Monthly Archive for August, 2012

A family vacation in Ecuador

Kilometers this post: 320 biking, 329 bus, 8.2 hiking, 924 in a car with Aran’s family, and ~350 in an airplane!

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As we glimpse back at our last post, we realize that Colombia was a really long time ago. And yet, we really haven’t come very far. We’re in Tumbaco, just outside of Quito, Ecuador, thanking our lucky stars that a family as generous as Santiago Lara’s exists and opens their home to bike tourists like us. For twenty-some years, Santiago has hosted cyclists, sharing his kitchen, his bike tools, and his incredible knowledge of all things cycling with passers through. His Casa de Ciclista is a place where pedalers can rest, do repairs, stow their bikes while they wander Quito, and even wait for packages to arrive from outside of the country. Yes, an address becomes a rare and valuable thing when you’re traveling by bike and your air mattress starts leaking and Big Agnes agrees to ship you a replacement but needs a place to send it and all you really want is someone to say “Yes of course, stay here as long as you need to. Here is the excellent local bakery. Here are some dogs to play with. Here is a guest book full of notes from previous cyclists with fun stories for you to peruse.” We’ve loved and appreciated every day at Santiago’s house, and were almost a little sad when the mattress finally arrived today. But we’re also very eager to get underway again.

Our story left off last in Popoyán, Colombia. Because a’s parents were coming to visit and we were pressed for time, we decided to take a bus to the border. We arrived in Ipiales in time for a quick side trip to Las Lajas, a town where they built a church into a mountain gorge to honor the spot where the virgin appeared on the cliff face, incorporating it into the altar. Then we hopped (well no, biked) across the border to Tulcán where we visited some very impressive topiaries. Andrew is a sucker for topiaries.

The following day, reveling in the extra time the bus ride had bought us, we decided to ride a detour up into the ecological reserve El Ángel to visit the high Andean landscape known as the páramo. In the reserve grows a plant called a frailejón, which is a wacky, bushy mixture of lamb’s ear and cactus. While they only grow in a few areas of the Andes where the altitude and conditions are just right, they grow in enormous abundance, and make for incredible looking hillsides, especially in the misty, drizzly fog that inevitably settles in each afternoon. Unfortunately, while we enjoyed the view very much, said drizzly fog made for a pretty cold and uncomfortable ride. The road conditions that rapidly deteriorated toward the top of our climb didn’t help much, and we arrived at the top (3734m) where we’d heard there would be a park ranger station at around 5pm, cold, damp, tired, and not too keen on camping in the cold and the wet. Fortunately, the ranger in the ranger station offered us a crackling fire, a kitchen, and a free bed for the night. It was about the best surprise ever. The catch? We had to be out by 7 the next morning, when he was to leave for his week off per month that he always spends at the coast. We would too if we lived alone in the Andean páramo three-quarters of the time!

Our descent out of the reserve was a stunning change in climate, landscape, and culture. In a few hours of riding, we went from high rainy mountains spotted sparsely by little concrete homes with smoking chimneys through lush green fields and farms all the way down to hot, dry towns, some with populations that were almost entirely Afro-Caribbean. We made our way along the rolling valley floor in some extremely strong winds (sometimes we got to coast up the hills!) until we decided to wild camp in a clearing between some spiny, cactus-y plants. It was a sweet spot with an impressive view of a snow-capped Ande or two, even if there were voracious blood-sucking midges that descended upon us as we set up camp.

The following day, realizing we now in fact had more than plenty of time to get to Quito and meet Aran’s parents and brother, we decided we would take our sweet time riding there. So we spent 5 days riding roughly 150km. We stayed a night in the city of Ibarra, eating delicious things and talking to some Colombian refugee/Rastafari guys in the central square. We rode into Otavalo on market day and browsed the mind-blowing number of artisan offerings of silver jewelry, alpaca ponchos, traditional painted platters and bowls, carved gourds… We rolled our way into the town of Cayambe where they make a very yummy baked thing called a bizcocho. Then we spent a couple of hours at the equator learning about the placement of several ancient archeological sites that suggest they probably knew just where the equator was without help from a GPS, thank you. We called it a day in a town called El Quinche, where we ate a lot of strawberries and visited their rather large church. We rode the next 40 km along an old railway built in 1920 which is now an unpaved bike path. We had a lovely day of zero traffic and lots of awesome views of canyons and mountains. We landed almost in Quito, and rode into the city the next day to meet Peter, Kathy, and Kieran.

The following 10 days brought a lot of good things: family time, of course, which we had been missing quite a lot, yummy food, comfortable beds, and beautiful sights. It was strange to be off of the bikes and traveling instead by things like airplanes and cars, but it was so excellent to be able to see such a variety of things with Aran’s family. Plus, we had an AMAZING guide, Angel, who was fun company and also knew everything about everything. Our tour began with a day in Quito, from where we drove north to a cloud forest in Mindo. We hung out with butterflies, chocolate, orchids, and hummingbirds before grabbing a flight to Cuenca where we spent a couple of days wandering the gorgeous colonial streets and eating some guinea pig. Angel then drove us north, making lots of stops and detours to see lots of things including the ancient ruins of Ingapirca, and the volcano Chimborazo (where the three youngins got to hike from 4800m to 5000m and realized that breathing can be really hard work). We passed back into the northern hemisphere, visiting the equator once again, before ending our trip in a splendid mountain hostel above Otavalo, where we got to make our second visit to the market. Lots of hugs later, after sending the New Yorkers on their way, we returned to Santiago’s house.

Here, we’ve been hanging out a week now with Santiago’s family and our new friend Christopher from Minnesota. We’ve been cooking, playing cards, chatting, throwing the disc, and chatting some more, and also planning our next moves. It turns out, we’ll be working with another deadline because Aran’s childhood best friend, Olivia, is getting married in September in Denver, Colorado. Well, we wouldn’t miss that! And so we’re receiving daily updates on fares from Lima, and we’re in the process of deciding what to do with the bikes while we’re in the states. We’ve also been thinking a bit about where our trip might end. In the beginning we said Machu Picchu, but the thing is, once you’re that far, how can you not go check out Lake Titicaca and the salt flats of Uyuni in Bolivia. Once you’re there, Argentina and Chile are so close, shouldn’t you cross a few more borders? But we’re also feeling some eagerness to move on to life after bike touring, and so we may just see how far we can get by Christmas.

Here’s a map of the trip with the family:

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