Archive for May, 2012

0 degrees – From Colombia to Ecuador

May 28th, 2012 by Ian

It’s been an action packed few weeks since my last blog entry from Medellín, Colombia and that’s partly the reason I never managed to put pen to paper, or finger to keyboard. I’m now a good haul of kilometres further south and taking some days to assess next moves in Ecuador’s high mountain valley capital, Quito.

Before I even start to talk about Ecuador, homage must be paid to dramatic Colombia. I really did have some of the best times of the trip there and it was primarily down to the calor humano or pure warmth of its people. I have too many stories to tell and almost too many memories to remember – morning breakfasts by the roadside with locals in Sahagún, Gustavo in Santa Barbara proudly showing me his small town, the fruit farm workers near Zarzal who made sure I had a safe place to sleep that night, the infectiously happy motorbike couple determined to keep me in Pasto, the kids from El Tablón who rode 10kms and 800m up a mountainside with me just to chat – and so many more. I can honestly say that it has been my favourite country so far (Mexico on a par) and in realising that, allows me to pinpoint the exact cause of true enjoyment and experience on this journey. It’s the personal relationships built and hopefully maintained into the future. I have more napkins and scraps of paper than you can imagine with emails of people I’ve encountered, even if just for a few minutes and it will be important to maintain that contact as I continue south and hopefully one day, reappear in whatever nook or cranny I received it in the first place.

Colombia also brought the first real mountains in a long time too and for that I’m very grateful. Riding on the flat became too easy and it was a regular occurrence for days just to pass away before me without any significant thoughts or memories being formed in Central America. That’s not to suggest it was boring but at times certain monotony set in. It shows that hard work, as tough as it can get sometimes, does make me appreciate the trip a lot more. 120km, flat ground and a comfortable motel room at the end is pretty nice but 60kms, 2000m climbing and a cup of hot tea in the tent after is far more rewarding. I feel I’ve actually done and earned something at that point and the litres of water, the sweat, the slow pedal strokes, the sore arse and weary head are a huge part of the cycle south and are absolutely important to me (something I lose sight of now and again). Colombia in that sense can never be repaid as I’ve a completely new appreciation for pedalling day after day and that hard work that goes with it.

Leaving Medellín 2 weeks ago stuck me right back into those big climbing days. I had the bright idea of leaving nursing a dodgy hangover and hoped that a nice 1000m push up to Alto de Minas would help matters along and surprisingly I was right. ‘Sweat it outta ya’ was never so appropriately applied. Colombia rose and dropped and meandered everywhere after that. Heavy rains drifted in and were an indication that changing weather conditions were to play a big part from now on. In the valley right after Medellín, there was a tangible reminder of what that means for locals aswell. A rockfall of huge proportions caused by incessant rains blocked off the road outside La Pintada for 2 days and also ended the lives of 3 people unfortunate to be in the wrong place at the wrong time the night before. The truck exhaust pipe that poked out of the rushing river below was a sombre reminder of the power of nature.

I stopped in Popayán for two days rest before attempting the cycle towards Ecuador. There I met Urs, the Swiss cyclist I have been tagging in and out of cities for well over a month and a friend from long ago in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve really enjoyed meeting up for coffee and beers with him every rest day and I don’t even have to call or email anymore – his head with locks of curly brown hair just appears around a corner or deceptively from behind a telephone pole with the words “Ian, son of a gun, you made it. Crazy man, why you always arrive at night?!” We’ve made provisional plans to meet on the Ecuador-Peru border on June 10th to cycle together and as unpredictable as bicycle touring can be, there’s a pretty good chance that date will be met with ease and down to the hour.

I’ve made it to Ecuador and already am falling for the place. I haven’t checked the statistics but it must have a far greater indigenous population than Colombia and it has been obvious from the border south. It’s back to colourful clothing, hats that I must have and a tongue that’s a little alien. It was no more noticeable than in Otavalo some days ago. Otavalo is a middle-sized town about 25kms south of Ibarra in northern Ecuador that is home to South America’s largest artisanal market every Saturday. Unfortunately for yours truly, I arrived on a Friday but the stalls were still out and in force. On Saturday indigenous people come in from the area surrounding Volcan Imbabura and Volcan Cotacachi to parade their wares, everything from woven bracelets to wooden figurines to alpaca (lama) wool sweaters. I succumbed to the latter and now am sporting a very fashionable and properly warm zip-up jumper to keep the downhill chill and the midnight frosts away. In reality I needed something after losing my North Face top in Popayán after hitting a bump on the road that knocked it from my front pannier. In another reality, this top is better and is another example that ‘the best of the best’ or brand names are never really needed when something just as good can be purchased for a quarter of the price and with a story to go with it.

The ride into 2800m Quito was very pleasant and I passed over the Equator and am now a proud resident of the Southern Hemisphere. There were no toilets present at the Cayambe Solar Clock to witness which way the flush swirled but I did spend over thirty minutes cycling along the line and taking strange pictures of myself contorted in all sorts of positions over 0 degrees. Thankfully, Ecuadorians don’t seem to take much heed of the Equator and I was all alone to make a fool of myself. It was all uphill after that and involved much mental energy when looking at the route profile for the day. I was also glad to be back to regular camping after a break in Central America. As natural space is still limited by housing and much action in fields and down roadways into the night, the consistent Bomberos (Fire Station) and Schools have been the most secure places to pitch tent. I also get into the sleeping bag excitedly around 7pm each night as I’m muddling through Steig Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. I’ve never looked so forward to reading as when I’m in camping and it looks like I’ll have to tent it for a long time to finish this read!

Total miles/kilometres: 11,347mi/18,262km

Current resting spot: Quito, Ecuador

The mileage of smileage

May 11th, 2012 by Ian

What a cracker of a first week in Colombia. The past 6 days has seen me travel from the glorious walled city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast to its antithesis, the modern skyscraped metropolis of Medellín, nestled in the northern Andes. As my good cycling friend Urs would say, “this can only bring about the mileage of smileage”.

5 days trying to keep my dinner down on a boat and 4 days doing pretty much nada in Cartagena left me craving the saddle once again. I was mad for the mountains too after the Central American stretch which was as flat as the proverbial pancake and baking hot to boot. I didn’t have to wait long either as 3 days out of Cartagena the beginnings of the Andes could be seen; the land becoming ever slightly warped and within 24 hours, rising hastily from the ground.

Colombia seems like it could be a country of characters now that I’ve had a week to saturate myself in it. My first night was spent in a 12,000COP ($6) Posada in San Onofre which I had been sheparderd to by Tulio, a hefty, bullish man who spotted me getting my bearings upon arrival. He claimed to be a ‘tour guide’ in Cartagena and who was I to doubt with his proficiency in English either? But after hearing some unorthodox slang, I thought to ask where he learned the language, only to find out it was on the streets. So, naturally I thought to pry into his exact line of work in the tourism sector. “Oh, I sell cocaine to tourists in Cartagena” was his animated response. “90% of you guys are looking for the good stuff up here”. Tour guide indeed I thought. Instead of worrying about staying in the Hotel of a coke dealer (which was actually his mother’s – a lovely lady who took to stroking my hair while updating the GPS later that evening), I took the opportunity to chat with him about cocaine and Colombia as maybe he’d have some rare insights. Tulio was a pretty cool companion to have in the end, taking me out for dinner and the next morning for breakfast. I met his brother too, perhaps the smiliest man I’ve ever encountered. This guy was also quite proud to show me his extensive mobile phone porn collection just before I went to bed, switching enthusiastically from video to video and searching for an impressed expression on my weary face. Satisfied with the evening’s proceedings – and perhaps a little disturbed – I fell asleep without a problem.

Not soon after hitting the road from San Onofre, a car pulled in to the shoulder just ahead of me. 3 figures got out and cracked the boot open. Thinking it just couldn’t be, especially in Colombia of all places, I was glad to see lemonade and biscuits readied instead of an uncomfortable resting place. A judge and his two children from Sincelejo, the next town over, were delighted to meet me but insisted that all people here wouldn’t as friendly as them. It was an encouraging sign though and not the last in the succeeding days where I’d be extended truly incredible hospitality. The flat landscape may have been relatively uninspiring but the people most definitely were not.

The next day again, just outside Sagahún and with a later than usual start, I paused to load up the Ipod where a wide shoulder had opened up. Another family approached, 3 deep on a motorbike, took several photos of me, shoo-ed other locals who had then insisted on photos of them and invited me back to their home to share breakfast. It wasn’t easy to escape the crowd however and before long people were asking me to speak in English because they said it was a ‘beautiful language’. Explaining that in Ireland we also have a native tongue of our own they were bouncing about waiting to hear some exotic words and continued pressing me to speak. In the silence, with around 15 sets of eyes watching and patiently listening, my pitiful memory could only come up with “An bhfuil cead agam dul do dti an leithreas maith se de thoil é”. You can only imagine the scene when their mouths opened to broad smiles and a chorus of oooooooohs and aaaaaaaahs because I had asked them can I please use their toilet in the last shreds of a parlance I once knew. I hadn’t the heart to tell them that, so mildly ashamed of my lack of words, I followed the original motorbike family back to their home shaking my head at myself.

Jesús, Cristi and Juli were full of questions about the journey and family, my impressions of Colombia and work at home. While exploring their tiny garden crammed full of banana trees, the neighbours over the fence presented me with mansanillos, a bitter lime type fruit that I had been accustomed to running over on the road. I thought to myself that this is just another experience I could only have travelling by bicycle. There is absolutely no reason to visit Sagahún and tour buses don’t stop there; they don’t even pass through the town but skirt around it, shooting towards Medellín. And because of that people there aren’t exposed to many visitors, especially from outside their own country. In that sense it’s easy to understand why people’s eyes light up when they see you, or when making an effort to talk to them or even just to take an hour and share some eggs and bread in their home.

These random encounters had been the perfect tonic for the dull topography and lashing afternoon rains I was riding through. The flat is great as a respite from climbing but after a while can become more uncomfortable. Sore hands, a painful backside and speeding cars are all aspects of this type of terrain but it wasn’t long before this swiftly changed. And when the road swung sharply away from the Río Cauca river valley just after Puerto Valdivia, the mountains were back with a bang. That day I cycled 55km from 150m to 2230m and to the hilltop town of Yarumal, marking the longest single day ascent of the trip so far. As Buff3y, my Alaska to Argentina cycling companion remarked about the road, “It’s just about sticking the bicycle in granny gear and grinding the mountain out”. And grinding it out at 7kmph means you have ample opportunity to take in the views. The mountains here are a deep green from frequent rains and along the mountainside any available space is taken up by houses, some just constructed of simple clapperboard and galvanised roof. The road barriers are used as drying spots for clothes and bedsheets and early in the morning neatly dressed children roam up and down the road to school. One day some of them even loaded their schoolbags on my rear panniers and had me cycle them home for 1km uphill! On the last stretch of climbing I met Hyojin Jeong, a South Korean female who I had bumped into in Portobelo, Panama waiting for a boat crossing the next day. I never expected to see her in the mountains here as she usually doesn’t like climbing but at the convincing of myself and Urs, she decided to give it a try. I’m still not sure how she felt with it but was giving it a fair whack on a heavily loaded bike.

As with every ascent, there’s (usually) a descent. I was never more thankful to see the road snake its way down the mountainside to Medellín in such a dramatic fashion. At the bottom of the valley you could see some scattered towns but no movement. At 3000m and looking over a kilometre and a half down there’s not much to pick out but you sure as hell are ecstatic to be heading that way. I stopped regularly along the way as the rims and brake pads were searing hot to touch and needed a break from holding them in constantly. An hour later I was down to the valley floor but as usual with cities, it’s easy to underestimate the time required to get in there and the madness that ensues navigating through 3 lane traffic. I think all that remains is adrenaline as the noise of trucks, cars and motorbikes drown out any remaining thoughts you have after the day.

For the first time in a long time too I feel I’ve earned these few days off. It was a good haul of kilometres and a nice reintroduction and reminder of the nature of mountains. Colombia too looks such a promising place. After decades of La Violencia, fighting against guerrilla groups and cocaine politics I can count myself lucky to be visiting here with the emergence of a far safer touring climate.

Total miles/km: 10,587mi/17,039km

Current resting spot: Medellín, Colombia

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All aboard for South America

May 2nd, 2012 by Ian

It’s finally here: land of the Andes, great salt lakes, majestic colonial cities, mountaintop empires, rain-soaked gravel roads, Patagonian pampas and El Fin del Mundo. I haven’t been as excited in a long, long time for a single stretch of land. South America might just be incredible!

5 days on a sailboat rounding the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia might be akin to the interval in a movie or the theatre when one has the time to contemplate what just happened and consider what’s in store for the remainder. I had hoped of similar for the bike trip but unfortunately was too busy relieving my stomach of its contents onto the side of the boat or the Caribbean. After a couple of days the sea legs finally appeared and it turned out to be a fairly pleasant crossing to latitudes north.

For those opting not to fly between Panama and Colombia, sailing is the pretty much the only way to travel between. The alternative is crossing the Darién Gap, an area of dense jungle and marshland interspersed with guerrilla groups so perhaps not the ideal holibob destination. 17 people in total, mostly backpackers with 2 cyclists, tightly squeezed onto El Gitano del Mar (Gypsy of the Sea) captained by Jepi, a Frenchman with Caribbean roots and crewed by Rupert from Panama and Roger from Marseille. 8 hours in choppy seas brought us to the island archipelago of San Blas off the coast of Panama. Some say these are amongst the most beautiful tropical islands in the world for the palm lined beaches, white sand and clear blue waters. I have nothing to compare to but I reckon any one of the three above and you’re just lucky to be there. Of the 378 islands, just over 40 are inhabited and mostly by the indigenous Kuna people, known for brightly decorated clothing, body piercings and their strong protection of culture. Coming from Ireland and relative homogeny, the word ‘indigenous’ used often to stir romantic visions of far off lands with a Disney-like cast of people and animals. However, the more I move south encountering groups such as these, almost a dime a dozen in places, the more I realise the sheer diversity of peoples living right next door to each other with often such differing customs and traditions relatively untouched by centuries of modern world influences. The Kuna are doing a decent job of conserving just that – no doubt aided by island isolation – and here it was a privilege to step literally into their backyard for a day.

Leaving the islands and back into the rocky open waters again seemed to bring dread to almost all on board. When one was doped up the eyeballs with Dramamine or some other anti-seasickness concoction, we were either to be found sleeping (probably the Dramamine), eating or getting sunburnt from falling asleep on deck (again, drat Dramamine!). The eating was best though as Jepi and Rupert would often head out on the dingy and catch squid, stingray and fish for dinner. Such exotic a diet was never heard of in Wexford! I spent the last 2 days almost continuously reading and managed to finish 2 books (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 2001: A Space Odyssey) and start The Alchemist again. With beer and rum supplies cut short from a mischievous pirate ship raid during an overnight mooring, there were some unhappy faces aboard El Gitano. A particularly poor and embarrassingly 2 and 4 letter word-game of Scrabble with yours truly participating did little to lift the spirits.

After 5 days of swaying on the water, stepping foot on South America was mildly surreal. My want to jump around upon arriving to the final continent was stopped short by my inability to stay vertical from apparent land-sickness. The bicycle ride to Getsemaní in the city centre was even more fun, weaving like a madman through evening traffic with Urs, a Swiss machete-armed cyclist on the boat and who great, Mezcal induced times were shared with long ago in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The bastioned city of Cartagena must rank among the most beautiful in South America. Brightly coloured colonial buildings and narrow, flower filled streets lie within a few miles of city walls giving the area a real sense of other worldness. I thought that similar entities such as San Cristobal de las Casas in Mexico and Antigua, Guatemala were charming this takes the proverbial biscuit. On the travels so far I have constantly thought about ‘beauty saturation’ and the ability to really appreciate new places on a constant basis. I know now that it’s just not possible all of the time and can often be confusing and a little upsetting being in a remarkable location and not receiving that childlike buzz that used so often to dominate family holidays years ago. It comes with the territory I suppose as you subtly change landscapes and peoples on a bicycle instead of being almost dropped out of your living room arriving by plane. However, Cartagena has been one of those other markers on the map that faces no struggle to gasp. Ah, mi corazón!

Total miles/km: 10,121mi/16,289km

Current resting spot: Cartagena, Colombia

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