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Cali, Colombia to Otavalo, Ecuador

posted Aug 3, 2010, 1:52 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Aug 3, 2010, 6:38 PM ]
From Cali, I had to ride about 80 miles to my next destination, Popayan. I decided to stay at the hostel until checkout time at 11AM, and ride 30 miles to the next large town, Santander. My first impressions of Santander weren't very good. On the way into town, there was more of the usual sloppy brick construction that is common on the outskirts of cities and in poorer towns. I rode around for a while looking for hotels and getting prices. The nicer hotels were toward the outside of town surprisingly, and the one I ended up staying at had huge rooms, but was priced slighly higher than I would have liked. (Probably around $12.) 

That night I walked into town looking for something to eat. Santander ended up being divided into an older colonial area on the East side of the main road, and a newer, but not very nice section on the West side. The colonial area was pretty extensive, but being a regular town and not a tourist destination, the buildings weren't very well maintained. 

Pizza has been one of my staple foods in Colombia; it's easy to find, usually pretty good, and actually isn't bad energy food for a bike tourist. It's also usually pretty cheap, which is a bonus. I found a pizza place that night and learned from the owner that the town had about 80,000 people, was a few hundred years old, and that all the commotion in the town center was part of the celebrations for Colombia's 200 years of independence from Spain. 

After finishing, I headed back to the square where the stage was just about ready and people were gathering. Later that night there was supposed to be some Salsa dancing there. I sat around until about 9PM and nothing was happening, and finally I gave up and walked back to the hotel. 

The next day I stopped in town to get something for breakfast, and found another touring cyclist there. His name was Gabrielle and he was from Spain. Since he was also headed into Popayan we decided to leave town together. Our climb started right outside of town, and lasted more or less the next 50 miles to Popayan. Without a tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, pot, pan, computer, etc., Gabrielle was travelling much lighter than me and having an easier time with the hills. 

I've tried to spare you all from my Spanish rantings lately, but on this day there were a couple things worth talking about. As I've said before, in the smaller towns I've had more problems understanding people and being understood, but I have made a huge amount of progress during my almost two months in Colombia (hard to believe it's been that long, isn't it?). One of the first things Gabrielle asked me was if it was hard for me to understand people in that area. This wasn't because of the fact that I'm a native English speaker, but because he is a native Spanish speaker and had trouble understanding them himself! Earlier in Colombia, I had talked to some Argentinians, who spoke very clear Spanish, and they also had the same complaint. The Colombian FedEx girl in Bucaramanga also laughed when I said I couldn't understand anything the people in the smaller towns said. So as frustrating as it was, and not knowing if the problem was just my own lack of Spanish skills, or something else, it was good to hear that even native Spanish speakers have the same difficulties. 

Gabrielle had lived in Sweeden for a year, where apparently everyone speaks English, but for some reason he still prefered to speak Spanish while we were riding together. That was fine with me, since I try to practice as much as possible. Later in the day we stopped for drinks, and I was talking to the owner of the store who, as I was leaving, spontaneously complimented me on my Spanish. Also, back in Zipaquira, Miguel's wife had said I spoke like the people there! I'm pretty sure I'm not THAT good, but I'm definitely improving, and I'm pretty happy with my progress at this point. OK, that's enough about Spanish for now!!

It took us almost all day to get to Popayan, which was having some of it's own Bicentential celebrations. I stayed at the HostelTrail hostel, which was pretty nice, but everything was on the second floor and divided into two sections. To get between the sections I'd have to go down a floor, then back up to the other. Just after arriving, I was greeted by Carolina, who I had met way back in Villa de Leyva (one of the girls eating figs in that photo album.) Since it had been about two weeks since we met, we had some catching up to do and agreed to head out to dinner with some other people that night. Unfortunately, they left while I was in the shower, but I got back to my room to find a note on some good bread saying they couldn't find me, but here was an appetizer. I went out later looking for a Mexican restaurant, which ended up being closed and I got some Chinese instead - also good energy food and generally cheap with good sized portions. 

I took the next two days off, instead of the one I had planned. The town was pretty nice, but a little boring. This may have been due to the fact that EVERYTHING is painted white, or maybe just because I had seen enough Colombian colonial villages by that point. Mostly I just relaxed for the two days, which, when I thought about it, was pretty rare for me. Usually I'll take a day off to do something, or see something, or if I'm forced to because I'm sick or there's bad weather. A couple days off for the sake of a couple days off almost never happens. 

After Popayan, the next destination town was Pasto. I had heard from Matt that he and the other two guys did that section in three days, which seemed a bit much, and I decided to do it in a more comfortable four. The first day I rode "downhill" to the town of El Bordo. There's almost never an easy downhill in Colombia, and although I finished at about 3000 feet lower than where I started, I still spent probably half the day climbing. There was nothing too noteworthy in El Bordo, and if I had known about it, I would have continued a little farther on to a campground a few miles from town. 

The next day was more or less flat, but with enough rolling hills to keep my legs working. I was down at around 2000 feet all day, and it was hot again; about 85 degrees. I stopped a few times for drinks and snacks, and one place had some Fla-Vor-Ice knockoffs for 5 cents each. Toward the end of the day, I stopped for a drink and heard about a guy who was walking from Kansas to Chile, and I met up with him just a little farther down the road. Actually, I didn't meet him right away, but his crew, which included drivers for 3 or 4 vehicles, some support staff, and other people who were walking with him for this section. At the time, he was asleep in a camper with air conditioning. Yes, I was more than a little jealous. 

We all stayed at the same hotel that night at a small "truck stop" type town, but didn't really see each other. I got a burger across the street that night, and after my first question to the waitress, she said something equivilent to "Oh my god! I don't speak English! Sorry! Could you speak Spanish please!". Argh!!! She was a cute Colombian girl though, so after a deep breath I said exactly the same thing, only a little more slowly, and she could understand perfectly. 

Over the next 60 miles or so, there was over 9500 feet of climbing. Stopping at the truckstop was "strategic" in that it put me at the base of the first climb. The next day I'd only have to climb 3000 feet or so, and then descend 2000 into a valley, before the next climb of 6500 feet. The walkers usually leave at about 3AM, so it was a few hours until I caught them again. I stopped at a much smaller truck stop that night, which wasn't quite as far as I planned to go, but it was all downhill to where I would have stopped, and someone said there was nowhere to eat at the next place. I also got a room for $4, which was a new record for me. 

The next day started with the remainder of the descent, which went through a tunnel with a kick-ass echo, and over a bridge, before starting the slow and steady grind to Pasto. The previous three days had some incredible scenery, but this day had them all beat. The day ended with a downhill of about 1500 feet, then a small uphill into Pasto. I stayed at the Koala Inn, where I spent the next two nights. 

Not far from Pasto is the Laguna de la Cocha, a scenic mountain lake. I took a cab there and back for only a few bucks, and even though my legs needed the rest, I couldn't help think of how much I was missing by being in a car. The forest on the sides of the roads was incredibly dense, and there were some great views down to the lake on the approach. The town that's closest to the lake has about 100 family owned restaurants, and an equal number of boats that will take you out for a spin around the lake for about $5 US. I decided to keep my feet on dry land and just walk around taking pictures of all the colorful houses and boats, and I later got something to eat.

A "collectivo" is like a taxi, but it won't leave until it's full, or until the passenger or passengers pay for the empty seats. This calls for a bit of patience since there's no guarantee that there will be people going the same way you are. Something off topic, but worth mentioning is that I should have made a list of all the nice things Colombians have done for me during my time here, but one from today that was noteworthy was the person who walked me to the collectivo terminal in Pasto after I only asked for directions. When I was ready to go back, I was told that a van could take me there, and the driver said he just needs 7 more people. Seven more people! I told him I didn't think there were that many people in the town, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference. After waiting for a while, he told me to take a smaller collectivo, which already had other passengers. This one only took me to the next small town, where I had to change again to another car, which brought me all the way back to Pasto. 

Next stop, Ipiales; the last city in Colombia! Matt and the other guys had tried to ride the 50 miles in one day. One made it, the other two stopped just 7 miles short of town. Again I decided that rather than killing myself, I'd take it easy and do it in a day and a half. That would also give me time to see "Las Lajas", a cathedral which spans a gorge, on the afternoon of the second day. 

The first day started with a decent climb, then an incredible descent that seemed like it would never end. At one point I laughed out loud because it just kept going. Just before the climb had started, it was about 45 degrees, and I bought a hot chocolate to warm up. At the bottom, it was 75 degrees and I was hot in my t-shirt. I was feeling great when I started climbing again from the bottom, and rode through the town where I should have stopped for the night. There was another small town a little farther down the road and some people there told me about "San Juan", the next town with hotels. Not really having any options, and still feeling good, I kept climbing in the direction of San Juan, and past a truck stop where I'd really recommend that people stop along this route - only because it's the last chance more than any other reason. Finally it was getting dark and since I knew I wouldn't make it to San Juan, I started looking for a place to camp. There was one potential spot along the climb (which by the way is carved into the side of a cliff on the side of a valley) where there was a small grassy area right next to a waterfall. How cool. I wasn't fully comfortable stopping there though, and rode a little farther until I came across a "peninsula" that jutted out into the valley. There was a double-track trail up a small hill, then a trail out in the direction of the peninsula. I felt pretty certain that no one could see me there, so that's where I set up my tent for the night. The view was bind blowing. I could see down to the river at the bottom of the valley, and across to the other side which was covered by farms. There were a few small homes in the distance, and I imagined that their occupants are mostly subsistance farmers, since there were no roads - only trails - leading out of the valley.

Because I hadn't planned to camp, my supplies were a little low and I had just enough water to drink that night and the next morning, which meant no cooking. My dinner ended up being an apple, bananna, mixed nuts and some cookies I had bought with my hot chocolate. Not a bad meal, considering the circumstances.

I finished the climb the next day. San Juan wasn't too much farther, and I probably could have made it the night before, but unfortunately there's no way to know when or where I'll pass a town. After checking into a hotel in Ipiales, I asked the manager how to get to Las Lajas (another collectivo) and after resting a bit, left at about 3PM. Again, there were great views along the drive that I regretted not being able to see, and more importantly take pictures of, from my bike. The cathedral itself was OK. There are many plaques on the walk down into the gorge, and the site has the second most claimed miracles in the world. (I wished for a hamburger but it didn't appear). 

The next day was very short mileage-wise, but - I crossed into Ecuador!!! Yeehaa! Colombia was great, but after spending nearly two months there, I had been ready for a change. Ecuador also has some incredible scenery, which I can't wait to see, and (drumroll please..) I decided that I can't be in Ecuador without making a trip to the Galapagos Islands! I'll make all the arrangements when I reach Quito, but the general plan is to fly to the islands, then take a 7 or 8 day cruise, which is supposed to be the best way to experience the islands and most importantly, the wildlife that led to Darwin's theory of evolution. Can't wait!

There were a couple reasons why I decided to take a short day to cross the border. The first was that the timing was right for me to see the Friday indigenous market in Ipiales, and the second was that I wanted to take a dirt road instead of the Pan American highway through the first part of Ecuador. I ended up being too anxious to go to the market, and instead rode straight to the border. 

After spending the night in Tulcan, on the Ecuadorian side of the border, I headed off to Las Juntas, where the dirt road veered away from the Pan American highway, and into the Paramo. (An online dictionary tells me that a paramo is "a high plateau in the Andes between the tree line and the permanent snow line"). The road was generally in good shape, but there was a steady climb and progress was slow. The area is incredibly remote and barren, with almost no homes and no cars, and the only sounds would be the occasional chirping bird or buzzing fly. Surprisingly I met a group of mountain bikers who were just riding through the area for the day, and later two guys who were "light touring" up to Bogota.

I reached the lodge of the reserve in the late afternoon, and I probably could have finished the downhill ride to El Angel before dark. The location was great though, and just like during my excursion into the mountains of Colombia, I knew I had to camp there. There are two small lakes set in an incredible landscape just over a hill from the lodge, and I hiked over to see them just before sunset. 

I was allowed to camp for free inside a small BBQ building, which was good since there was rain that night, as usual. I was also better prepared than I had been during my last night of camping in Colombia, and I cooked a whole box of Macaroni and Cheese for dinner. It was just slightly above freezing before I went to bed, and I prepared for the cold night by boiling about 3 liters of water, and then pouring it into two water bottles that I put into my sleeping bag for some extra warmth. Even though the temperature dropped to a few degrees below freezing, I stayed warm all night. I'll definitely have to use that trick again. (OK, I also had a long sleeve shirt, two jackets, leg warmers and pants on.)

The next day I had a huge 7000 foot downhill to an elevation of 5000 feet, followed by about a 2000 foot climb into Ibarra. The section of downhill before the town of El Angel was still unpaved and I had to go pretty slow. After that it was all paved, with a good size climb after the town of Mira, and then more descending into a desert-like landscape.

That left me with only 14 miles or so and a 1500ish foot climb to get to Otavalo, where I've taken the day off. My plan now is to arrive just outside of Quito tomorrow (after crossing the equator!!) and then navigate through the city the next day. Hopefully I'll be able to find a Galapagos tour pretty quickly, after which I'll fly out to the islands and hop on a boat for the following week or so.



Beginning: Cali
Lines at:
1. Santander
2. Popayan (rolling climbing pretty much all day)
3. El Bordo (descent with plenty of climbing)
4. I can't remember the name of this town, and it wasn't on any of my maps (hilly)
5. Truck stop before tunnel (3000 feet of climbing)
6. Pasto (6500 feet of climbing)
7. Steath campsite before San Juan (4000+ feet of climbing)
8. Ipiales (2000 feet of climbing)
9. Tulcan (short with a climb after the border)
10. El Angel Ecological Reserve (2000 feet of climbing to 12,000 feet on a gravel road)
11. Ibarra (big descent, then a 2000 foot climb to Ibarra)
Finish: Otavalo (short ride with maybe 1500 feet of climbing)


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