Colombia transformed me into a fiend for the unpaved. I look at mountains, whereas I used to wonder can I do this? now I think I can‘ t wait to do this! My priorities shifted from getting to the end of the continent within a time frame, I found myself often ditching the secondary roads and going where the earth is uncovered and seeking out routes that are a tiny line on the map or don’t appear on maps at all, and take considerably longer. In Ecuador this newfound passion of mine flourished. My definition of needs has certainly changed and I have far less cargo which makes these alternative routes not only possible but fun as hell. Admittedly I still have to get off and push sometimes, and the only constant in my life seems to be that nothing is as I expect. In Ecuador I found intriguing culture and a glimpse into the Amazon that was unlike anything I imagined. Some days I would ride by 6 waterfalls in the side of a mountain, it all felt dripping with life…and rain. I saw rainbows daily and ducked under umbrella sized leaves waiting out storms. At one point all my clothes were wet for a week. I soaked in hot springs after my feet and hands had lost all feeling and crawled on my stomach through caves and saw more species of bats, birds and insects than I ever dreamed of.
Many roads here (as well as tourism and social services) are of a high standard, I usually just ask locals for the worst road and find exactly what I’m looking for! Many people said, with a hearty chuckle that I picked THE worst time of year to be riding a bicycle. Along these routes people were quite poor and as has been my experience through (Mexico, Central America and Colombia) share everything they have with me as well as their neighbors. The excitement of stopping in communities tucked away off muddy, rocky paths with nothing but some of the warmest most curious people and stunning nature have made for some of my most treasured places; often places I have never heard of and Kichwa dialects are spoken. Oh, and there always seemed to be a tv with the World Cup on to temp into shorter riding days, hooting, hollering and losing (me always) bets with Ecuatorianos & Colombianos.East of the Andes the elevation drops to hot and humid in the`Oriente` and changes drastically from llamas and robust women in tiny hats and colorful skirts to Shamens and Shuar communities who were never conquered by the Spanish. Historically they shrunk heads as they believe death is only caused by spirits and this was a way to trap enemy spirits. The feeling of not knowing what I would find on the backroads, asking locals the way and often the only traffic being donkeys is a thrill.
There were attack dogs no matter where I was. I try to see them as having a horrible job that they must do but it still didn’t make it less terrifying . First day in Ecuador I was down about being back on the Panamerican hwy. and stopped to pick up a crushed rose in the road to cheer myself up, not thinking anyone was watching. A man from the a flower farm nearby came over & handed me these & said, “Bienvenidos a Ecuador” and that was only the beginning as Ecuatorianos are extraordinarily welcoming.
I stayed at the bomberos (fire station) in Tulcan (next door to a prison) where I pitched my tent in the gym. This is where I met 3 touring cyclists from Bogota! they were early to rise, bundled for the El Angel páramo. This landscape is like being on another planet. Frailejón plants which are named after Monks grow 1 cm every year & so some are a hundred years old and covered in a fuzz to keep them warm.
I stayed to check out a cemetery with shrubs carved to look like gods. Among the giant surreal maze I saw a man in a uniform and mask kneeling over an open coffin and sifting through bones…of course I went to investigate. He was chirping away saying good morning, asking where I’m from. I told him I had never seen a human skeleton in my whole life and I was in shock and what the hell was he doing?! After 10 years, the family hadn’t paid & an eviction of sorts was taking place. This will haunt me for as long as I know. A group of school kids almost walked passed but got side tracked then a beauty queen ‘Miss Tulcan’ asked me to write a message on a banner they had to celebrate the cemetery. Very Twilight Zone.
I crossed paths with Alvaro the biciclown in Duitama,Colombia & again at the Casa Ciclista in Tumbaco near Quito. I love solo travel but I like knowing friends are close by on the same roads. I often wonder how I could contribute to the places I travel to and his shows are an amazing way to reach others who live in places that aren’t travel destinations. read more here http://www.biciclown.com/index.php?mmod=diari&file=details&iN=479
Teaming up with Thomas again we rode an old train line called El Chaquiñan. Riding through tunnels and canyons and wild camping near a bridge was awesome. We saw these kids attempt to enter the pitch black abyss and turn back several times so we turned on our bike lights and led the way.
Riding East to Oyacachi, home to the Kichwa community for 500 years to get authorization to enter the reserve of Cayambe-Coca. The ride there was unreal, one of the most beautiful places I have seen. We asked around and found the house of the town president who said we needed a guide, they didn’t want to bother going in and rescuing us in this weather. We told him we lived on our bikes and could handle 4000m up in a desolate paramo. He said to come back in the morning so we camped at the hot springs in this magical, misty, powerfully green village nestled in the surrounding mountains. We stuck around the hot springs warming up to the caretaker who gave in and for $2 we camped and had access to the thermal baths all night. Such a treat in the cold & I soaked til my skin was like a raison.
The next day there was a village election & the president didn’t have time for us. We were undeterred & went back to the ranger assuring him we wouldn’t be silly and get lost or freeze. He finally budged & opened the gate. We tore off into terrain that resembled another reality. This reserve has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in Ecuador surrounded by wetlands, lagoons, Andean forest and volcanos (Cayambe, Reventador and Puntas).
We saw little of the 106 mammal species and 400 birds here as we were mainly trying to keep moving through the dense mist, quickly loosing feeling in our extremities; the climbs and rain were unrelenting. Every rock had plant growth, it was so alive like a massive terrarium, and we were like snails meandering up the rocky pass.. We passed an abandoned building with the word ‘office’ painted on it & both looked at each other knowing how lucky we were to find solace under a roof. It was cold on a level I had never known.We built a fire surrounded by rocks near an open window which was nearly impossible to get going but we were able to cook a heaping pot of pasta surprise and dry clothes. The next day we climbed in the drenching rain toward Papallacta. I know this sounds horrible but it was also hauntingly peaceful and beautiful…but I was in over my head in there.
We arrived wild eyed and soaked to the bone, not about to pay the $8 to enter the hot springs. We asked if we could make it quick and pay less. The man at the counter told Thomas that if we didnt have money, we shouldnt be there. Outside we were cursing over this mal onda (bad vibes) and the door man told us to look for Mauricio in the spa. We walked in and there was a fire going, it was pretty swank. Mauricio had hearts in his eyes over Thomas immediately and we were soaking in those pools before we knew it. I was kind of pleased when the nasty hotel guy saw us chillaxing in there.
We made a bit of a bloody scene when Thomas slipped and cut his eye open. Luckily there was an infirmary there and they gave him a stitch. That night we headed to the village and camped in some other non-touristy springs where they let us stay in the guard`s house where we built a fire and dried all of our clothes. There were some other cyclists there but they really took to us said our hearts were different, which may sound bad but I think we were both just really adept at being open to our surroundings. Tomas had some shark jaws that he had found on the coast and strapped to the front of his bike. Everywhere we went old men and kids went crazy, taking photos with it. In all the rain the jaws were soggy and looked like jerky, but of course they remained.
Abandoned houses have been my go-to in Ecuador. In remote places there are farms with an adobe house or barn that seems long forgotten. At times we would curse ourselves saying of course we made it as hard on ourselves as possible but something magical always seems to happen and confirm wanderlust ways. This also lead to climbing more cobbles than I ever anticipated. We were so deflated from bumping along and recieved grumpy replies to camping so we let ourselves in to a potato farm. The vista was extraordinary. The clouds would swallow us up and then bursts of sunlight would light up the brilliant green patches of farmland.
We slept head to foot in my 1 person tent as Thomas only has a hammock it was comically hellish & the most regrettable kit choice I made as I usually sleep like a mummy in it with all my bags. But it’s only 10 oz.! In the morning I went to fetch water from a stream which involved a hike and when I came back the owner of the house was really happy to see us and said a Swiss couple had set up home there for months. They said theyd be back, she lamented and looked at us like we were there to take their place.
Once a farmer came to count his cows and bust into a barn in the middle of the night demaning to know who was there, as soon as he saw the bikes he was understanding and let us stay. We took a backroad from Pifo to Cuchauco and then a road not found on a map to a vast expanse of rolling hills with patchwork patterns and fields of golden colored high grass. It was desolate except for the random fuzzy pony or campesino, then we saw 2 cyclists from Germany & England. They were traveling incredibly light, so inspiring I now only own cycling shoes and flip flops and ditched my dress and deoderant (next level) and have been using a bar of soap that doubles as shampoo.
A dairy farmer waived us over and invited us in for coffee and empanadas. He told us of a traveler who stayed there once, trekking from the US to Bolivia on a burro. When the burro died he rode back on a motorcycle. We shared travel stories and emails in his wood house that his father had bulit. I have heard from him a few times since and he always says something incredibly encouraging and that Im being watched over. A year ago I would have scoffed at this but I like imagining being looked after by pachamama, certainly feels like it. He filled my water bottle with his cow’s fresh milk and we made our way to Baeza and Cosanga with views of Volcano Antisana following the Amazonia route down an incredible descent which I was thankful for as my bike was stuck in one gear after I shredded my gear cable.
We stopped to take in an amazing view and take advantage of noteworthy nice toilets.These days Inclined to choose a good camp spot over eeking out a few last kilometers and making due so we asked to stay in hammocks under a palapa outside the restaurant. The owner makes a fortune off the busses that stop there for people to use the loo and end up buying dinner. He was always surrounded by his pampered dogs that he shampoos every few days. It has been a long time since being around dogs hat are treated like children. We couldnt afford dinner there and asked if we could get $1.50 worth of food which was a heaping plate. We took showers and only made it a few kilometers before being sidetracked by a sign for caves, we spent the morning in giant rubber boots hiking among snakes, tropical flowers and thick rainforest, getting lost even in a small area of trails. The temple cave was actually a bit creepy as there were remnants of sacrificed chickens and we crawled deeper where there was cascading water, narrow crevaces to squuze through and stalactites, I was in heaven.
We reached Tena, the capital in the Amazon, and stayed at the trusty bomberos, next to an old air landing strip we rode our bikes on. I found a cobbler to fix my shoes for $2 by sewing them after I had melted the glue drying them too close to the fire. We were treated to mattresses on the floor and we had a big screen tv where we watched Hollywood movies dubbed in Spanish. We overheard 2 bomberos singing along horrendously out of tune to a love song on the radio with such heart and soul it was really adorable but we were fighting bursting out laughing. They taught me a few words in Kichwa and told me Tena was where gringas fall in love with their Amazon guides and stay to have families. This bridge looks down onto where the Tena and Pano rivers join which are quite a contrast.
We crossed the Napo river and headed for Puyo but the climb and heat had me beat. Thomas sat a a bus stop chatting to a lady waiting for me, he used to make jokes about ways to slow me down and now he`s faster than me. We camped there at a village called Hugo Ortiz..Our sights were on a roofed basketball court but upgraded when a friendly family let us stay in front of their house which was also a market..and a community bank that also loaned money. This system seemed to work well, all underneath a Virgin Mary with stairs leading to her and a science lab/museum of road finds in jars. We joked that we had rode all that way to see. We cleared camp in the morning..the bank was opening! The dad had a mountain of potatos he was waiting for the price to go up to sell them. He was really funny and while we were cooking he sat right down on the floor with us and partook in our ramen concoction where we dump whatever we have into it you could tell he was curious but dug it!
We whizzed through Puyo and waited out a downpour on the way to Baños which was really touristy but there are always ways around that. I had to see the swing at the end of the world. It was a really tough ride but when we arrived we ate homemade chicken soup, watched Ecuador vs Switzerland, drew in the guest book and hiked around the under the amazing, and still active, Tungurahua where 65 year old Carlos has been the watchman for 14 years from the monitoring station windows, situated just three-kilometers from the colossus at 2260 meters, checking toxicity of gases from the crater. I felt embarrassed for the Americans who would arrive in a fit, incredulous they had paid a taxi for this and how the weather had ruined their day. This was a familie’s home that they opened to strangers. Most of the fun is making it worth my effort, and asking people not Lonely Planet where adventure lies.They scurried off, missing all the good stories from Los ojos del volcán que nunca duerme (the eyes of the volcano that never sleeps).
3 teenagers from an indigenous community near Pelileo and had never visited the tree house camped there as well. Carlos gave Thomas and I a sip of Rum to warm us up and we built a fire. A couple hiked up playing Enya’s ‘Sail Away’ far too loud and brought a huge melon they found on the way. The teens said its for making a soup called samba, all we needed was panela sugar which Im addicted to now so I had some in my road ‘kitchen’. It was strangely delicious, a sweet melon stew. We all setto work and rocked out a huge goulash where everyone added something. My contribution was sardines. These impromptu potlucks are what I will always remember. They told us a Kichwa love story about an eagle and told us a few words that had no translation whatsoever. From the treehouse we could hear them, all 3 in a tiny tent singing.
Ive had some heartbreak over lost photos due to damage, theft, dead batteries. At some point I let it go and really, the part I enjoy most is stopping to soak up the light, the sounds and the mood and let it paint a picture in my mind. Since I have few distractions I find these faces and places incredibly lucid in my mind. Not exaggerating when I say I remember the wrinkles on the face of a Mexican woman who cooked me breakfast among many of her 12 daughters. I wish I had more of my photos to share but as part of the adventure I have adjusted to being in the moment.
This gem made it though..El Infiernito is a pre Colombian Muisca site near Villa de Leyva Colombia. The Spanish called it little hell as they thought it was diabolical and set about destroying these massive symbols of fertility, connecting the earth with the sky.
The new beverage in my life was Guayusa, which is an Amazonian tea with antioxidents and caffeine and tastes very floral its mixed with lots of sugar, naturally. I was pretty excited about bolon verde, a typical breakfast `ball`made with green plantains, chicharron, cheese and fried. I also ate a lot of `ceviche de chochos` which doesn`t have any fish its just salty white bean high in protein, onion, tomato, cilantro, limes, and orange. It`s served with plantain chips and hot sauce in a bowl for a buck. Street food here is so delicious and fruit (especially bananas) so fresh and plentiful. Almuerzos are about $2 and come with soup, a fresh fruit juice, rice or lentils and meat. Seems every plaza has a lady with a pink mountain of meringue cream with fruit pulp calling out Espumillaaaaas. Its served in a ice cream cone.
I love the energy from riding with others I meet on my travels. Sometimes I just want to set up my tent and collapse but then get talked into camping near a hidden stream near Zapatoca, Colombia with a biologist, Diana from Bogota who had been living 5 months in her tent setting up nets every night to catch bats. I got to hold the cloth sacks (and later free them!) she put them in before measuring and cataloging the species. She pointed out fruit pulp they tucked in their wings or one that was barticularly buff baracuo. When she blazed by me riding about 50 switchbacks on her moto the next day she yelled barrrraquita! She was working on a project to have several caves protected for these bats & was successful.
When I am exhausted or not ‘feeling it’ I get weary of answering the same inquires of where I sleep and if I’m scared and if I have a kids or how worried my parents must be. Afterwards I feel a pang of guilt if I am preoccupied to a well intentioned person. I realize this is just a lack of my own imagination. It opened my eyes how Thomas takes the time to talk & joke with everyone. Tedious questions he just turns it around & does the asking. It always leads to an an interesting story. In any language, all walks of life he talks to anyone like a family no matter how tired,cold or hungry he is. Literally he saved my life once. I will save the story for if I ever write a book. In Quito 2 guys on a motorcycle pushed him off his bike & robbed him, including his camera. Many of these photos are his if you’d like to send a few bucks for a digital copy email me at and I will pass it along. I am near Peru, halted for bike and body repairs (just a sinus thing) but I had started to feel that both were indestructible then I realized, woah they got me quite far, powered by people in my life back home and in each new country who make every day feel like home. Peru, Im coming for you!