to Chachapoyas (2350m) adding in a nice downhill ride to Tingo (1800). I arrived on dark not without my share of mud because of the works on road. It’s a tiny town and accommodation was pretty basic. The next day I hiked up about 1200m over 9km to Kuelap, a spectacular pre-Inca walled city. It was built from AD 500 to 1100 and contains three times more stone than the Great Pyramid at Giza in Egypt. Considering its size surprisingly little is known about Kuelap. The word Chachapoyas actually derives from the Inca – the Cloud People. The population of the settlement was said to be around 2000, and the site is made up of some 400 structures, most of which are the foundations of cylindrical houses, 3-12metres in diameter. A guinea pig run forms a small partition for the kitchen and allows easy access to snacks. Despite its size and importance, the whole place remains something of a mystery – it’s not even fully understood why it’s there, or why it seems so heavily fortified at a time when the Chachapoyan’s had no significant enemy. Kuelap is set on two levels – uptown and downtown and the massive stone walls, 585m long by 110m wide at their widest has three entrances to the citadel. The slot passageway narrows down in width, limiting entry to just one person at a time. The structures have been left in their cloud forest setting, but there is some indecision if it should be cleared for a more manicured ‘Machu Picchu’ look. Rex, the local Alsatian from Tingo guided me all day and made for great company.
From Tingo it was a very gentle climb along a beautiful riverside to Leymebamba on hardback dirt and a succession of idyllic villages. I had the afternoon to relax and rode to the local Museum 5km up the road, which had a good collection of Chachapoyan and Inka artifacts. But it is the room packed with mummies – 219 of them – that made the visit most worthwhile. Some were still bundled up, bound with plant fibre rope and embroidered with faces, while others had been unfurled. They ranged from fetuses complete with umbilical cords, to adults and had all been unearthed in the nearby Laguna de los Condores.
The next morning I enjoyed a massive downhill from 3600m down to 850m over 60km…..followed by a massive uphill….but I was lucky enough to manage to catch the only bus of the day from Las Balsas all the way to Cajamarca.
From Latacunga I took a night bus to Cuenca, and arrived just before daylight. This not only saved me many km of Panamerica riding, but also did my lungs a favour by not having to inhale exhaust fumes. I got to see Cuenca deserted of people to start with while I was looking for a hostel. Cuenca (full name Santa Ana de los cuatro ríos de Cuenca) is the capital of the Azuay Province. It is located in the highlands of Ecuador at about 2500 m above sea level. The center of the city is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage trust site because of its many historical buildings. Many American expats settle here and the cafe where I was having an extended breakfast was full of them. I spend the day walking around the now busy town and enjoyed the architecture as much as the food and many cafes. One of my favorite places for snacks became the ‘mercado de 10 de Agosto’ which had a whole second floor of food stales. I visited the museum of modern art and enjoyed the exhibition of local artist Fernando Coellar ‘Labyrinth of Pieties’.
But I decided that one day in a rainy city is enough and took the bus to Loja the next day and biked on to Vilcabamba. As I dropped down from the highlands to approximately 1500m the climate changed, the temperature rose and there was many flowers and fruit trees. Life seems to be a lot easier on this level. Vilcabamba is often called the ‘Valley of longevity’ as it is widely believed that its inhabitants grow to a very old age, due to the good climate and healthy living conditions. It’s now a very popular place with tourist and foreigners buying property alike and has become a strange mix of locals and an aging hippie population, best described as ‘gringolandia’. Still it had the amenities a traveler likes and I spent 3 nights here resting and deciding which way to go from here: Continue via the mountains, which was to be the most scenic and adventurous, but very remote and hard option with mainly dirt roads. Also currently the road to the border has been severely damaged with still continuing rain. Or take a bus to Trujillo and head back into the mountains from there. But the coast is known for unfriendly treatment to ciclistas and some being lightened of their possessions. After much soul searching, blog reading and back and fourth I settled on the mountain road…..hoping that with the help of buses it’ll be ok. So I’ll be taking a bus to Zumba this afternoon, as the road is badly damaged, and will cross the border to Peru in the morning. It was my aim to be in Peru for my birthday and I will be a day early….spending it riding dirt roads and probably camping out…..but I stocked up on Belgian homemade chocolates here in Vilcabamba:))))
While I was away in the Galapagos the rainy weather has turned into summer days accompanied by strong winds, which are to last for the next 3 months…. apparently. After the holiday I was eager to get back on my bike and make some progress, but stayed an extra day in Quito as there was a Canadian cyclist keen to share the road.
Stephanie from Quebec and me planned to traverse the Cotopaxi national park and than carry on with the Quilotoa loop. We left early next morning and circled around Quito to the south, traversed a couple of villages before heading towards the north entrance of the park. The road changed from asphalt to pavement to cobblestone and our progress slowed down accordingly. Cobblestone is really hard to ride on especially once it gets steep and with a heavy load. We had to push our bikes on several occasions and progress slowed down to a meager 5km/h and got very frustrating and exhausting. When a 4×4 came past we took the chance and got a ride to the entrance of the park. The landscape changed from green farmland to a high altitude paramo. We were now at about 3800m and the Cotopaxi Volcano (5897m) with its snowy top dominated the barren landscape. It is a stunning place, but windy and cold. We cycled on a sandy track towards the beautiful volcano and had to work hard to keep our breath. We seemed to be the only ones in the park until we hit the main access road to Cotopaxi, which is a classic climb and tourist attraction. There is a good road al the way to the hut at 4800m, from where the climb starts. The campground was only a few km along this road and had no amenities. We were too tired to care and settled into our tents after a quick meal. We woke up to mist, rain and a lot of wind, and quickly made our way down the hill to the south entrance of the park, realizing that the proper campground with toilet and kitchen was only 1km along from where we had camped. We joined the noisy and smelly Panamericana again just before Lasso, were we decided to stay the night. It was just too windy to carry on and we felt we deserved a lazy afternoon. We found a nice little hotel, but left again early next morning to bike the Quilotoa loop, which is including the market in Zumbahua, described as one of the nicest excursions in Ecuador. The road to Sichos, 2800m where we stayed the first night, was stunning and all asphalted, but still hard work with many ups and downs: high Andean landscape with steep valleys and patchwork fields high up the mountains. The local Indigenous in the remote mountain villages are still wearing the traditional clothes and dark hats. The next day was a hard slog on cobblestone/gravel and earth road to Chugchilan 3200m and than a steep sandy climb to Quilotoa at approximately 3900m. The day had started out calm with beautiful blue sky but turned windy by lunch time. At the end of the day we twice thought to have reached the top but to our disappointment the road kept on climbing and the wind was fierce and head on. When we finally reached Quilotoa we were totally exhausted but happy to have made it. The daily average was only 7,4km/h. But we were rewarded with a nice hotel with real feather duvets and a fireplace in the room…all for a bargain of $12 including dinner and breakfast, after some negotiating. Because of the low season they dropped the normal rate of $25. It was so nice we decided to stay an extra night, allowing us to visit the Quilotoa lagune the next day and rest in the afternoon. The last day started with a great downhill to Zumbahua were we stopped to ring our families which had birthdays to celebrate: my Mum, my Grandma and Stephanie’s Dad…Happy Birthday!! We than had to climb back up, than had a great downhill before climbing all the way to 4000m…..which seemed never ending especially with the windy conditions. But than a long 25km downhill was the reward. Back in the main valley the noise, smells and traffic were a shock to the system after the remote time in the back country. We stopped for a hot chocolate in Pujili and than found a nice hostel to stay in Latagunga. The next morning we visited the famous market in Saquisili, but were too obsessed with the food and missed the artisan market altogether! Probably saved me some money!!
Since neither of us has a proper road map of Ecuador nor a GPS we had to use the PPS for our trip: pare, pregunte y sigua – stop, ask and and carry on!
I arrived in Quito and stayed at the Casa de Ciclistas in Tumbaco, just outside of the big city. This super nice family opens their home to passing cyclists and creates a worldwide family. What hospitality….the world needs more families like that. Santiago works from his bike workshop from home, has plenty of good advise and is of great help in planning my trip. I spend a day looking around Quito in the rain and than organize myself for a trip to the Galapagos, hoping the weather will improve while away. I decided I need a holiday from this trip. I got a last minute flight for a week and opted against a cruise boat option. Just couldn’t get myself to spend the money for being told what to do. …prefer doing my own thing. And as it turned out I got to see most animals and had a great time. I had nice one on one time with some of the animals and that was special to me. I first arrived in Puerto Ayora, St Cruz island, and the same day visited the Darwin center, where they keep some of the giant land turtles. I also got to see lots of marine iguanas and some birds just hanging out on the verge of town. On the way back I passed the fish market and the fishing boats had just come in with the catch of the day. It was a great spectacle watching the pelicans and a couple of sea lions begging for scraps. I ended up eating there too and it was delicious! The next day I went for an early swim to beautiful Tortuga bay and got to swim with sharks and big rays, even a turtle showed up. The next two days I spent on Isabella island, a 2 hour boat trip away, where I joined a group for an excursion to the Volcano and a snorkel around the harbor. I met a very nice french couple from Bordeaux and we kept bumping into each other for the rest of our trip and had great fun together. Thanks Malika and Xavier:) We went on a snorkeling trip to St Cristobal island together and got to swim with sea lions. I think this was my favorite part. They are so beautiful, curious and engage in the play, come close to look you in the eyes than shoot of again to continue their dance….and they are so elegant and flexible, amazing to watch and fun to play with. The last day was spent relaxing on the beach and eating excellent ceviche and grilled fish in the company of my new friends. I was very sad to leave and could have easily stayed longer. But ‘mi mariposa’ is calling me and wants to get back on the road. I’m back at the casa de ciclista now and had a trial start this morning but than ended up staying an extra day to catch up on things. Also there is quite a few ciclistas here and these are the first I met: a swiss couple, a canadian, a french, 3 argentinians, and an american. I went for a lovely bike ride along an old converted train track through a beautiful gorge with the swiss couple and we found it hard to believe this is just outside of Quito. And summer has arrived and the sun is shining…..
After having passed the long weekend in Bogota and collected the results from my appointment on Tuesday I left the big smoke the next morning really early….just as the other Hostel members had gotten home from their party bus night out. I kind a missed out on the night life of Bogota, and will have to come back another time to Colombia…for the dancing. Instead I had explored the medical sector of Bogota and had an MRI done on my left shoulder which was quite sore after a fall when two trucks ‘gigantes’ had pushed me off the road…. actually I left the road by choice…. and went for the ditch, a slippery slope, which was still the saver option. The results show a full tear of part of the supraspinatus muscle. However, the specialist, recommended that I continue my bike trip and get it fixed once back home.
On way out of of Bogota (2640m) I followed a ciclovia along the calle 26 nearly all the way to the airport and than I had to change over to calle 13 and share it with a million trucks and progress slowed right down. After another 20km and after breathing a fair share of exhaust fumes the traffic started to disperse and my road headed up a hill close to 3000m pass. I was looking forward to the massive descent back to the low hundreds, but once over the pass it started raining heavily and the fog was dense. I had to go real slow and started to get cold and wet. After about 1000m decent I stopped for a warm drink….wondering why one bothers with cycle touring: it’s either raining, or there is a headwind, or there is too many trucks, the dogs are chasing you, etc… I asked a nice couple what they were eating and ordered the same, hot chocolate + arepa con queso (un campesino). We had a quick chat and than I settled on my table and got changed into dry clothes. They left shortly after and had paid for my desayuno campesino. Asi es la Colombia (that’s Colombia), the people are incredible generous and open hearted, quite a contrast with the poor and violent reputation the country has. Something like that would never happen in Europe, but yet had happened a few times to me here already. These moments of human sharing made up for the rain and misery of today.
The rain had stopped and I got to enjoy the rest of the downhill, some uphill, ordered some tripe soup for lunch by mistake (I hate tripe), had another nice Colombiano come up to my table to chat and wish me all the best. After 150km and 10h in the saddle I finally arrived in Girardot (315m), a hot place and noisy. The hotter the climate the more noisy the place. The rule seems to be the louder one can advertise what they sell the more chances they have…and everyone is selling something! I found a place with a swimming pool which was quite a treat. The next morning I wanted to make my way south to the Tatacoa desert, but got warned that south from Girardot starts the ‘zona roja’ and there would be a threat of guerrilla. I wasn’t too sorry to have to take the bus all the way to San Augustin, as I wasn’t too keen on cycling in the heat anyway. I arrived after dark and the whole town was struck by a blackout….it was quite challenging to find the Hotel Finca el Maco, and a strange, slightly unnerving feeling arriving in the dark. But it all turned out well, it was a nice place to stay and the next day I visited the Parque Arqueologico de San Augustin a UNESCO world heritage center, together with a nice german/colombian couple. I not only had a culturally interesting day, but I also learned lots of spanish… what a great day! Thanks Theresa and Diego:) The next day there was another bus ride through ‘zona roja’ country on a bad road (120km took 6 hours) in the rain to Popayan. . The town is well known for its beautiful colonial architecture, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1983, but has been well restored. In 2005, Popayán was declared by the UNESCO as the first city of gastronomy because of its variety and meaning to the intangible patrimony of Colombian culture. I had the best food there yet.
I was worried having to ride my bike into Bogota, the capital of Colombia with about 12Mio people. I heard many scary stories and initially wanted to avoid the city all together. But since I had an appointment there I had to brave the big smoke.
After leaving Villa de Leiva I had a long day riding to Ubate via Chinquinquira. In Ubate I talked to a local guy while eating street food on the main square in the evening. He said he’s been robbed of all his belongings with a gun in Bogota, which didn’t make me feel any better. The next day I rode on to Zipaquira, actually I got a ride with a mountain biker in his pick up truck, as it rained, the road climbed to 3000m, was full of trucks, narrow and in bad condition. He was a Bogotonian and a great source of information about the area and the city. He said that riding into Bogota would be fine as they have ciclovia to Chia and than autopista with 3 lanes. In Zipiquira I visited the amazing Salt Cathedral, a huge cathedral carved into the mountain, a massive and still operating salt mine. There are only two of its kind open to the public, this one and one in Poland which is a Museum only. This salt mine has been exploited since hundreds of years, and the different techniques are well explained, as well as the use of the salt: only 20% are for human consumption, the rest ends up in cosmetics, plastic bottles, asphalt, etc…. This is rated one of the main attractions of Colombia and it sure is. I spent most of my day there and than walked around town and bumped into the same guy from last night, which ended up following me…..I knew than that his story was lie!!!
The ride into Bogota was easy enough with the ciclovia to Chia, where I had cafe on its lovely plaza central. Than it was autopista to Bogota and probably 30km of town traffic before arriving in the centre. I stayed in the Candelaria, the old part of town, in the hostel Cranky Croc, which I can only recommend, even though it’s a busy place and full of young party folk. I had several days in Bogota since it was Mother’s day weekend with a holiday on Monday and most things were closed. I visited the Museo del Oro, the Museo de Botero, explored town via the ciclovia on Sunday…..they close the main avenidas for cyclists only on Sundays and holidays from 7am-2pm and lots of people make use of it with bikes, roller blades, jogging, dog walking, etc…. and lots of food and fruits to be sampled on the side of the road. A very fun and social time.
I left Giron by bike on a ‘autobahn’ which was busy, but at least there was enough room for trucks to overtake me without taking out the oncoming traffic or me. This didn’t last for too long and it reverted back to a normal small country road and I soon learned to appreciate my new piece of equipment, my revision mirror….best investment I made! It was a hot sunny day and I was climbing my first pass to than enjoy a wicked downhill into the Chicamocha canyon. Apparently this is the second biggest canyon system in the world, so I’ve been told by a friendly local military guy. It was mid day, I was back at low levels and the heat was excruciating, though I got a ride in a local truck back up the other side of the canyon and saved myself a 1000m climb. I still had to climb further and than had a pleasant ride down to San Gil, the adventure capital of Colombia. Here tourists can enjoy everything from rafting, paragliding to abseiling, but I preferred a bus ride to the colonial village of Barichara, founded in 1741, which is also noted as the most beautiful colonial town of Colombia.
The next day was a short ride to the town of Socorro. Just after breakfast I tried my first ‘leche de capra preparada’ on the side of the road. It’s a shot of Brandy with honey and vitamin granulate, topped up with milk fresh from the goat. Great way to start the day! Food is an important part of life here and in the towns every second house is a shop, while along the road people sell local specialities. Socorro is a nice place to hang out for the day with some colonial influence and without the busyness of San Gil. The next day brought many ups and downs on the road and the sun was beating down. I took to leaving about 7am so I can stop and look for a hotel by about mid day. I stayed in the country town Vado Real and managed to find a lovely family run hotel, Hotel Parque Vado Real. The family was very nice and interesting to chat to, well educated and the hotel was clean, had fast wifi, TV and all the comforts needed by a traveller. From there it was one more day to Villa Leiva, colonial town founded in 1572 and declared a national Monument. It has one of the largest plazas of the Americas, is surrounded by cobbled streets and has a charming peaceful atmosphere. Time for a couple of days rest! I stayed in the austrian-colombian owned family hostel Casa Viena which was a home away from home. I arrived on a Sunday and the plaza in town was transformed into one big bar, with lots of day visitors from close by Bogota. Colombians take pride in their looks and everyone was wearing their best attire. It was quite fun watching the ladies navigate the cobbled street in their high heels.
The last 3 days since leaving Mompox have seen me on my bike, on a boat and on a bus…..and I finally reached the foot hills of the Cordillera Oriental which bring a slight relief in temperatures. My first day on the bike wasn’t an easy one with soaring hot temperatures and 74 km of what I’ve been told would be ‘camino de tierra’, dirt road, which becomes very muddy and impassable at times after heavy rain. As a pleasant surprise nearly all of the first half from Mompox was asphalted in very good condition and I made good progress, but as the heat of the day increased the road turned to dirt and in stages mud. I finally arrived in El Banco, tired and dehydrated. I also had to get used to carrying a lot more weight than on my last trip where I had back panniers only and was fully self sufficient. The front panniers make stirring a lot harder and when stopping the bike wants to fall over all the time. A lot to take in on the first day. I decided to take the boat the next day, a ‘chalupa’, down the Rio Magdalena. It brings me about 200km further south to Barranca and was a pleasant 8h trip (66.000P+10.000P for the bike). The massive Rio Magdalena is the main artery for many small communities in this very hard accessible territory. Both towns, El Banco and Barranca are noisy and busy without too much interest. The next day I took a bus up to Giron at about 960m, a small colonial village founded in 1631 and well preserved. It is located just before Bucaramanga, which is the main city of the province Santander. It is a slightly cooler climate up here and I’m looking forward to having a second start on my bike tomorrow. I also was very happy to see my first and many road bikers on the way up. I’ve been told the Colombians are very fond of road biking and well trained on their steep hills.