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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Ruta Spondylus

Previously known as Ruta del Sol (the sun highway), the road south along the coast of Ecuador is now known as Ruta Spondylus (as far as I can gather, spondylus is species of shell found on the beaches). According to some sources, the name change occurred because the “sun” part was only accurate for half the year; the other half being cloudy and drizzly. That’s the half we seem to be stuck in. Not entirely uncomfortable, and actually great for cycling given that it’s not blasting tropical heat during the day, Amy’s pretty suicidal these days and ready to be transported somewhere sunny. Like a plant, she needs sun to prosper. I have to admit myself the constant cloud (and drizzle from time to time) really makes things gloomy, and turns each dirty old town into a very dirty old town.

Speaking of dirty old towns, it’s been an eventful past few days. From Canoa we cycled to a small sleepy fishing village called San Jacinto. Pulling into town and wondering what’s what, a rather large pink-skinned bald gringo with a prominent white beard and large black sunglasses (could only have been an expat) caught our eye. Figuring he would be an easy source of info, we quizzed him for only a few seconds on accommodation options before he insisted we stay with him. We graciously accepted and ended staying for 3 nights at his house along with his french wife Patricia.

Marshall is a wonderfully generous guy who left the rat race of a high-stress contracting business in southern California to retire and live the rest of his life on the shores of Ecuador. Being a contractor-developer kinda guy, he had all the ins and outs on buying property and building houses in the area. It was 3 days of “how to be an expat 101”. According to Marshall, the coast of Ecuador is the cheapest place in the Americas to buy and build a retirement home on the ocean. As part of our course we took the property tour, went to the expat bar for drinks and met everyone, and had dinner with the locals. As an added bonus, he arranged for his buddy Andre from Sudbury (Ontario) to drive us in his car into the bigger town of Portoviajo to have Amy’s wheel trued and pick up a replacement helmet (which was recently cracked, for those who have read her accident report).  

Living the expat life for a few days was pretty good, a little too good J It was very hard to leave the comforts of a real house, with real beds and real things (like a coffee maker, a toaster, a microwave...things generally unknown here), but alas, as in the past, the dream must be kept alive and we kissed them goodbye and continued south. It was even harder to leave since the day we picked to leave, was the only day the sun has shined in weeks. Although, it was nice to ride in the sun for a day.

Along the route we spent the night in a place called Montecristi – locally famous as a craft centre for all things woven, including a world-famous hat erroneously referred to as the “Panama Hat”. It would seem that back in the day (and continuing to this day), Ecuador, and particularly Montecristi, was/is the epicentre of the woven hat industry. Here they more accurately call them a sombrero de paja toquilla, which means “toquilla straw hat”, with toquilla being a fibrous species of palm (the raw material for the hat) which is indigenous (i.e., doesn’t grow anywhere else) to this area of Ecuador. Anywho, back in the day, the hats were shipped all over the world, via ports in Panama, and hence they became known as Panama hats, instead of Montecristi hats or some such thing. Bit of a sore point here from what we can gather. “It is NOT a Panama hat!”

From Montecristi the route was a bit inland and then over a hump – a rather large 500 m vertical hump – back to the coast to a place called Puerto Cayo. The ride over the hump, although a bit tiring, was fascinating in that we went from the scrub-deserts of the leeward side – dominated by Ceiba trees, a large thick-stemmed tropical tree –  to the wet cloud forests of the windward side. As far as either of us could recall, this was our first cloud-forest experience. True to the name, it’s simply a mountain slope facing the ocean that is drenched in more or less continual mist, fog, and drizzle, and therefore incredibly lush and verdant. Unfortunately, it’s an ecosystem in peril in these parts.

Puerto Cayo turned out to be another dirty old town located on a beautiful stretch of beach that you could land as many 747s as you wanted to. This morning we woke up to drizzle and decided to forge ahead and see if the next town was a little less dirty. A soaking wet (although not cold) ride through the mist and drizzle brought us to Puerto Lopez, a....wait for it, another dirty old town on a ginormous and gorgeous stretch of beach. Upon getting to town we found a fantastic little spot on the beach serving endless hot coffee (Nescafe...actually getting very used to instant) and breakfast – pretty much exactly what we needed in our tired wet state. With only 36 kms under our belts, we figured that was enough riding through the drizzle and found a bamboo cabana (with ensuite bathroom!) overlooking the beach for the night.

The plan: keep going south in search of more beaches, more dirty old towns, and of course, the sun.  ¡Hasta luego!


Sunday, October 20, 2013

Heading south

So much for tropical Ecuador. While the sun probably does shine here occasionally, it hasn’t shown its face once in the past 4 or 5 days since we have been here in Canoa. We have yet to jump into the ocean, which is usually the first call of business upon arriving at a beach in the tropics. Apparently the constant cloud cover (and occasional drizzle) is normal for this time of year. It’s actually a very nice temperature; not hot, not cold. Although, far too cool for Amy, who has now set her sights on potentially sunnier pastures.

The past few days, however, have been very relaxing. Lots of reading, and of course, the long drawn out meal planning. It’s funny how meal planning and execution become major events when travelling. Starting at about noon, talk turns to what grocery supplies we have, what we can do with them for dinner, and then what else we need to obtain. That is then followed by a trip into town to obtain said items, followed by the pre-preparation cocktails, followed soon thereafter by the initiation of the meal preparation, and of course the meal itself. If we do it right, we can draw it all out so that everything ends just in time for bed. A perfect use of 9 hours. J

On a completely unrelated topic, a fascinating observation from our travels thus far in SA: smoking, or lack thereof, is almost non-existent here. Although becoming rarer everywhere, we are both struck by the virtual invisibility of smoking here. Prohibido Fumar (no smoking) signs are everywhere, thankfully, including buses and restaurants. It would be difficult to find someone smoking here. The only smokers we ever encounter are the young coolio travellers in hostels who are still in their young-and-stupid phase. Silly gringos.

Interesting unrelated observation number 2: Ecuadorians are way quieter and chill than Columbians. The change was instant as soon as we crossed the border, and has now been officially confirmed. Ecuadorians are simply quieter and more reserved, and thankfully recognize the unwritten and universal rules and regulations of “quiet time” from 9 pm to 7 am that we also employ. Thank god. No sleep for a year would have been a long haul. We are glad to report that is no longer a major concern, and there isn’t a loud middle-of-the-night TV in sight.

So Canoa. As alluded to previously, kind of a dirty old town, complete with dirt roads, unregulated bars and restaurants on the beach, and the iconic pack of stray dogs wandering around doing their business wherever it suits them. In other words, not a lot to recommend for the town itself. The area, however, is big and beautiful. At low tide, the beach is ginormous and goes off in either direction as far as you can see. So far, the megaresorts and other developers have skipped this area, giving it a relatively uninhabited feel.

There are definitely a few expats around though. Last night we attended a happy-hour bash on the beach in town. The place was run by an English woman and seemed to be ground-zero for the expat crowd. Lots of long gray hair, lots of Hawaiian shirts and gold chains, and lots of stories of what brought them to the north coast of Ecuador. For you Kootenay folks, one guy we met, believe it or not, is from Winlaw! Yep, Planet Winlaw. We didn’t ask him how he made his fortune J In another “it’s a small world” encounter, the place we are staying at (Sundown Hotel, highly recommended for those wanting a chill place on the beach) is owned by a guy originally from Kelowna. He’s been here for 25 or so years, married an Ecuadorian, had and raised Ecuadorian kids, and is just about to move into his new house on the beach, which is being built as I type. Nice house! We took the tour, took the pics, and have safely stored away the ideas. Who knows, we may be back one day to browse through the se vende listings....

Tomorrow the march south continues. From here the road goes south along the coast, which is perfect for us. Coastal cycling, gotta love it. One beach to the next. We’re not entirely sure what our stops will be, but we’ll figure it out as we go. If the sun comes out, we might be convinced to stop and enjoy it for a while. More soon. Hasta luego.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

La Costa!

We’re back on the ocean! (costa = coast) Last time we saw the ocean was two months ago in Cartegena. However, that was the Atlantic (Caribbean), this is the Pacific. Totally different J

The 4-day ride from the mountains of Quito to the coast was a bit of an epic. Epic bad, not epic good. It all started out well enough with our ride out of the big smoke on a Sunday, which we learned from our Medellin exit, is the day they close off city roads and set up a bike lane travelling through the length of the city. With the sun shining and zero traffic issues, it was a nice ride towards the pass marking the long descent to the coast.

We were pretty stoked and looking forward to the 3200-m descent from the pass down to sea level. There aren’t too many places in the world you can roll a bike down 3200 vertical meters of pavement. As we approached the pass, sun gave way to cloud which gave way to fog and drizzle. By the time we got to the pass it was downright cold, windy, and wet. With no accommodation options in sight, and hoping it would get better as we descended, we wrapped ourselves in gortex and plunged into the fog and drizzle. Not overly uncomfortable, the temperature did indeed increase as we initiated our fast descent. The biggest letdown though was the zero visibility, meaning we never did get the fantastic views of our surroundings, which are reported to be stunning. You win some, you lose some. 

Drizzle turned to rain as we continued downward. Again, not critical, just unfortunate given the lack of views. Things were generally fine, other than the weather. Then the one unthinkable thing most feared by cyclists everywhere occurred – the high-speed front-tire blowout. As I was zipping downwards with the wind in my hair joyfully winding in and around large cargo trucks, I heard the bang as my front tire exploded, felt the 1-second wobble, and before I knew what was happening, I was skipping along the pavement like a flat stone on water – my bike and everything I own skipping along in front of me. The worst part, of course, was the fact that this was a highway full of large transport traffic, and no doubt, barrelling down the mountain right behind me. Amazingly, I came to a stop after a slide and a couple rolls, stood up without major injury, and had the 3 seconds I needed to sweep up my bike and scattered contents before the next steamroller truck passed by. The look on the driver’s face was one of utter disbelief. Yardsale gringo in the middle of the highway! That probably didn’t come up in truck-driving school.

 Anywhooo, whew, after a bit of side-of-the-road decompression, the only evidence that anything out of the ordinary had occurred was some road rash on my lower leg, a shredded Patagonia windbreaker, and the palm of a leather glove worn through to the skin. Oh, and of course a blown-out front tire. The bike was otherwise fine, except for slightly skewed handlebars. An incredibly fortunate outcome all things considered.

Funny though, the downhill slide in events continued. While replacing my front tube with a spare, it really started to rain (like it wasn’t raining already). More gortex. Then, just as we were packing up the tools and getting ready to roll, Amy announced that her rear tire was flat. wtf!? Giving up the fight, we found a small bus shelter nearby and hobbled over to it. In the relative security of the bus shelter, we fixed Amy’s tire and waited in vain for the rain to stop. After realizing that our wait could extend into darkness, and that we needed to get to the next town and find a place to stay, we launched into the rain and truck traffic again. Once is an exception, twice is a trend, right? No more than 3 minutes passed and I again heard the telltale bang as my front tire exploded and blew off. Fortunately, given our state of mind, we were crawling down the hill at low speed and I simply grinded to a stop. OK, is this day ever going to end? With the second tube destroyed, I had only one remaining tube. Not taking any chances, we had to replace the front tire with the spare tire, which meant digging to the bottom of the panniers, in the rain, and replacing the entire tube and tire. We did, and eventually rolled downward through the rain to the next dirty old town which could not come soon enough. Any port in a storm as they say. But the shower was hot, and the beer was cold, and we finally put that day to bed just before dark.

Back on the road the next day, mountains gave way to bananas, sand, and surf. The next few days brought us to the coast via a larger town called Santo Domingo, where we were able to find a good replacement tire (the original being unceremoniously thrown out) and to replenish our supply of spare tubes. Pizza for lunch as well, which was a nice find!  Arriving on the coast at a place called Pedernales was a bit underwhelming given the cloud and drizzle, which continued, but was a welcome overnight stop. The coast here seems quite beautiful, despite the constant cloud cover at the moment. Signs of development are plentiful – no doubt the area is on the ex-pat radar.

 So here we are in Canoa – a small surf town on the coast of northern Ecuador. The town itself is a bit of a dirtbag town (the theme song of the past four days has been the Pogue’s “Dirty Old Town”, which goes around and around our heads while riding), but we found a very nice budget place right on the beach, just outside town – about a 15-mins walk along a huge and mostly deserted beach to town. The plan for the moment is up in the air. We definitely feel the need to stay here for a while and relax, lie in a hammock, and watch the ocean. Hopefully the sun will come out. In the meantime, una mas cerveza por favor!


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Quilotoa and the Central Highlands

Believe it or not, a couple thousand kilometers of cycling does not prepare the body for a backpacking mission. As they say “you’re using different muscles”. Despite the stiff back, calves and thighs in the morning (OK, and a couple blisters on the feet), it was a great change of pace and scenery. The mission started with a 1.5-hr bus ride south of Quito to the town of Latacunga – a good base for exploring the Central Highlands. As an aside, buses here are insanely cheap (about $1 an hour; do the math, the bus to Latacunga costs $1.50), and amazingly comfortable and efficient. The days of the chicken bus are over (here at least).

From Latacunga it was another 2-hr bus ride through the mountains to a collection of houses and guesthouses called Quilotoa – aptly named for its location right on the rim of the Quilotoa Caldera, a massive (3-km diameter) lake-filled volcano crater perched high in the Andes. Upon our first views of the crater, we both decided it is one of those places where photos in guidebooks don’t come close to capturing the moment. It really is spectacular and worth every effort to get there. We stayed until the sun went down, at which time the temps plummeted to well below what we were dressed for. At 3900 m, Quilotoa is a cool place most of the time, and downright freezing at night – definitely down jacket weather (which we have, so all good).

Our night at the Hostal Alpaca was nice and cozy – huge down duvets, and, woodstoves in every room. Nice! We got that baby cranking! Even Amy was warm...a rarity these days. Although, neither of us slept well due to the altitude. I had a headache all night (a symptom of altitude sickness) which made me a bit nervous (flashbacks to Lhasa, for those of you who know that story). But, a couple of ibuprofen in the morning, followed by hiking down in elevation (to our next destination) the next day did the trick. Thankfully, there are no further elevation-related issues to report.

In the morning we had a spectacular hike around the crater. We won the weather lottery and had incredible 360-degree views (although it was insanely windy). We had heard reports from other travellers of being up in the fog for days and basically seeing only their feet, so we were happy about that. From the crater it was down, up, and through the hills for 3 days of village to village hiking – very reminiscent of trekking in Nepal. That could be one of the most unique and enjoyable experiences on the planet (other than cycle touring of course): self-sufficient hiking through remote communities in the far corners of the planet. Although not entirely roadless in this case, we might have seen 3 vehicles in 3 days along the way. The highlight of such an activity is simply experiencing the small villages and people along the way living their lives and going through their daily routines. That feeling of being an alien from another planet – while standing in our Smith sunglasses and gortex jackets beside a little old lady from the 15th century – never goes away.

Accom along the way was surprisingly great. Ecuadorians seem to have figured out the hostel thing and layout clean comfortable spaces with good food. And cheap. $12 pp including dinner and breakfast.  It’s kind of weird being in the middle of nowhere and enjoying a blasting hot shower, warm comfy beds, and home-cooked meals. But we’re not complaining, we’ll take it!

Interestingly, despite the area’s huge potential for more of this kind of “eco-tourism” (for lack of a better term), there is no map and only the occasional signage along trails. Armed with only text descriptions (e.g., “find the trail on the right going up the hill”) and hand-scrawled not-to-scale maps, finding your way around is the challenge. The dinner table conversation with other travellers was mostly about who got the most lost during the day. In a hilarious story, a French couple described to us how they were tailing (i.e., following at a distance) a group of Germans who had hired a local guide. Assuming they could just follow along on auto-pilot, they were surprised when the guide backtracked towards them at one point to ask them if they had a map. The entire crew was lost! They all made it eventually though and we laughed about that over dinner. We’re happy to report that we didn’t get lost that day, and thereby gloriously protected the Canadian image of rugged pioneers of the wilderness among all the Euros.

 So we’re now back in Quito for a couple days to regroup. As mentioned previously, our bikes and most of our gear have been tucked away for the past week. Today we put everything back together and get ready for tomorrow’s ride towards the coast. Should be an exciting ride going from 3000 m to sea level in a span of about 50 kms! Ahhh, we can feel that hot moist tropical air already....more from the coast soon.