9/4/19 – 9/13/19
I woke up to terrible back pain that took thirty minutes of stretching to rectify. I said goodby to Álvarez and Dani. Their dog followed me to the edge of town and I turned back for fear that he would never return to them. Luck had been on my side on the trampolina with minimal rain. That wouldn’t be the case this day. All pavement, but the road climbed to over ten thousand feet. It would have been cold even if it had been dry. Hot agua panela at a little mountain top restaurant with hymns and catholic mass on the TV and pictures of Jesus, fruit, tropical beaches with dolphins dancing through the water and little drawings of old Colombian plazas hanging from the peeling pastel painted concrete walls. It was only sixty kilometers to Pasto, but it felt like a hundred.
A long cold descent. More panela in a little mountain fishing town. Guinea pigs roasting on the spit outside. One more climb and then the skies clear and I’m dry by the time I reach Pasto. I find a hotel and Soph arrives by bus an hour later. Pasto was less than noteworthy and we got everything packed to leave the next day. It was a day and a half to Las Lajas, the site of an old sanctuary set in the middle of a canyon. It is hard to imagine a time when the Catholics built monuments as opposed to scandals, this town is proof that there was such a time though. The building doubles as a bridge between the steep walls above the river. The arches that support it peak several hundred feet above the water. The back side of the main church space is simply the rock of the cliffs behind. In Latino fashion, they light it up at night with every color they can find, shoot fireworks off, and guzzle hot chocolate.
From Las Lajas it is a quick climb to the border of Ecuador. Immediately you can tell the attitude towards refugees changes. Just the other day we had watched a crowd cheer five boys on as they managed to open the back of a semi-truck while it was moving and jump into the cargo bay. One of them almost didn’t make it, but the others pulled him in. Now we were standing in front of a small encampment setup near customs. Nobody had ever said anything bad about a Venezuelan in Colombia. As we stood in line, a man warned us that Ecuador was now full of them and they would rob us without a care.
The country was notably dry and the mountains, although tall, not as steep as in Colombia. Every day seemed to bring the longest smoothest, most perfectly twisting descent that we’d ever had. Our first night was spent camping in a strange water park. There was beautiful desert all around and I wanted nothing more than to be in it. I don’t know why we chose to camp there. I felt like a bird in a cage.
The next day we were hit by a sandstorm as we approached Ibarro. It stung my skin and I could feel a layer of dust as I licked my teeth. Then on to Otovalo. We pass a small indigenous town called Cotacachi. Good chocolate bread. Continue riding up a hill with depressing houses all tagged by the same person who wants to make the point that Ariana is a punta. Reach Laguna de Cuicocha, a lake in an old volcano crater. We ask about camping and they point to a flat and exposed spot next to the road that appears to get plenty of wind. They tell us it will be 5 degrees below freezing. We're at over 3,000 meters. We decide to just have drinks and then descend sixteen kilometers to Otavalo and get a hostel.
Soph started to get sick as we reached town and we ended up burning a rest day. This meant that we would no longer have time to pick up the Trans-Ecuador dirt route into Quito and would have to arrive via the highway. It would be two days on pavement. More of the endless downhill. High winds blew us around, but we whip through ninety degree turns and marvel as weekend riders draft trucks at close to eighty kilometers an hour.
A short indigenous man with a picture perfect leathered face and dark creases from big smiles and sun squints marches up the hill in dusty brown coat, working man pants, and a giant pink backpack with cartoon cats. He aids himself with a 7 foot bamboo staff with which he occasionally pummels a fictitious bandit creeping up behind him. Old lady pulling a pig on leash. Shop owner tells us that Ecuador and Peru are both beautiful, but that the people in Peru are very small. More warnings of Venezuelans. All the land subdivided into rectangles and irregular polygons by rows of trees like a giant patchwork quilt covering the entire country. Some patches recently harvested and browned, others green with chard. Occasional black blotches from sugar cane crops burned and harvested.
In Guayllabamba we stay with Pato at the Kombi Clubhouse, a makeshift retreat for enthusiasts of old VW vans. The ceiling leaked and the bed he graciously offered us seemed to be lacking crucial structural elements which would have kept the mattress from rolling up into a taco around us. He also warned us about Venezuelans.
From Guayllabamba it is forty kilometers to Quito. Thirteen hundred meters of climbing. Eleven hundred of descent. Most of the ride is on the freeway. We quickly learned that drivers are not quite as friendly in Ecuador as they are in Colombia. Most of the time there was a shoulder, but occasionally we’d find ourselves having to merge left across several lanes in order to make a turn. We’d sit on the side of the road for several minutes waiting for a gap. Eventually you just have to close your eyes, hit the pedals, and hope for the best.
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