Trough the mountains of Ecuador

At the place of the Casta Restaurant and a beautiful view on the white summit of Chimborazo I will let you know what happened during my first days in Ecuador besides the experience of hiking Cotopaxi.

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After we visited the beautiful church in Las Lajas, we had to cross the border to Ecuador. We were still in a group of 4, Tobias, David and Joanne and me. The last view kilometres in Colombia offered us another breattaking landscape. The border-crossing itself was really easy going and with some loud music playing outside the immigration building, it felt like a celebration.

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The first town in Equador was Tulcán, not the most beautiful place, but still worth a visit due to the cemetery. First of all, all cemeteries in Latin America I’ve seen so far are totally different from the ones we have in Germany. They show a more friendly face and white is the dominant colour. Heaps of fresh flowers express, that the church is a big topic for the latin people. The cemetery in Tulcán is outstanding, because the gardeners change the hedges into art.

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The first night in Ecuador we stayed in a rather expensive hotel in San Gabriel. No hostel was available in the village and due to my birthday Internet connection was demanded. The next day we cycled up and down to the lake of Ibarra. A long part of the street to Ibarra was renewed and closed for transit cars, so we four bikers had it more or less on our own. Most of that part was already done and paved, but downhill we bombed down the gravel road through the road wo works. After we arrived the river, which most of the time indicates the turning point, we had do climb up some hundred meters to arrive at the beautiful lagune, close to Ibarra, where two Germans opened the Finca Sommerwind, a campsite for caravans and tents as well as a german café, which opens during the weekends. Hans and Patricia welcomed us and due to some days with a lot of climbing, we decided to stay one more night at their place. We even got baked a good bread by Patricia, which we enjoyed as well as a barbecue and cooking pasta.

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On the road again we passed Otavalo and we’re getting closer to the Equador. And finally behind a corner we crossed the line and entered the southern half of the earth. Two monuments line the streets. One earth – shaped stone, which was built first and is not exactly on the right position, and a sundial, where the non-profit organization Quitsato gave us a very interesting introduction about the place, their work and the alignment of the maps of the world, which they consider to align to the east instead of North,  which became common.

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The last few kilometers to the highest capital on earth on about 2800  meters above the sea level, Quito, was our next destination. With KALARI chocolate in my mouth and music in my ear, I climbed the last ascent to the big urban area. Arrived David and I looked for the Cotopaxi Tour.  Due to the weather forecast we decided to shift the tour by one day, which was the right decision. So the next day was free to discover the old part of Quito, including the highest church in South America, the Basilica de sagrado voto.

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After the amazing tour to the Cotopaxi, David and Joanne went to Germany for the wedding of David’s Sister. They took some of my stuff to Germany to reduce the weight of my bike – another blog entry about the topic of redundant equipment will follow.
Tobias and I went down further south, riding on the so called street of the volcanos. Two times we camped in gardens of locals, visited the market in Pujilí before we arrived Ambato. In the park we dried our tents before we took part in a tour through the museum of Juan Montalvo, who wrote the national anthem of Ecuador and became one of the most important writers of the country. His thoughts had and still have a great impact of the development of Ecuador. His corpse is kept in a big hall next to the museum.

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We left our bikes in the inner yard of the restaurant next to the museum, where we met Leo, the owner of the Casa de Ciclistas by accident. He just dropped his daughter at that place and suddenly introduced to us. A real big coincidence! He gave us the direction to his house, where we met again. Leo, who started to offer his place to ciclists some years ago. In 2011 he started a guest book, which was very in testing to have a look at. On top he told us some stories about other cyclists, who stayed at his place. He owns a bike shop, in which we set up our sleeping accomondation. On our departure he gave us a medal as a present, I eternalized in his guest book and schwup, back on the road.

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The path over Píllaro to Patate was just wonderful, small little villages, lots of agriculture areas and a nice valley down to Patate, from where it is possible to see the before mentioned two volcanos. Currently we are still waiting for the rain to stop, but it is a nice place with partly annoying music, we listen to since we had breakfast.

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Today we will head to Baños and then down into the amazonian area next to Puyo.

Hiking Cotopaxi – experience the power of height

Some weeks ago, David, the Australien cyclist, planted the idea of climbing the Cotopaxi in my mind – the second highest mountain of Ecuador and the second highest active volcano of the world with 5897 meters of altitude.

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Three days ago we finally booked a tour in Quito, cause you need special equipment and a guide to go up to the summit. We have been told to be guided by an english-speaking well trained guy around 30 years old, but finally just one aspect of the description was true.
Yesterday we left early in the morning to get a bus to Papa Guay, a landhouse, some kilometers to the south of Quito, where we had to wait for some hours until we met our 51 year old guide, who could only speak Spanish and where we got our equipment. „These shoes are a bit to big, do you have smaller one’s?“ – „No, we only have this size.“ Very suprised about this, cause its included in the tour but we took what was available. We met another couple from France and the Netherlands, who were going to do the hike as well and shared the same car up tho the Refuge. They also weren’t that happy with their hiking clothes, especially her shoes were to small, so that the dutch girl had blisters the next day. So it felt, that the garage off the equipment was more a second hand store during its clearance sell.
However, we got a nice meal in the landhouse Papa Guay before we left to the national park Cotopaxi, where we walked a first 20 minutes uphill from the parking lot to the refuge José Rivas, which is situated on an altitude of 4864 meters. It was cloudy and it rained a bit, but we were all looking forward to good weather during our hike which would start at one in the morning. The accommodation was renovated a short time ago, offered heaps of space and had 3 big bedrooms containing three floor bunks. Even flat Oled Lights were used to alight the rooms.

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The guide of the other group, who could speak english, gave us four a short introduction about the procedure and the told us the rules in the mountain: every two persons always one guide and build one group, which will stay together during the hike; whatever happens we should only be aware that we are humans and according to this treat each other like this; the weather, the mountain and the condition of the persons determine if it could be necessary to abort the hike.
After dinner, which we had at 6 p.m., we went to bed. Everybody was excited about the upcoming hike and got out of their warm clothes to jump as quick as they could into their sleeping bags. And although I had my doubts I fell asleep very quick. But during the night I woke up cause I had to pee (due to the altitude this happens to me every night since we are in the mountains). Unfortunately the toilet was in the neighbor building and it wasn’t that warm outside, so I went out of my warm sleeping back into the cold night, dressed in my long underwear, big trekking boots, my hard-shell rain jacket and a headlight to relieve my bladder.
At midnight we all went out of bed to enjoy a light breakfast and packed ourselves in at least three layers of clothes. In a good mood, David and me, as well as some othergroups stepped out to crest Cotopaxi. The wind was low, the night clear and ceiling above us was star covered, so perfect condition. After some minutes we reached the glacier and put on our crampons, connected each other with a rope and entered the eternal ice, which also here shrink from year to year. With smalk steps we walked slowly to handle the deoxygenated air. It was very steep inbetween and we had to watch out for little crevasses. In the far distance we could see the lights of the southern part of Quito, down the hill the headlights of the other groups, which were all behind us. After quite a while we made a break to drink some water and eat some chocolate to keep high the sugar level. „5100 meters“, we got answered as we asked for the altitude. We expected to already overcome more.

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We went on and I still have the picture in my mind: the rope in front of me, sometimes loose on the white ground, sometimes more tense which indicated to me to walk a bit faster. It felt like an eternity, step by step up the hill. The whole town of Quito appeared behind the mountain which had hidden it at the beginning. Only lights, snow and ice which accompanied us. Next stop, only 3:40, we shouldn’t ask again, it’s still a long way up. It became colder and David’s hands were freezing, mine as well were getting colder, but still on a bearable level. Since around 5200 meters a weak headache accompanied to my onesided world of going up. The moon appeared. David shook his hand to warm up, but while doing this he slinged away his glove. Luckily we found it, after we searched the slope with our headlights. Step by step up the hill. I still felt fine, but David showed first signs of exhaustion due to the altitude. Some minutes later he fell down on his knees, but stood up again. The wind increased on one side of the mountain and the communication became difficult. David went down on its knees a second time, dizziness and problems with his stomache bothered him and made it a very hard hiking for him. With his strong will he stood up again. It happened over and over again and as we reached the announced black rock, which indicated the last few meters we had to take the decision to finish our expedition or to abort the hike. David was not feeling fine at all, I guess he felt like inside a delirium. We already reached 5600 meters and It started to become light. all the other groups were behind aus and so we waited some more minutes to see if any person had similar  problems with the altitude. Four groups passed by, some hikers weren’t in a good state as well, but all of them still in a sufficient condition to go on and try to reach the summit.
We turned around and with the first sunrays we could se all the objects and the surroundings, we couldn’t see on our way up. We were encircled by fog and the white landscape, it started to snow a tiny bit. The way down took as well an eternity and I started to get tired as well. We reached the end of the glacier and got rid of the crampons and the rope. Free again we trudged ourselves down to the refuge, where we had a warm tea before we felt asleep.

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It was a nice experience, my first time on a glacier, my first time on 5600 meters and I totally happy to have done it. I was impressed by the iron will of David, his ambition, which let him stood up several times. The life is more important then any challenging mountain hike. It’s always important to respect the signs of its body and not overdo more then it’s getting too dangerous. And David, believe me, I’m not disappointed to not have reached the top. I learned a lot while hiking Cotopaxi and it was one of my most intensive experiences till I started my travel. And I’m sure that with more time for acclimatization, we would have reached the summit.

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The last days in Colombia

After San Agustín I went back to the Finca in Pitalito, where I left my bike. It wanted to take a ride to Pasto, but it was to late in that day and hardly any car was on the road. I camped again in a garden of a family, right next to the road down south. In the morning I had more luck. A Pickup stopped and offered me a ride to Mocoa, where I was invented for lunch. The way from Mocoa to Pasto didn’t seem to be that far with 130km and so I started to find another possibility of transport, but not without a reason the street to Pasto is called „trampolín de la muerte“. I jumped on a flat bed truck at around 3 in the afternoon at the bottom of the hill and joined a little adventure. I would have loved to ride that path on my bicycle, cause it also offered amazing views into the valley. The path itself is really hard to describe without having experienced it on its own. Over a narrow dirt road, crossing little rivers, next to us a steep precipice we went up and down. The rainy season leads to many landslides and along the way you could see that it happens from time to time.

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In the valley you can see Mocoa in the left.

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Some points were controlled and guarded by the military

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The ride in the car took much more time than expected, about 5 hours. I decided to leave the car near the Lagune de la Cocha. It was already dark and so I was happy to get offered a room, although there was nothing inside.

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The next morning I went down early to the Lagune and found a beautiful village, the houses all made out of wood, colourful and a river which completed the peaceful atmosphere in the morning.

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I started to ride my bike again and it felt great to pedal again and regain the liberty of cycling. I had to climb a small mountain to Pasto and I was delighted by the shadow of the clouds on the streets while I jetting down to the town.

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In the hostel in Pasto I met David and Joanne again, who took the road on the other side of the mountain range. Tobi arrived one day later, a bit exhausted by jumping on he trampolín de la muerte and climbing 5000m in three days.
Just two days from the border, we were getting close to leave Colombia. But the last kilometers had some more delicious views for our sense of seeing. Another slope inside great scenery and in Las Lajas, just some kilometers from the border, an amazing church, which was built into the rock, rounded the 5 1/2 weeks of Colombia!

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The time in Colombia was very nice. Their are some prejudices around the world who connect Colombia with Cocaine, Marihuana or Guerilla. I experienced that it’s not fair to reduce this country to this drugs and rioting. First of all the people are super friendly. Furthermore the variety of different landscapes is a feast for one’s eyes and includes the coast, the jungle, the mountains, different areas of agriculture, breathtaking lakes, beautiful small villages or historical excavation sides. They have good coffee, a big range of fruits and  most of the main roads are in very good conditions. It’s the country of bicycles as well, from road bikes to mountain bikes, especially in Medellín and Manizales I saw a lot of them. The economy is growing, although there are some parts where poverty is still a big issue.
Comparable to Panama and Costa Rica there is a lack of consciousness of healthy food and environment.

The South of Colombia

For my travel the bike became an extension of my body and so the man-maschine-interaction has a big influence on my travel. And so if I exert force on my bike, the bike also exert force on me. But in case of any misalignment, I’m the only one who will feel pain.
About 7 years ago I had an an operation on my knee, where a part of meniscus had to be cut away, due to a  crack which harm my cartilage. I recovered quite well, run a marathon, could do all sports again without suffer pain. Very seldom I felt that there ever had been some incident that lead to a potential irreparable weakness.
The crossing of the Cordillera Central to Ibagué dared myself and concerning to my power it was not worth mentioning, but my knee reminded me of being the key part of my body, which was demanded the most on climbing up steep hills with a heavy travel bike. Two days after the increased burden and another 190 km to Neiva I couldn’t even walk properly. So time to slow down to recover my knee! We decided to stay a few days to observe and support the healing process.
We arrived in Neiva and rest in a Café to figure out where to spent the night. We couldn’t find any hostel in town and thought about cycling out of the town again but suddenly we had three possibilities, so how come. I had a look on airbnb and asked for a room, but didn’t expect a fast answer, which I received surprisingly. We were told where to find a camping ground and we got invited by a family. So, we followed the offer and due to a flat tyre had to ride trough the dark city surrounded by heavy traffic to the house of the family, as we thought. But the house was owned by the mother of the man who invited us and it was a bit confusing cause all the people we met in the café weren’t present as we found the place. Well, everything clarified, we slept in the garage and enjoyed the hospitality. The next three nights we spent in a room in the house of two locals, which were very lovely. It was a perfect place to recover and on top I learned about several new fruits and typical dishes of Colombia and the department of Huila. On top, the town was celebrating San Pedro, which lasted over a week. Born from rural customs, this celebration remains as a memory of old traditions, where locals and visitors participate in parades, cavalcades, reigns, competitions, festivals and various cultural and artistic events. Our host showed us around and gave us the advice to the two parades, especially the one with the Chivas, a bus which was first built in Medellín especially considering the mountainous geography of the Andean region. Their colourful design made them famous and a symbol of Colombia and Equador.

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Local fruits

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One of the iguanas in the garden of our host, about 40 centimeters

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Street parade with typical clothing

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Desfile de Chivas/ street parade of the Chivas

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And strikingly it was the day of another match in the Copa America, Colombia against Argentina, which was lost by the Colombianos after penalties.
We left Neiva, but not before we went to the local market with our host. More typical fruits and dishes.

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My knee was not totally recovered, so I started to hitchhike while Tobias was pedaling. On the first day it didn’t work that good, so that I had to cycled a bit until I found a nice spot to camp.

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Camping near Gigante

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The hosts in Neiva own a farm in Pitalito, where I stayed the next night. I got up at 5 a.m. in the morning to milk a cow for the first time, but they were not used to me and therefor to shy, but I had the possibility to observe the process: how to get the cows from the field into the cote, to let the calve start to suck some milk out of the udder before it were tied up during the milking before returning back to its mother animal. a

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I went on without my bike to San Agustín, where I took part in a Jeep Tour to see some archeological places, a narrowness of the river Magdalena and two waterfalls, one of them falling down uninterrupted of a height of 400 meters. And I got to see how Panela, the famous brown sugar is made, by visiting a small manufacture of cane sugar.

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Estrecho de Magdalena

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The sugar cane press

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Heating up to get out the liquid

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Salto de Mortiño

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Salto de Bordónes