Over Latitude Zero and Beyond
29 Aug 2008
We are now in Bogotá the capital of Colombia and our final destination in South America. Our route here has been more direct than normal as unfortunately we are now paying the price for all the time that we enjoyed further south. So not much time for side trips or non biking adventures, apart from that is 8 days on the wonderful Galapagos islands, but more of that later.
We crossed the border from Peru into Ecuador on the flat warm coastal strip that seems to run the whole length of this part of the continent. Being flat made the riding easier than of late but the lack of altitude raised the temperature some what. The warmer weather was better for the huge Banana plantations than it was for us. When you are next eating a banana, if it has a blue Ecuador sticker on it we might well have seen it growing, we saw miles of them. They grow a lot over here, not just your standard yellow ones either. You get pink ones and bigger angular sorts called plantains that they cook up and have with savoury dishes. Banana with chicken soup? yes, we had it the other day, strange to us but an everyday thing in this part of the world it seems.
Following our normal routine of heading to the hills, Ecuador was no different. We left the border town of Tumbes with its humid weather and headed towards the Andes again, planning to ride to the town of Quenca in a few days. The plan didn't quite work out as expected thanks to Javier a local we bumped into. We had done most of the climbing over two days and were back up at 2500m with about a days ride to go before Quenca. We stopped for our morning coffee but despite the place being a cafe, access to coffee seemed to be a little difficult. Just as we were planning to head off a local in his 4x4 arrived and we got chatting. The conversation started in Spanish but thankfully Javier had lived in the USA for 20 years and had far better English than our Spanish. The result of this chance meeting ended up with not only coffee at his farm but turned into lunch then a lift the last 60km to Quenca followed by 3 nights in his family's spare house on the edge of town!!!
Javier like a lot of Ecuadorians (10% of the working population) work in the states or Spain and send money home for their families. Javier splits time between life on the family farm in Ecuador and driving a truck in the States. Really interesting to get an insight into local life from such a good English speaker. The family farm is not much of a farm anymore and most of the land has been sold off. Now the only thing, apart from a few horses and cows, are roosters for cock fighting!! It's a big thing in Ecuador and Colombia and is legal, unlike in Chile and Argentina. Javier breeds, trains and fights his roosters. It was fascinating to hear him defend the 'sport' that he is so passionate about and invests, and makes, large sums of money at. Thankfully we were not around to see any fights. After our extended coffee stop on the farm he gave us a lift to Quenca. His Mum owns a house there but she too lives in the US. The house was very new and modern, it would not have looked out of place on a trendy new development in the UK. Javier then took us into the old town for Humitas, Tumales and coffee. We went to a small very popular place that we would have never found without our guide. Humitas are a mixture of maze, raisins and other sweet stuff, Tumales are also maze but are savoury with chicken and a wee bit of veg. Both are parceled up in a leaf and steamed. They were lovely, really fresh, tasty and very local. Yet again a great chance meeting that gave us an insight into local life, and some great food. Javier had to go back to the farm the next day as he had some cock fighting arranged but we stayed on in the house for 2 more nights, enjoying our own front door for a change. Another example of wonderful generosity and friendship from a complete stranger.
Ecuador is the most densely populated country in South America and that was very evident as we rode through. The hillsides are a complete carpet of patchwork with crops growing or cattle grazing. In the south central area around Quenca there are so many people working outside the country that many fields are left untouched as there are not enough people around to farm them. Some of the houses on the other hand are very grand with a huge mix of architecture, with the American influence really showing through.
As in Peru we had a real mix of weather with many cloudy days which was a real shame as we rode blind past apparently some beautiful countryside. This stretch of the Andes is very volcanic and looking at the map they are dotted all over the country. The cloud did stay away one day to allow us a good long time riding with spectacular views of Vulcan Chimborazo,(6310m) the highest mountain in Ecuador. Due to the equatorial bulge the summit of Chimborazo is also the furthest point from the center of the earth. Good bit of trivia there for you!
After a day of riding in the heavy rain on very busy roads with big trucks and way too many buses we arrived in the old part of Quito in lovely sunshine. There we met up with Vicky's cousin's cousin Gill, who lives and works in Quito. Gill and her Ecuadorian husband Eduardo were fantastic hosts, taxi drivers and guides during our time in the capital. They live in a beautiful house in the countryside on the edge of the city with no traffic noise, three dogs to entertain us and a suite in the house all to ourselves. As soon as we arrived we got the feeling that leaving would be difficult.
Gill and Eduardo took us on a guided tour of the old town and to another local eating spot for Sunday lunch. Banana with our slab of meat this time! The atmosphere was great, lots of locals seemed to be enjoying their sunny Sunday car free street wander too. Lots of beautiful old buildings that have had thousands of pounds spent on restoration over the last few years and look as good as new.
Quito was our stepping stone to the Galapagos Islands. In Darwin's day it was boat transport only but for us it was a 2hr flight to another world. We had a week there visiting a few of the islands and wow what a place. The islands are famous for wildlife and you soon see why. Even in the main (small) town of Puerto Ayora on Isla Santa Cruz, there are Pelicans and Blue footed Boobies outside the bank, Sea Lions on the dock helping the fisherman unload their catch and much more. The wildlife is so abundant and accessible that at times it has almost a safari park feel, very strange but amazing. You get so close to everything either on land or in the water. We had many Galapagos highlights but one in particular has to be on our last day when we got the chance to snorkel with Penguins and Sea Lions, it was FANTASTIC !!!! Being under water sharing their world just for a few moments was very special. We also did some diving which was great, not only giving us a chance to resurrect some of the skills we learnt way back in Thailand, but also giving us a chance to see white tipped reef sharks and manta rays up close. In fact short of writing a list it's hard to sum up the amount and variety of stuff we saw in such a short space of time, but if you want to see Frigate Birds, 3 types of Boobies, land and marine Iguanas, Manta Rays, Marble Rays, Penguins, Sharks, Turtles, Giant Tortoise, Darwin Finches, thousands of beautiful fish, Sea Lions, Greater Flamingos, Dolphins and Tropical Gulls a trip to the Galapagos would not leave you wanting! It is not only the wildlife that is fascinating in quantity and variety it's the way it varies from island to island over very short distances. The geography of the place is great too. Most for the islands are the result of volcanic activity and many are relatively very young. Bartolome errupted in 1912 and it was so clear where the lava had flowed and changed the shape of the coast line, a geography teachers dream class room!
Whilst we were out on the Islands the Olympics started. Now we obviously miss a lot about being away from home but we really felt it when the Olympics was on. In Ecuador there was practically nothing on TV. Once we hit Colombia however they have 24hr TV coverage which was a lot better. So the few times we got access to TV we were glued. Not quite the BBC but better than nothing. In Ecuador we did catch one event live, the mens race walk! Of all the things to show they chose that, reason being that in 1996 Jefferson Perez was the first Ecuadorian ever to win a gold medal and he was competing again. So there we were in a Chinese restaurant in the middle of Ecuador watching the whole of the walking race! Sadly he didn't win and the locals didn't seem all that impressed with his silver. The internet proved to be our best we of keeping up to speed with the action but it's not quite the beeb. However it was enough to help us appreciate the great result of Team GB. Didn't we do well!
With time against us before our flight to the states we had to emulate our GB cyclists and step up the pace a little. We managed a short stop as we crossed the equator. After all it's not every day you have one wheel in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere. It felt like a bit of a mile stone for us now being in our home hemisphere so to speak. What is especially good about going over the zero is that it's been down hill riding ever since.........we wish!!!! As I said earlier the weather has not been that great which is a particular shame at night because being so close to the centre of the world you can see both sides of the night sky, but sadly not this time.
So before we could say ¨Chris Hoy's the greatest¨ we were in our final South American country. As you know we hadn't originally planned to come to Colombia but we met so many bikers that had enjoyed their time here, it seemed rude not to visit the last country touched by the Andean chain that has been such great company for so much of our time down here.
In the past Colombia has had a reputation for robbery, kidnapping and other rather non tourist friendly practices. Sadly there is still a bit of trouble and there are still some areas of the country that are real no go areas, unless you want to spend a few months or years in the jungle practising Spanish with the guerillas whist the ransom is gathered!!! However, most of it is very safe now and for us on the main roads we always felt safe. Here in Bogotá there are a few no go areas just like any other big city in the world, but on the whole it's pretty good. To help keep the peace there is a large military presence all along the road side. Every bridge we rode over had heavily armed soldiers guarding it from their sand bag bunkers. A little intimidating but it seems to be working.
We had heard that the majority of Colombians were very friendly people and we have not been disappointed. The Peruvians get our vote for the most outwardly friendly and smiley people down here but once you break the ice with the Colombians they are off. A people very proud of their country and very pleased to welcome an increasing number of visitors.
The food as we have been heading north has been improving. In Peru and Bolivia if Chicken and Rice was not on the menu you were in the hardware shop! Colombia and Ecuador on the other hand have been much more varied, still lots of chicken mind you but you don't get much more varied than chicken soup with Banana!! In one area there were whole (dead)pigs on a stand out in the sun. They have all the hair scorched and scraped off. Then when you come to eat it they carve you off a bit and cook it up. Didn't fancy the fact that it had been out in the sun all day as well as being very fatty. The one culinary regret we have is not trying Cuy or Guinea Pig as we know it. It's a popular dish in Ecuador and Colombia but the chance never arose for us to try it. We saw them in their various stages from live in a sack at the market to spinning on a spit over the BBQ. Apparently it tastes abit like chicken.
Not only are we now coming to the end of our South American leg but a lot of our stuff seems to be coming to the end of it's life too. Using the same stuff everyday takes it's toll, my back wheel needs replaced, socks have holes, shorts are patched, tyres are getting thinner and puncture prone and T shirts fading. What is not fading however is our love of what we are doing. It would be fare to say that Ecuador and Colombia will not go down as must visit again on a bike places but to be sitting here almost ready to leave the country, if we had to we would happily about turn and ride all the way back to Tierra Del Fuego!!
It wouldn't seem right to send our last web update from South America without some sort of round up of the whole thing, but where to start?......
South Anerica has been so varied but similar too. It has given us extremes from cold that freezes your water bottles solid to heat that turns it into water hot enough to make a cup of tea. We have ridden up hills so long and rough that walking would have been a better and faster option and down hills on roads smooth enough to hit irresponsible speeds. Not only have the roads and weather given us travel sustaining variety but also our modes of transport. Yes we bike most of the way but we have also taken 4x4 pick ups, buses, trucks, big and small boats and horses. In North America we need to get a hot air balloon and camel to complete the set!!
Many things have stuck with us all the way up. The influence the Spanish had on these countries is an obvious one. Not only the language but also the buildings, much of the cultural practices and customs, food and of course catholicism. We often wonder what the countries would be like if the Spanish had not been here for so long. Before we came we had this picture that the Andes was this long line of snow capped mountains from start to finish, how wrong we were. Now we have travelled almost the length of them, yes there are miles of beautiful mountains as expected but at times this mountain chain resembles central Scotland or north island New Zealand with green fields, cows and normal rural life, except you are up well over 1000m. As with many new world countries the 6 countries we have seen here have such variety and contrast which never fails to be of interest. In the centre of Bogota the cosmopolitain place it is you still find horse and carts. We see indigenous people in the traditional dress they have been wearing for years chatting away on there mobile phones. The last 10,070km we have ridden have at times been quite easy or a real challenge, uphill, downhill, hot, cold, rough, smooth, mind fascinating or a tad mundane, but one thing it has always been is an adventure.
Next stop, the land of McDonalds, shopping malls and George Bush, which leaving those things aside, we are really looking forward to! Our only worry is that the 5th November and the appointment with BA airlines is going to come around all too quickly.
Hope this finds you safe well and busy doing lots of nice things.
Thank you as always for sharing our journey with us.
Nick and Vicky
Just when you thought you had escaped without us harping on about the bad roads, the dust, the mud, the gravel......... mainly because they know what tarmac is in this neck of the woods. They are not always that good at putting it down but it's there. We did however have one section of very rough road in Ecuador caused by a huge new road building scheme. Mind you it didn't bother us two hard bottomed dirt road regulars! We were just getting back into the shake rattle and roll again when an empty truck stopped. Well it would have been rude to turn down such a kind offer!!!!!!