To follow our progress on google maps via Pavinski Traveller, click here:

Thursday, September 26, 2013


A mere 1000-m climb put us in Otovalo for afternoon coffee (back to instant unfortunately). Funny how perspectives change. A 1000-m climb just seems like part of the drill now. It’s nice to be back in the highlands, but I think Amy could use more heat (she loves the heat of the valley-bottoms). At 2550 m, Otovalo has warmish days and cool nights. A perfect climate in a way: no heating, no cooling required. During the day you open the windows to let the breeze in, at night you shut them to keep the heat in – 365 days of the year. With a population of 40,000 Otovalo has that nice small-town vibe and you can walk everywhere, but is big enough to have everything you need. Lots of great smelling pananderias (bakeries), restaurants, and shops, and of course, the market.

Since anyone can remember, Otovalo has hosted one of the most important markets in the Andes. The indigena (local indigenous people) come down from all over and layout a schwack of hand-made traditional goods from leather belts to ponchos to fine fabrics – all dressed in their traditional clothing. Otovalenos are particularly known for their textiles and weaving skills. It’s Disney Land for shoppers. Amy is like a kid in a candy store and can’t get enough of it (apparently our daily budget does not include market items). I’ve had enough after a few minutes. In fact, she’s there right now while I write this – I had to go, it was beer:30.

As eluded to last post, our plan is to stay put for about a week, which we predict will not be a hardship. After checking on a few places we found what could be the perfect base, and is the nicest place we have stayed at so far: Hotel Riviera-Sucre (things just keep getting
better!). In keeping with the theme we have seen thus far, it’s an old colonial home that has been converted into a hotel/hostel – complete with high ceilings, creaky wood floors, and endless nooks (one sitting space even has a fireplace). Our room is palatial, off on its own wing, opens up to a courtyard garden area, and, surely has the single hottest shower in South America (any traveller knows what that’s worth). It might be hard to pry ourselves away from here.

One of our bigger goals for this little adventure we’re on, is to learn Spanish. From all accounts, Ecuador is one of the better places to take Spanish lessons. So, today was day 1 of 5 of escuela de espanol. We are taking the plunge and have signed up for 20 hrs of 1-on-1 lessons at a local spanish school; 4 hrs a day for 5 days (with this weekend off so we [i.e., Amy] can go to the market which goes ballistic on weekends). $6.50 an hour, hard to beat that.

Speaking of money, an interesting factoid is that Ecuador uses the U.S. dollar (i.e., exact same cash, ATMs spit out U.S. green backs). Back in the late 90s the Ecuadorian economy was imploding along with its old currency (the sucre). In 2000 they made the switch to U.S. currency to stabilize things, et voila, everything here is in U.S. dollars and cents. The big difference, obviously, is that everything is about 1/5th of the cost, which is nice! Taking advantage of the 80%-off sale, we had our teeth cleaned yesterday (no, not by monkeys, by a real dentist) for the outrageous price of $16. At those prices, who needs a health care plan?
So a week of spanish lessons, sifting through the market, getting used to the new food (so far less rice, more corn), and trying to take photos of the locals without offending them. So far our impressions of Ecuador are good: much quieter, people seem almost shy, and, way cheaper than Colombia.  Should be a fun week. More soon.


Monday, September 23, 2013

Adios Colombia - Bienvenidos a Ecuador!

A fairly eventful few days since Pasto. The biggest event is that we are now in Ecuador, finally! Whew, Colombia proved to be a longer haul than previously anticipated. The ‘ole PanAmerican (highway) snakes up and down through the Andes like a goat trail. It’s actually quite fascinating. The human (town) patterns are reversed from what we are used to. Here, the highlands are the lush green zones where most of the towns and people are, and the valley bottoms are harsh deserts with very little of anything. So the basic pattern we appear to be into is going from one high-elevation town to the next, with usually a major descent (1000 to 2000 m) into a hot desert valley bottom, followed by a major climb back into the highlands and more towns.

We seem to have figured out how to manage the climbs. The important thing is to not get caught in the middle of a major climb in the middle of the afternoon with no town in sight (as previously happened on route to Pasto). There are simply no options because another 25 kms or so is just not going to happen when you’re pushing a loaded bike at 5 km/hr with zero energy reserves. Solution: overnight at the bottom, start the climb fresh in the morning, overnight midway if necessary.

We’re actually using the desert thing to our advantage, and are currently sitting poolside for a rest day at a hotel smack dab in the middle of nowhere, except that it sits right at the bottom of one of these dry hot valleys. Looking around, it could be southern Nevada. It would appear that rich Ecuadorians have figured out that coming down from the chilly high elevations to a hotel with a pool can make for a nice weekend – or in our case, a wonderful place to rest up for our next climb. Amy is overjoyed to be lounging beside a pool for a day (OK, so am I), given that hours previously we were in our gortex jackets and gloves – it’s very chilly at 3200 m, but scorching hot at 1500 m.

The ride from Pasto to the border was amazing. After an initial 600-m climb to get us to 3200 m, we cruised down through an exhilarating 1450-m descent – maybe 10 turns of the pedals the whole time. And again, gortex jackets and gloves at the top, tank tops at the bottom. The next day we climbed back up, but it was such a nice day, and the scenery was so spectacular, we didn’t mind. And, we cycled by our first active volcano, with a tell-tale puff of smoke rising from the caldron, which was very cool.

Our original plan was to blast through the border that day, but with about 20 kms to go, Amy’s rear tire got shredded on something that left an irreparable 1-cm gash in the middle of the tread. We carry spare tires, so not a major problem, except that an overnight stop in Ipiales (border town on Colombian side) was now necessary to find a replacement tire. Luck was on our side with our choice of 3 bike shops within walking distance from our hotel. As mentioned previously, Colombians are big into cycling. We bought a tire along with a new water bottle to replace one of mine that I should have replaced years ago, and also a set of spare brake pads for Amy (something tells me we are going to need new brake pads eventually). After a sleepless night in Ipiales due to an insanely loud TV emanating from the hotel owner’s room (TVs should be banned from public spaces in Colombia), we were up and at the border by 7 am. Passage through the border was relatively quick and uneventful, which is the way you want it to be.

Border-crossing in this part of the world is interesting. Unlike the Canada-U.S. border where you inch up to a toll-booth kind of situation and then proceed to be grilled by a border guard, there is no line in the sand here where someone stops and grills you. On either side (a bridge across a river in this case) there is an immigration office – which is up to you to find in the midst of all the chaos – where one enters to get one’s passport stamped. No one tells you this, you just have to know to do it (we learned the hard way in Central America). So on the Colombian side we need a departure stamp, followed by getting an entrance stamp on the Ecuadorian side. Failing to do so makes you illegal, which could be a problem down the road for obvious reasons. No one seems to care what we’re carrying or how we are travelling. Just get the stamps, and away we go. Perhaps they just know that we aren’t smuggling a family of refugees in our panniers J

The final tally was 52 nights in Colombia – more than we had originally planned, but that included an initial 18 nights getting acclimatized and exploring the Colombian Caribbean (which was sort of a side trip). Upon reflection, our collective thoughts on Colombia are that it put on a fantastic show for us. From the beaches of the Caribbean, to the coffee-covered mountains of la zona cafetera, to the colonial towns of the south, the diversity of landscapes and sights is truly awesome. And to the people of Colombia, two huge thumbs up for their wonderful and friendly nature. We both agree that Colombians are some of the nicest and friendliest people we have ever encountered. Very noisy people mind you, but, very nice just the same. With the violence of the past, in the past (hopefully), Colombia seems to be a rising star. Viva Colombia!

Colombia trip stats:

Total kms on bikes: 2106
Number of riding days: 30
Average kms per riding day: 70
Number of flats: 3 (Amy 2, Rob 1) + 2 blown tires (1 each)
Cheapest accom*: $10
Most expensive accom*: $39
Average cost per night accom*: $25
Best beach: Palomino
Best town/city: Salento
Rob’s fav street food: papas con heuvo
Amy’s fav street food: ice cream (cono doble)
(*accom = private room)

Amy’s top pros/cons on Columbia:
Driver encouragement (honks, thumbs up)           constant noise
Diversity of scenery                                                     crazy drivers
Fresh limes and lime juice                                          lack of veggies

Rob’s top pros/cons on Columbia:
the people                                       constant noise
beaches to mountains                  wine is expensive
cheap beer                                      rooms without windows

 OK, Ecuador. We’re both pretty excited to be onto country #2. It’s a small country, which is nice when you’re on a bike. Distances between interesting stops are just so much smaller. So right now we’re relaxing by the pool near a tiny place called Ambuqui, about 90 kms south of the Colombia-Ecuador border. We’re resting up for tomorrow’s climb to the town of Otovalo – a mountain town famous for the biggest market in all of South America. Our plan is take some serious time out (a week or more – looking forward to that) to take Spanish lessons. We have both maxed out our sign-language gringo travel Spanish. It’s time to stop sounding like a 3-yr-old and start putting real sentences together J

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Pasto. Population 400K, elevation 2551m. A nice enough town, Pasto is the usual jumping-off point for people travelling through to Ecuador. I say “usual” because while it’s only a 2-hr drive to the border, it’s still 2 days away for us. We get to enjoy Colombia for a few more days!

The route from Popayan has begun to reveal the true nature of the Andes. We have transitioned from the semi-tropical mid-elevations (1000 to 2500 m) of Colombia, to the drier (cactus dry) and higher elevations (2000 to 4000 m) of Ecuador. The mountains have grown dramatically and become more spectacular and awe inspiring. We are feeling smaller and smaller as the terrain dwarfs all signs of humanity. The road ahead is starting to look like a goat trail snaking through the mountains. We even hit our first tunnel carved out of the middle of nowhere. And, of course, bigger mountains means bigger climbs. That previous 500-m daily vertical goalpost we set for ourselves has now been pushed to 1000+ m. Looking at the elevation profiles for what is to come, even that means multi-day climbs.

Yesterday was one of those days. The final approach into Pasto started with a 1000-m warm-up climb, followed by a 700-m descent, and a nice little finishing climb of 2000 m. Our original plan was to split up the second climb and find a place to stay somewhere in the middle. After completing the warm-up climb and descent, and about 400 m into the second climb, with nowhere to stay (or even eat) in sight, Amy’s batteries were bottoming out. Things were not looking cheery, and unbeknownst to Amy, I was starting to fear we might be spending the night on the side of the mountain somewhere. But as usual, things worked themselves out, and an opportunity we could not pass up revealed itself. An empty truck with a very generous Colombian driver stopped and offered us a ride. No doubt tipped off to our situation by the sight of Amy curled up and passed out on a piece of concrete beside the road, and me circling the perimeter looking for signs of life in the distance. Et voila, 1 hour later we were sitting pretty in the Hotel Koala in Pasto’s el centro. What a difference an hour makes. That last 40 kms would have taken us 2 days.

Pasto, as mentioned, is a decent place and nice stopover for us – a Colombian city, not a gringo in sight. Lots of great little cafes, huge colonial-era churches on every second corner, and, surprisingly good pizza (very rare so far). We’re also in volcano country. But unfortunately Volcan Galeras, the 4267-m active volcano serving as the city’s backdrop is covered in cloud and invisble on this blustery fall-like day (Amy’s down jacket has appeared from the depths of her panniers). Only 8 km from el centro, and Columbia’s most active volcano, Galeras poses a serious risk to the town. In 1993, 9 volcano scientists were killed while hiking within the crater as it erupted. Since then there have been numerous eruptions and multiple evacuations. Hopefully it won’t pick today or tomorrow to go off again.

So today is a rest day to check out the local sights, eat more street food (Amy’s new street food fav: fresh hand-made potato chips), and hang out in the palatial Koala Inn – a very hostel-like old colonial building complete with ridiculously high ceilings, a spacious interior courtyard lounge, 10-foot French doors, and creaky wooden floors and stairs. This morning, Louis (manager) treated us to his famous “best pancakes in town” breakfast. Amy’s favourite breakfast by a long shot thus far (tons of fruit, and topped with fresh local honey), we would have to say he could change his ad to “best pancake breakfast in Colombia”.  Well, OK, so far the only pancake breakfast we have encountered in Colombia, but it was a good one!

Tomorrow we continue the push. The 82-km route to Ipiales (the real border town) starts with a 600-m warm-up climb, followed by a 1500-m descent, then a finishing climb of 1100 m. Our plan is to find a well-placed town along the way to split that up into 2 days. We’ll see how it goes. With any luck, the next post could be from Ecuador. Hasta luego.

The first tunnel on the road to Ecuador (that little white thing in the middle of the photo)

Sunday, September 15, 2013


Popayan, La Ciudad Blanca (the white city). And white it is! The old city here consists of an el centro district lined with old colonial buildings uniformly whitewashed with chalk-white facades. Second only to Cartagena (well, officially anyway) as Columbia’s most impressive colonial city, Popayan might just be a nicer place to visit due to the mild climate and more “off the beaten track” location. While there are a few gringos at our hostel, we are the lone representatives on the streets. It just doesn’t have that touristy vibe that Cartagena has. And, at 1760 m, the climate is near perfect. Nice warm days, followed by cool nights – 365 days a year. We’re still getting our heads around the lack of seasons here.

The two-day ride (150 kms) from Cali went smoothly, with a bit of a grind on the second day due to undulating ups and downs. We’re still learning the subtleties of what an elevation profile looks like and how it translates to the actual ride. My tendency had been to look only at the net elevation gain between the low and the high for the day, but that changed on this ride. Day two totalled a net gain of about 500 m – which has now become a daily goal post on the larger climbs – but also included half a dozen rollers of 100 m or so. Those rollers kill you. They definitely add to the total climb for the day, and turn a 500 m climb into a 1000 m climb. Lesson learned.

We’ve been remarkably lucky with rain. As mentioned in previous posts, it rains every day (i.e., every 24 hrs). But thus far, we have escaped riding in the rain except for one 10-minute sprinkling the other day. Yesterday, we watched from the luxury of our lovely colonial-style room adjacent to the cathedral and overlooking the main square (could be the best room yet), as a massive storm swept through the city. Gail-force winds and torrential downpour for about an hour. We both looked at each other and didn’t have to say it “what if we were riding right now?”  Yikes! But from the security of our bay window it was a great show.

 An interesting, if not disgusting, event occurred on our overnight in between Cali and Popayan. As mentioned, one of the pros of cycle touring is that we are forced to overnight in the middle of nowhere in the “real” Columbia. One of the cons however, is that we are forced to overnight in the middle of nowhere in the “real” Columbia. On said night, we reluctantly accepted accommodation at a less-than-sterile location. Not realizing the full severity of our decision until the next day, we were fully informed as I discovered multiple cockroaches crawling out of my handlebar bag and up my hands as we rode out of town. The final count after going through all of our things to shake out the lovely little critters, was dozens. Amy, who now has a near-fatal case of the heebeegeebees has chronicled the event for those interested in the gory details:  Suffice it to say, not a pleasant experience, but no harm done either. As they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. All part of the fun!

 Another interesting event, actually more of a realization, was our need to switch accommodation here in Popayan due to a group of young partying Colombians sharing our space. From what we have gathered thus far, Colombians (perhaps all Latin Americans) seem to have an infinite tolerance for noise, or I should say, an infinite ability to create it. No matter where, or when, or in what situation, there doesn’t seem to be any inter-personal boundaries to noise. Walking into a hotel or hostel at 3 am and turning on all electronic devices in a room and engaging in a spirited conversation about the night’s events seems entirely acceptable regardless of the proximity to other people. Similarly, any amount of shouting, yelling, music, vehicle horns, and/or any other kinds of loud noise at any time of day or night, appears to be entirely normal to everyone involved regardless of the situation. Needless to say, getting a reasonably peaceful sleep has become a top priority and challenge for us – it’s never entirely quiet, but sometimes it’s at least reasonable. Interesting facet of life here.

 Taking a couple of days off to walk the lovely streets of Popayan has been our recent agenda. The good food, including a local specialty of peanut-sauce empendas, has been a nice treat. Tomorrow we hit the road again with our sights on Pasto, the last of the big towns in Columbia. There is, of course, the ubiquitous large descent followed by the large climb to deal with. By our calculations it should take 4 days to cover the 250 kms. Hopefully cockroach free! With Pasto under our belts, we will be within striking distance of Ecuador, and onto the next phase of the adventure. I believe Ecuador is quite J

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Almost a record day yesterday, but not quite.  143 kms. Our previous record of 144 kms in a day was set in Cuba and still holds. As expected, and a very pleasant change of pace, the 233 kms ride from Salento began with a 1000 m descent – mostly coasting which was fun! – followed by about 150 kms of flats. What a difference. It felt like we were floating. Just the hum of rubber on pavement. I love that sound. It’s the sound of effortless progress. The progress is made easier by the abundance of great pavement in this country. We are both amazed at the quality of roads in Colombia. Most of the time we’re enjoying the luxury of sharing a nice wide paved shoulder with the odd horse cart or broken down motorbike. We assume the obvious reason for such high quality pavement is the frequency of toll stations (aka peaje), which we are delighted to report are free for cyclists. We even get our own lane!

We didn’t plan on a big day yesterday, it just worked out that way. As the afternoon passed, and we didn’t find anywhere to stay for the night (or I should say, anywhere acceptable to us...we were being fussy since the riding was easy), all of a sudden we were seeing signs for Cali and decided we might as well just ride it out. As an incentive, we knew there was a hostel with a pool with our name on it in Cali. Helped by a relatively easy city to navigate and surprisingly reasonable rush-hour traffic, we made it to the El Viajera (trans: “the traveler”) hostel in time for a couple of poolside cervezas. It was a good decision.

Leaving the zona cafetera behind us, we have entered the flatter and hotter lowlands of Cali. Although, what we gave up in topography we also gave up in scenery. We are firmly back in the land of endless sugar cane fields, and of course, hotter temps. Elevation is everything here in terms of temps. At 1000 m, Cali is hot. Not Cartegena hot though with it’s 100% humidity. And, it cools off at night in Cali, which makes for good sleeping. All in all, a pretty decent climate, and probably the reason why there’s a city of 3.5 million here.

We aren’t here for the long term, just a stopover. Not much to report in terms of what Cali looks like, since we aren’t planning on any serious sightseeing. Today is a rest day to refuel, relax beside the pool, take advantage of the free yoga, and, of course, the free salsa lessons. Cali is, after all, the salsa capital of the world. In fact, it seems that many of the travelers here are here specifically to take salsa lessons and take in the salsa club scene. By all accounts, it’s a very happening scene. First sign we saw on the way into the hostel was “salsa party tonight at Siboney’s [a local salsa club]: 8 pm till dawn”. Since 8 pm is about our bed time, we took a pass on that one.  We might be able to squeeze in the 7 pm lesson, provided it doesn’t go too long J

Tomorrow the drive continues south towards the city of Popayan – reported to be a very charming colonial city and UNESCO world heritage site know for it’s food (perplexing given the lack of gastronomical adventures so far in Columbia). We’re both looking forward to that. As referred to previously, what goes down must come back up here in the Andes (you just have to learn to put that out of your mind as you whiz downhill). The next few days involves a nice little climb (crawl) back up into the mountains. We can feel that mountain air already. More soon.