Friday, July 31, 2015

How to get to Quito

Nothing seemed too different when I crossed the border from Colombia to Ecuador. It was still green hills everywhere. Before long I reached Tulcán, the first major city on the main road to Quito. A well-attended local festival was in full swing, with the main event being one parade followed by another down the main street. I never got to figure out what the celebrations were about, thanks to my perfectly incoherent Spanish. I at least did manage to get directions to the nearest bank! Ecuador uses US Dollars as its currency (it replaced the Sucre), so the biggest change for me was adjusting to the new exchange rate. I'd been stuck on Colombian Pesos for six months, where 2500 Pesos were the equivalent of one Dollar. It took a couple days for it to sink in…

The green rolling hills of northern Ecuador, as seen from Road 35.
One of a number of figures at a roundabout, Tulcan.

After escaping the crowded streets I pushed on. In San Gabriel I managed to find what seemed to be the town’s only hotel, to enjoy my first night in Ecuador in luxury. Finding a wild camping spot seemed like a challenge in the rather open countryside, a challenge I was too lazy to take on. There would always be another day for camping! 

The view from the hotel in San Gabriel.

A mammoth beside my bike! Paleontological museum, Bolivar.

After my birdingless rush through southern Colombia, I had not got around to flipping on my birding switch in Ecuador. I knew there were a few nice sites along the way to Quito, but most of them were off the main route. I again did not have the time to spend wandering about too much, so chose to stay on the beaten track, Road 35. 

On the second day the road dropped down into a massive river valley, accompanied by a complete change in scenery. The lush pastures gave way to a drier scrub-like habitat, very reminiscent of the Little Karoo in South Africa. I almost felt at home! Despite the long wait at the roadworks, I thoroughly enjoined this part of the route. Just when I though it might last, I was back in the green rolling hills. And with that my homesickness subsided. My mind was also occupied with thoughts of finding a place to spend the night, sometimes the greatest challenge facing a touring cyclist. It was well after sunset when I eventually found a hard-earned camping spot beside a sugar cane field. It’s a rather huge relief to find two solid and well-spaced trees that can accommodate a simple device such as a hammock.

View from the top of the massive river valley.

The bottom of the valley. Note the more arid terrain of the mountains.

Some elegant wall art along the way.
A great day for cycling! Getting closer to Ibarra.
The next day held the promise of some birding. I was heading for the city of Ibarra, but would encounter an Andean lake called Laguna Yahuarcocha on the outskirts. I had also got wind about an official camping site overlooking the lake, so what more could I ask for? A few new bird species to add to the list and a warm shower! A pair of Harris’s Hawk circled above me, with their obviously rufous underwing coverts, followed by a male Ash-breasted Sierra-finch. The lake held the usual waterbirds such as Great Egret, Black-crowned Night-heron, Pied-billed Grebe, Blue-winged Teal, Andean Duck, and Neotropical Cormorant. Some more firsts for me were Andean Coot, Yellow-billed Pintail and a solitary Andean Gull. An Osprey was also seen making its way across the lake. Strikingly beautiful male Vermilion Flycatchers were rather common along the lake's shores, even perching in the reedbeds. Spotted Sandpipers were also about on the edges of the reeds, while I hoped in vane for a glimpse of an Ecuadorian Rail, known to inhabit the reedbeds at this lake. My hopes of seeing a Subtropical Doradito were also dashed. 

The tranquil scene at Laguna Yahuarcocha upon arrival.
Not the herons I was hoping for, but then I did see the real thing too.

It turns out this lake has a dark past. Yahuarcocha translates to ‘blood lake’ in the Quechuan language, owing to the colour of the water after the domineering Inca’s massacred the indigenous Cayambe people there in the 15th Century. I’ll skip the rest of the details.

These days the lake presents an exquisitely peaceful scene; locals relaxing about the shores, some fishing the shallows, cyclists and joggers taking to the circumnavigating road. I took this road as well, from which to spot birds instead. Towards the back end is where I found ‘Finca Sommerwind’, the camping ground that I had been tipped off about. Perfect spot for a camp site, with the mountain slope rising up directly behind it. The German owners were very welcoming and I was soon meeting up with the other travelers, also German. A dinner party was arranged for the second night, so I opted to stay longer and brush up on the language again. 

Fishermen at Laguna Yahuarcocha. Camping was at the opposite end of the lake.

The reception and restaurant all in one at Finca Sommerwind.
Preparing for dinner at Finca Sommerwind.

View over the city of Ibarra, northern Ecuador.

The lake did not reveal any new species for me the next day, but the splendid scenery made up for the lack of additional lifers. Satisfied, I was on the road again to close the gap with Quito. South of Cayambe I made a stop at Quitsato, the sun dial on the equator. This is the middle of the earth and so I enjoyed the novelty of moving from the Northern to Southern Hemisphere in just a single step. Could anything be more entertaining? Probably. I spent well over an hour here, taking a break from the cycling and enjoying the sunshine.

I could not resist a photo of these intensely blue-coloured dolphins in Ibarra.

Water melons for sale, and grilled corn.
Satisfy your soul; what else needs to be said?
My second night of wild camping in Ecuador.
Well hello! A cicada that took shelter under my shirt for the night.

Sign post at the Equator - the middle of the world.

Information board at the Quitsato sun dial.

Yep, all zeros for the latitude reading - this must be the Equator!

A weary traveler at the Equator, beside his vintage and trusted bike!

Freedom of the open road! Heading south from Cayambe.

I then made the most fabulous discovery yet since arriving in Ecuador. Well, I did not discover it myself actually, but was again tipped off. But the thing is, it took me a while to find it so in the end it felt like a self-made discovery. And that is the El Chaquiñán cycle route, an old disused railway line between Quito and Ibarra to the north. And I am not the first to say that it is a wonderful discovery, you can read a more detailed review by 'Crazy Guy on a Bike'. He also had fun along this route, but luckily for him, he rode all 70 km of it, from Cumbaya (close to Quito) to Cayambe (it possibly goes still further north). 

Map of the El Chaquiñán cycle route, from Puembo to Cumbaya near Quito.

There are numerous such portals along the route, with a security guard!

I heard about it only upon my arrival in Yaruqui, which is close to the Puembo portal (see the photographed map above). I had to use Google Maps and a little luck to actually find the portal to access the route here. Apparently the majority of the route from Puembo northwards to Cayambe is not in the best shape (and also not sign posted), so a mountain bike would be the recommended mode of transport for this section. However, the 18 km or so from the Puembo portal (coordinates: -0.179925,-78.360334) to the Cumbaya portal (-0.199545,-78.431482) is well maintained and I am pleased I had the chance to ride it. Highly recommended! Firstly, it was previously a railway line so it follows the contours making for easy riding, and secondly, it passes through the spectacular Chiche River valley. So don’t miss out on this one if you are heading for Quito by bike! Take note that once you reach the Cumbaya portal and exit the cycle route, you are on your own finding the way into Quito city. I took the most direct route via a suburb called Guapulo; it was most likely the shortest, and probably the steepest!

View over the Chiche River valley from the cycle route.

Entrance to a long and dark tunnel.

Looking back through the tunnel. Note the nearly buried railway line.

And there was light at the end of the tunnel!
A few smaller tunnels and 15 km left to go to Cumbaya.

Looking back across the valley to the tunnel entrance, marked with an arrow.

Almost there, just 3.5 km to the Cumbaya portal.

At the Cumbaya portal after a fantastic ride.

Once in Quito, I made plans for the next trip, and also the last…My apologies for passing on no earlier warning, but my plan for cycling much further through Latin America has taken a u-turn. Quito would be the last capital I would visit after three years on a bike. There are a number of reasons for bringing this trip to a closure, and I figured it would be better to do this sooner than later. Although this blog’s days are numbered, I do have another scheme, so do come back. See you at the next post, I promise to have a bird picture or two! Thanks!

Ecuador is a land of volcanoes.

The streets of Quito, Ecuador's capital.
And another view.

Looking south across Quito.

Quito getting ready for the night.

The touristic centre of Quito, with hostels and hotels around every corner.

Notes for birders:

Rather than reinvent the wheel here, I will direct you to perhaps the best sources of information that I could find on birding in Ecuador. There you will find more than enough information about where to go, how to get there and what to see. First off, Where to find birds in Ecuador is a valuable resource for any birding wanting to visit Ecuador. The site is divided up into regions, with maps accompanying most of the best birding sites covered. I relied heavily on this information. Next would be Birding Ecuador, which gives a more personal perspective with numerous trip reports made by the author. It also has a list of links to other birding sites.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Rushing to the border

I had two weeks left. Two weeks to reach Ecuador before my Colombian visa expired. From Bogota it was only 800 km to the border, but I had little idea of what obstacles lay ahead. I'd be cycling through the Andes again, and for a while. So there was no point in taking conservative guesses, this was Colombia afterall. So I thought of a novel idea – catch a bus if time runs out! Actually, catching a bus was an absolute last option; I am far too stubborn to even think of cheating. I just needed reassurance that I could make the border in time. 

So after a rather long and pleasant stay in Bogota, I made my way south of the city towards the first milestone, the city of Girardot. On the decent from the cool plateau of Bogota to the lowlands of Girardot, I met another cyclist. Mike was the first touring cyclist I had met in South America. The reason was obvious, I was now traveling on the Bogota-detour route of the Pan American highway. He would also not be the last. After a rather lengthy and entertaining chat, we parted ways. Mike had a lot of uphill to take on, while I had the easy downhill. Though I did not yet know what awaited me… The heat in the lowlands was almost unbearable. Every patch of lawn with a trickle of shade along the way provided some refuge from the sun, and I did not hesitate to pull over and crash on the lawn. I guess the two months of slothing in Bogota had stolen my cycling legs, and I was now paying the price! I knew all too well that these all-too-frequent emergency stops were gradually eroding away the time I had available for reaching the border on time. The idea of the bus sneaked into my thoughts a few times. No way! That alone was enough motivation to get back on the saddle.

Mike was the first touring cycling I met in Colombia, and South America, actually.

Grinding my way up the relentlessly long ‘La Linea’ pass that connects Ibague with Armenia across the central Andes mountain range, I met another cyclist. We chatted over a late lunch at a roadside restaurant before taking to the road again. This time it was my turn to continue uphill. It took me nearly two days to reach the top of the ‘La Linea’ mountain pass, and what a relief it was. Seeing the downhill road on the other side of the peak is always a joy! Victory is almost palatable while squeezing in those last few pedal strokes over the top.

Sean and I had a chat over lunch while taking a break from the 'La Linea' climb.

A small cable car bridging the gap across a valley beside the 'La Linea' route.

Maybe halfway up the mountain pass...better than at the start.

Friendly road workers offered me coffee and a bite to eat near the top of the pass.

Only minutes away from the top of the mountain pass at 3200m asl. Great view!!

I figured I needed a snack at this roadside restaurant at the top of the pass.

The 20 or more kilometres downhill to Armenia were a breeze. With the dense fog along the way I figured it would be safer to activate the rear-wheel dynamo so that oncoming traffic could see me better – the rapid descent ensured that the dynamo wheel would spin right off! There goes a perfectly working dynamo that had served me well since March 2013 – time to say goodbye!     

A room for four at a backpackers in Armenia.

After a night’s rest in Armenia, I headed in the direction of Cali, the largest city due south. For over 150 km it was plain sailing across the perfectly flat plains between the central and western Andes. I made good progress in two days, and it felt like I was catching up on the time lost fighting gravity on the ‘La Linea’ ascent.

A fire raging in the sugar cane flats between Armenia and Cali. It lasted only minutes.

There was, however, no time for birding. I dared not even reach for my binoculars in case I got caught up in the act of serious birding – this has happened many times before. Just a peak, then next thing I need to get the camera out, then the books are out, and then an hour has passed. I no longer had the luxury of time, so I spotted what I could with my bare eyes. Blue-winged Mountain Tanager and an unidentified dove nearly added to my list!

I spent a night in Popayan, a town famed as the ‘white city’ due to many of the colonial houses in the city centre being, you guessed it, white. I spent a couple hours walking the streets at night to soak in the sight, and to chat with my room mate at the backpackers. Dan was also traveling by bicycle, but at a much faster pace. He had completed the stretch from southern Argentina to Colombia in six months! Goodness, I spent six months just in Colombia! I figured I would need years to reach the south tip of the continent – time to reconsider the route plans!

Street view of Popayan's centre, known as the 'white city'. 

Street view from the backpackers in Popayan.

After Popayan only one city stood between me and the border, Pasto. I still had six days to go on my visa, so it seemed like an easy task. After some more hilly country to the south of Popayan, and consuming the odd mango by the roadside, the countryside became drier and hotter. I longed for time to go birding, as I have an affinity for drier places, but rather pushed on. I felt the increase in altitude again, not only in my legs, but also the surrounding montane scenery and drop in temperature. 

Looking back at a storm that was chasing me, I somehow stayed ahead of the rain.

A quaint little house beside the road.

Spectacular scenery along the way south of Popayan.

More scenery...

More mountains...

Need to wash your truck or clothes in the middle of nowhere, anytime; no problem!

A friendly French couple coming downhill on their fully-loading touring bikes was a welcome sight. They were in a rush to get to their destination for the night, so we kept the formalities brief. They handed me a map of northern Ecuador, showing the route I intended to take from the border to Quito. This would be useful! My first route map since I started cycling in Latin America! I am happy to say that I eventually passed the map on to some other cyclists after I no longer needed it, so by now it has guided a number of cyclists through northern Ecuador!

Gaining altitude surrounded by pristine-looking mountain scapes.

Mountains stretching out in every direction.

A lone tree enjoying the scenery, all to itself!

A Fench couple who had come a long way through Latin America by bike.

The border only 129 km away!! Wonderful news!

Arriving in Pasto in the rain.

My hopes that the continuous mountains would give way to plains were not realized, but then the scenery was amazing and well worth it. I arrived in the border town of Ipiales with one day to spare on my visa. Whew, that was close! With that I ended my six-month visit to Colombia, a country that easily makes it into the ranks of my favour three countries cycled thus far. I could write a chapter on that alone, but will boil it down to the friendly, hospitable folk found throughout the country, the fantastically scenic countryside no matter where you are, and of course the birds and other wildlife. Looking back, I realized that I had missed pretty much most of the best birding sites (the length of my bird list reflected this), getting caught up with other things instead, so I have plenty of reasons to return…     

My cycle route through southern Colombia, from Bogota (A) to Ipiales (B).