Ecuador: home of The Galapagos, volcanoes and, uh… Antonio Valencia. It’s safe to say I didn’t know much about the equatorial meat in the Colombia/Peru sandwich and was curious to find out more. The Colombians I’d asked unsurprisingly told me Colombia is far more bacano (cool) and that while Ecuadorians are friendly they’re not as warm as their northern neighbours. Oh, and their food sucks (uh, pot kettle black?).
Upon crossing the border my first impressions were pretty good. Tulcan, the Ecuadorian border town is much nicer than its Colombian equivalent and everything seemed tidier and more orderly. The town square was really big and well tended, filled with smartly dressed kids in school uniform and as it was woman’s day all the girls were wielding roses. I made a bee-line for the town cemetery (always my first port of call) as it’s famed for it’s impressive topiary and with all the couples sneaking around the hedges and flirting on the grass it felt more like a public park. What kind of cemetery has its own snack bar anyway?
In Colombia when you order lunch you’re always given a choice of meats to go with your rice, plantains and whatever other exciting sides (aka. beans) are available. At my first generic Ecuadorian lunch place the waiter gave me no options and the meat turned out to be a sad burger, minus the bun. Later while ordering a street kebab I asked the lady what the most defining, stereotypical Ecuadorian food was (every country has its fish and chips, ceviche or schnitzel, right?) After a good minute of consideration she couldn’t think of a single thing. Maybe the Colombians were right after all.
Following in the tracks of various cycle blogs, I found the statue of the Third Reich dwarf in front of the modernist church and took a turn off the beaten track up towards the paramo. The next few hours were easily some of the best cycling of the trip. The dirt path up into the hills was a pleasure to ride and the rain clouds that threatened to put a dampener on proceedings stayed just out of reach. The muted splendor of the paramo – sparse but not barren, quiet but not calm – moved me somehow. I wish I could paint so I could capture how unsettlingly beautiful it is up there.
The rest of the paramo proved to be an endless sea of frailejones with thousands of the curious looking things peeling off in all directions. There wasn’t another person for miles and after a couple of hours with only the frailejones for company I started to feel like they were watching me. So upon reaching the highest altitude of the trip (3800m) I was relieved to escape the clutches of those weird pineapple-lookin’ mofos and rejoin civilisation.
The countryside on the way down to El Angel – neat little green and brown fields under a low hanging, slate grey sky – could easily have been Devon were it not for the volcanoes looming in the distance. However, 20km further south I descended into a dusty, arid valley which was about as different from the Westcountry as imaginable. These sudden changes in backdrop, eerie paramo to English countryside to arid dust bowl, all in the space of 30km, were by far the most drastic I’ve encountered. It was hard to believe I was in the same country, let alone that I’d only cycled a few kilometres down the road.
After 7 hours on the saddle I pulled into Salinas in hope of finding a cheap hospedaje but boy has that town seen better days. The waterpark was all dried up, the townspeople wandered the streets like phantoms and the less said about the salt museum the better (hard to believe that wasn’t a hit). A more dismal town has rarely befallen human eyes and I laid my hopes on the next name on the map, Tumbabiro, which proved to be a quaint slice of country life. I followed the signs to Resedencia Tio Lauro and was greeted by the man himself to his cluster of 70s style cottages.
Tumbabiro gets a trickle of tourists due to the nearby hot springs in Chachimbiro and I considered paying them a visit, before I realised that stewing in hot water on my own would be fun for all of about 5 minutes. Tio Lauro gifted me a bundle of avocados from his tree and after saying goodbye I set off south for Ibarra.
To the northeast of Ibarra lies La Laguna de Yahuarcocha and I lazily cycled the circumference, enjoying the fresh air and the double cycle lane. On the far side the racetrack was abuzz and I joined the locals in watching through the fence. Behind the racetrack was a little German run campsite called Sommerwind and the prospect of a warm shower and wifi to watch the Spurs game was too good to pass up. After haggling down the price by a dollar to the annoyance of Herr Sommerwind, I dumped my stuff and went in search of cheap munch. Having filled my belly at a petrol station cafe I realised I’d picked up a puncture and had to walk my bike 5km back to the campsite. Ballbags.
Next stop: 2 weeks of volunteering on a farm near Otavalo
Tunes: Sun Kil Moon – Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood, Nirvana – In Utero, Radiohead – Amnesiac
Reads: Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman, Brighton Rock – Graham Greene, The Art of Asking – Amanda Palmer
Route: Tulcan – El Angel – Tumbabiro – Ibarra