After the 18 hour bus ride to Guayaquil, we were all a bit fried. After wandering through the massive bus station and finding an ATM, we withdrew the first US dollars we'd seen in months. Yup, the currency used in Ecuador is US dollars. If you have some time, read up on how US dollars became the official currency - interesting stuff. The next task was finding a place to stay and some food before getting ourselves to bed as quickly as possible. Though it took us a bit to get our bearing, we did find a nice spot not too far from the bus station, with an attached burger joint - perfect.
Though we do wish we'd had a bit more time to explore Guayaquil, we had under 3 weeks to ride the 1,600+ kilometers to Medellín, to meet the dads. Knowing that we'd have to approach averaging 100 km/day to make it, every bit of time we had for riding counted. With that, we packed up and readied ourselves for a 4 day push to Quito. Before leaving the hostel, we met a really nice guy, Juan, and his wife and 10 month old son. They were traveling from Venezuela in search of the prospect of a new life in Ecuador. After the devaluing of the Venezuelan currency, many citizens are fleeing to neighboring countries looking for a new life. They even travel just to change their money to a different currency before it plummets farther. We talked with Juan for a little while, and managed to get a photo together with his son before leaving the hostel (photo 1). Juan has kept in touch with us via WhatsApp, asking us how things are going and giving us encouragement from afar. It's amazing that even amidst Juan and his family's struggle, he's thinking about us, checking in and making sure that our trip is going well. After a stop at the grocery store (always takes a little longer in a new country), we were headed east out of Guayaquil. We'd decided to take a route that would head east through the lowlands, before climbing into the mountains. The climbing was inevitable, and we'd decided that we'd just as soon get out of the heat of the valley sooner than later. After getting out of the thick of the city traffic, we were moving along the shoulder of the two lane road and averaging over 20 km/hr. We snacked on our grocery store snacks and 60 km later, we'd made it to El Triumfo by mid-afternoon. Agreeing that we all felt good enough to keep pushing on a little farther, we grabbed our customary afternoon Coca-Cola (we don't love how Coca Cool controlled many of the drinks and purified water are down here, but sometimes we've gotta go for the pick me up... and at least it's made with real cane sugar). A couple hours later, we'd gotten close to the next town of Cumanda, but the sun was setting and it had begun to rain. We'd slowed our pace so as not to overdo it in the final kilometers. Slowly but surely, we made it to Cumanda, found a reasonable hotel, and cleaned up before dinner at a local restaurant on the street(Video 2 shows the frying operation... very impressive). We were joined for dinner by a couple street dogs, which we've come to realize is just part of most outdoor food experiences. After a delicious meal, we headed back to the hotel and got to sleep, knowing the a long climb lay ahead of us the next day.
Sure enough, the next morning met us almost immediately with what we'd realize was a 4,000 meter non-stop climb over the course of about 80 kilometers. The approximately 13,000 foot climb was likely (apart from maybe our climb into Bolivia while adjusting to the elevation) the most difficult of our entire trip... and given that the Andes were soon to be over, likely the most difficult of the entire trip. After about 40 kilometers of climbing, we'd rising nearly 2,000 meters to the town of Pallatanga. We were hungry and tired and it was time for a good lunch break. After a typical lunch of the day of soup, chicken, rice, etc., we hit the road again, determined not to let our crawl up the endless climb take any longer than necessary. We ground along, climbing into the clouds through small communities with locals gawking at the crazy gringos riding up the mountains. We observed local corn fields like we'd never seen before - planted on probably 60 degrees of incline on the side of the road, the space between the rows like a staircase. We joked saying "oh yea, I got really hurt falling down the corn field," knowing how foreign that would sound to folks back home. After coming to a ridgeline, we could see the clouds blowing across the road, a bit of twilight zone type experience. Before long it would get dark and foggy, we'd turn our lights on, and hoped to reach some sort of civilization before two long (video 3 documents the final hour or so of this section). Luck would have our side again as we reached a gas station with an attached hotel (these are surprisingly common in Ecuador and Colombia). Now, this hotel wasn't the most glamorous, but for reasons we won't overanalyze, there were mirrors on the ceiling, condoms at the bedside. hmmm, an interesting form of a minibar. After a cold shower, and a gas station plate of food, we were ready for bed, wiped out from the long day of climbing over 10,000 ft.
The next morning we suspected to summit the pass before long, but were again in for a surprise as the road just seemed to keep going up and up and up, one false summit after another. After climbing for over 11 total hours (video 4 shows the resulting bonk-like behavior), we were ready for a real descent... and that's what we got. After a bit of winding descent we were quickly shivering and knew that we needed a real meal. After a quick stop of the typical soup and fried chicken lunch in Cajabamba, we pressed on, passing a concrete plant that must have spewed stone dust into the surrounding. (One thing we've continued to realize is that we really do need sunglasses, even if only for the dusty air or diesel soot - thanks Julbo Sunglasses!) Unfortunately, next came the first (and hopefully last) real crash of the trip. Eli had been feeling under the weather and was admittedly a little loopy on a slight descent coming out of town. I (Cameron) didn't realize Eli was behind me and drifted into the gap on the shoulder, squeezing Eli out. Think Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan in this year's Tour de France... I was Sagan, without intentional wrong-doing, but Eli still got the short end of the stick. Fortunately, Eli's really an expert bike handler, and once he knew what was coming, tucked into the fall, stayed with his bike and walked away with little more than a scratch. Amazingly, his bike seemed fine too, until we realized his front disc was rubbing and wouldn't stop with a normal readjustment. After some investigation, we realized that the fork ends had actually bent a bit. We took a wrench and some weight, and soon had bent the fork back into place and were on our way. This is another reason we ride steel bikes. Yes, they are heavier, but they're comfy, strong, and steel can be bent back if something is out of wack... Aluminum doesn't work that way - bend it one way, and more likely than not, it'll break when forced to bend back. After a long morning climbing, the cold descent, and the bike mishap, we decided to take a breather on the other side of Riobamba at a local bakery. Eli was drooling over some eclair type pastries, so we grabbed some of those along with some cheese filled bread. After the afternoon refuel, we kept pushing, doing another several thousand feet of climbing out of Riobamba. Around 5:30 that night, we finally hit the summit and knew that we'd be headed mostly downhill to Ambato, where we had a hotel reservation waiting. The dusk descent was chilly, numbing our brake clutching fingers. It then began to rain, but were on autopilot at that point, knowing that we absolutely had to keep pushing to Ambato. The real finale was an incredibly steep downhill tunnel into Main Street Ambato. It was as if we'd reached the finale of a roller coaster that spat us out into a street filled with mouth watering restaurants - our hotel just a few blocks away. After checking in to the hotel, we made our way downtown in the rain, first stopping at a burger joint, then ice cream, then another slice of pizza to top it off :) We were tuckered and soon hit the hay, knowing we'd be up early again the next morning.
After waking up feeling pretty wretched, Eli wasn't entirely sure whether he should make the final push to Quito... but being the Terminator he is, we pushed off for our final leg before a day off. The start of the day had us gradually climbing out of Ambato. Given our early pace, we weren't so sure about the Quito end goal, but decided an early second breakfast or first lunch made sense. After a rice and chicken dish and a Coke in San Miguel de Salcedo, we pushed north, now with more of a tailwind than we'd felt in some time. Though we were pedaling slightly uphill, the tailwind more or less flattened the grade as we pushed on at around 20 km/hr. Then we hit the first major climb of the day. Before reaching the top, we'd get caught in a cold, thundering rain. We were pretty quiet at this point, knowing we were within reach of Quito, but still had a chunk to go. After summiting and descending once more, we were quickly crushing kilometers and knew that we had only one more major climb. As we rode up on Machachi, we decided that a second lunch/first dinner was a smart move. We found a nice, but reasonable restaurant where we both had burgers, salad, etc. We even met a woman who had cycled in Europe and was very excited about our adventure. After fueling up, we were back at it. After a short, rainy end to the descent, we hit our last climb. We weren't too talkative at that point and put our heads down, let our minds wander, and kept pushing up to the top of the hills bordering Quito. With 20 or so kilometers still to go, we were in Quito, a crazy sprawling, polluted city. At that point, we coasted down the busy city streets, sometimes using the less traveled bus lanes to give ourselves as much space from traffic as possible. We'd take the next day off, before heading north towards the Colombian border. Pardon the lack of photos from this section - we were riding long days and felt the scenery was similar to what we'd seen in some other places :/
After pedaling to the outskirts of Quito, we were met with an amazing view and epic decent out of the high city (photo 5). We continued to a lunch stop and energy drink (photo 6), and pushed onwards, eventually reaching... the equator!!! (photos 7 and 8) It felt like a real milestone to make it here, and even though we knew we still had many miles to pedal, there was some comfort knowing we'd made it to the northern hemisphere. We continued, slowly climbing our way to the summit of a pass before dropping down to our destination town of Otavalo. Before the decent, we took a minute to look down on the cloud covered valley and setting sun below (photo 9). While walking the streets of Otavalo that night, we witnessed some sort of procession, possibly a funeral celebration (video 10).
The next day we pushed on, continuing our decent into a very dry river valley environment. We knew we'd face a long climb afterwards and got a quick lunch at a gas station buffet before hitting the hills. I (Cameron) was feeling pretty sick with some sort of head cold, and told Eli and Noah to go ahead. I knew that I could make it, but that I couldn't rush. Photos 11 and 12 show the winding climb - not the most challenging we had faced, but it felt pretty tough that day. After the climb, I'd thought I'd meet Eli and Noah in a small town called La Paz, but after wandering around looking for them at dusk, I found them at the outskirts of town eating dinner at the lone restaurant. They informed me of the 'good news' (that my food was already ordered) and the 'bad news' (there was nowhere in the town to stay). We continued on another 10-15 km in the dark to make it to San Gabriel, where we found a place to stay. That night we had heard from the hostel owner/receptionist that 50 immigrants who had been in the U.S. were deported back to San Gabriel and had arrived that day. We were somewhat stunned, knowing that the current administration couldn't have helped the expulsion of the 50 local citizens trying to make a living in the U.S. to support their families locally. That night we decided that we'd try to get a short interview the next morning. Video 13 shows our interview - pardon the 90 degree rotation, we'll get it fixed at some point, but just can't seem to get it to work on the road! The woman is basically saying that she understands that maybe these people didn't have all of the necessary papers, but that there's more to the issue - that their families are depending on them, etc. In the video, I ask her about Venezuelan immigrants, like Juan who we'd met in Guayaquil - she responds by saying that we know they're in trouble and welcome them. She also mentioned that there were a number of Venezuelans working at another hotel just up the street. So, while the night before had been a late night, maybe the opportunity to speak to this woman was a blessing in disguise... and it all happened on the morning of June 25th, my birthday. Even though I was feeling well, this continued sharing of humanity with others felt like as good a present as I could have hoped for :)
That day, we pedaled slowly out of San Gabriel, eventually crossing the border into Ipiales, Colombia. That night we visited Santuario de Las Lajas - an amazing cathedral built into the rocks of a gorge between Colombia and Ecuador. The last photos of the album show the cathedral at night.