A Travellerspoint blog

First week on the bike.

Challenges, rewards - it's all there for the cyclist. It's a long one, but I've been busy!

sunny 20 °C

Friday 3rd August
Cycling begins! This is what I came for. The equator is 27 km north of Quito and we rode there and back because the rest of our journey is SOUTH, to the end of South America. Today was considered an easy ride, being ‘only’ 54 km and 500m of climbing. It might have been easy for distance, but the Quito traffic is a nightmare. The road was two lanes of traffic each way with a two-way bus lane down the middle. We rode as a group in the bus lane - illegal, but safe. A policeman on a motorbike road alongside and asked what we were doing and we told him where we were riding to. He then gave us an escort with lights flashing. Before we knew it he’d called up a couple of his mates and we had three of them. One would go ahead and stop traffic, so we didn’t even have to stop for red lights! It was hilarious and probably broke their monotony of a boring Friday morning in Quito. Later on the two lane road it was good because it gave us a whole lane to ourselves. Our goal today was Mitad del Mundo. The middle of the world, also known as the Equator. There is a monument and of course, a dotted line. I was able to go from the northern hemisphere to the south and back again 60 times in one minute. I heard more than one person in the group surprised that their compass worked fine. (It’s on the poles that they don’t work so well.) We wandered the various museums, shops and other displays that they have there. The highlight was an insect house that contained walls of pinned things, but they had some Ecuadorian Hercules beetles alive on display. I’ve seen some big bugs in my time, but these critters were 10cm long, half of which was a horn-like protrusion from the front of their head. We then had a group photo in front of the monument. This was followed by a speech from the director of the monument, who then proceeded to pump up a bike tube until it burst. This was our official start of Bike Dreams Andes Trail 2012. Our cycle back into Quito was without an escort. This is the only time we will return to the same hotel. From now on it’s south, south and south until South America is no more.


Dinner for me tonight was a return trip to the Colombian restaurant for a repeat of what I had before. On Tuesday night the restaurant contained me and a couple and the waiter was twiddling his thumbs. Tonight it was full and he was running. It seems to have hit the spot with ex-pat Colombians living in Quito and needing a food fix. It worked for me too.

Saturday 4th August
We leave Quito for good today and I don’t mind leaving. Whilst I had a fun time in Quito, it was mainly because it was all new to me, and I made friends at the school. On reflection, there’s not a lot to hold your interest and that would explain why it’s not a tourist destination. I kept asking locals what they do in their spare time and no one could really come up with anything. There are no tree-free parks for ball games, kites or throwing a Frisbee.
8 am will be our usual departure, but with it being the first time we loaded up the two trucks and also there were extra bags such as camping gear that won’t be loaded daily, unless we’re camping, we didn’t leave until 9am. Today we rode south from Quito along the PanAm Hwy to the town of Latacunga 98 km and 1313m of climbing. These are our two trucks.


Today was one of those days when you find out you had more in you than you realised. It was a really tough day with a happy ending. (Not that! That’s not until December 20th!) It wasn’t the ride so much as that I was sick and hadn’t eaten. I didn’t sleep well last night as I felt nauseous, then didn’t eat much breakfast. I was riding along feeling like I wanted to be sick. Bad start. Then things took a bad turn, literally and the exhilarating 70 kph steep descent had a group of us back down at Quito level, having just lost the several hundred metres we’d climbed up to get out of the city. Rather than retrace, we took an alternative route that reconnected with the PanAm Highway. This was maybe not a wise choice as it was chock full of pedestrians and busses stopping to pick them up or drop them off. Even on Saturday, it seemed to be a major road out to town. The busses and trucks all pump out clouds of black exhaust that’s so thick you could cut it with a knife. Rather than the centre of the road, it points to the footpath, or right onto every cyclist they pass. This can’t have helped me fell less sick. Wilbert warned us today would be less bike dreams and more bike nightmares as we were on main roads. I was feeling worse as the morning wore on. The last 25km to lunch was relentless uphill and all I wanted to do was curl up and die! I would stop needing to be sick, but not want to be because I wanted to keep my fluids up. The thought of little kids feeling a lot worse while having chemo treatment for cancer made me pull my head in. Some of them really are dying and it is through research of organisations like the Kid’s Cancer Project that cures might be found. If you have been meaning to donate, but just haven’t got around to it, please go to my link at http://www.everydayhero.com.au/malcolm_roberts

Having done the detour, I no longer knew the distance to the lunch truck, so it was hard to motivate to an unknown target. That changed when I saw the lunch truck several kilometres ahead at the top of a massive climb. Having made it, all I could stomach was a cup of tea, but it felt good. I decided to push on with the remaining 44km, the first 10 of which were continuing UP the same mountain we were on. No sooner had I got back on the bike and I felt sick again, but I was determined to ride out today. Just when I thought it couldn’t get worse, it rained near the top of the hill. There were frequent signs by the side of the road which literally read ‘Volcanic Hazard Area’. I can see volcanoes in the distance, why do you need to tell me? Which way should I run if I hear a distant rumble?


I'm not explaining this photo.

I arrived in Latacunga and followed the directions to the hotel. I arrived completely spent only to have the owner tell me that they had a different hotel for us as that one had a wedding tonight and they would be very noisy. He showed me a hand-drawn map that I had to memorise and then ride another 2 km to the new hotel. Another moving goalpost! Instead of the planned 98km/1313m climbing, I’d done 110km and probably 1600m. I was cactus and just need to go to bed and get well. Good news at last! This hotel was no overflow fleabag. It was so new it hadn’t even opened or had the name put up. They opened it early for us and were unwrapping plastic off things everywhere you looked. The beds were new and so comfortable, but that was not my happy ending. There was a bath. Not just that, but there was hot water. I soaked away my trials of the day and then promptly went to bed. I still couldn’t eat and I had a fever. I was in bed for 12 hours and think I slept fitfully for a total of 8.

Sunday 5th August Latacunga to Riobamba – 97 km/1744 climbing
I feel a lot better today and the fever has gone. I had some breakfast, which helps too. We left town in a group, but we very soon spread out like Vegemite. They give us a very thorough map each day with turn points on it, but in the back of my mind all day was Wilbert’s warning not to make the mistake some people did last time (2010) and go downhill to a wrong town and have to come back up. Because we hadn’t left from the correct hotel, I wasn’t quite sure of some distances. Lunch was at the 54 km point after 900m of climbing. I didn’t take any wrong turns today.
The scenery is spectacular. Verdant valleys backed by snow-capped mountains. WOW! The 6310 peak of Mt Chimborazo dominated the afternoon landscape. It is not only Ecuador’s highest mountain, but is the point furthest from the centre of the Earth. Mt Everest is higher above sea level, but because there is a bulge at the equator and that’s where we are, Mt Chimborazo gets the crown, just. Little bit of science trivia for you.
Although I’m feeling better than yesterday, I’m still not feeling well and decided to let my body recover so I put the bike and myself on the truck for last 43 km after lunch. It was the right choice as I got my appetite back and demolished a bowl or two of hot soup on my arrival in Riobamba. I’m sure that after a good night’s sleep, I’ll be fine for the full ride tomorrow. It’s Sunday, so many places are closed, but right next door to the hotel was a Chifa restaurant - Chinese. 8 of us had a shared table there and, yes, there was a Chinese guy cooking. The food was better than my local Chinese at home. It cost us $40 for 8 of us food and drinks.


The group? I should tell you all a bit about us.
Bike Dreams is a Dutch company run by Rob and Wilbert, who are both long-distance bike fanatics. They have turned their passion into their business and they are living the dream. This is obvious with everything they do. It is so lovely to be a part of such an organisation as their passion extends to the crew. Rob pioneered this route solo in 2007, prior to BD offering the ‘Andes Trail’ in 2008, 2010 and now 2012. It’s such a huge logistical undertaking and commitment of their time that it’s no wonder they have only done it every second year. The crew are the same, and from what I hear, they’ve learnt lots from the first two times and are nailing it this time.
There are 28 cyclists and I think 22 of us are going all the way to Ushuaia. There are 7 women, so the ratio is exactly 3:1. There are two couples, and a brother and sister team. As you would expect, participants come from all over the world, but Holland (of course) and Australia are most represented. My room-mate is the solitary kiwi and true to stereotype, he’s a sheep farmer! Ages range from 29 to 62. Most are older than me as many have had to wait until their children are old enough, or be semi-retired themselves, to do a trip as long as this. There are as many different bike brands as people and also a wide variety of fitness levels and reasons for being here. Plodders and experience people like me, and cycling machines who go full pelt and want to win the race. Did I say it was a RACE? It is! It will be great getting to know everyone over the next 4 months.

Monday 6th August


Today was finally Bike Dreams! What a beautiful day. We rode from Riobamba to Guamote. It was my kind of riding day on all counts - only 52km and 800m of climbing. Both towns are at 3000m so it’s not as easy as it sounds as all our riding is at about 3000m. The scenery today was just beautiful, with Mt Chimborazo again not shrouded by cloud, initially loomed in front of us before being beside us for awhile and then eventually being behind us. It was nice to look behind every now and then and see it. I passed fertile fields being tended by hard-working Ecuadorians and off in the distance were glaciated volcanoes. As we get further south from Quito, the traffic has diminished and the road has gone from 4 lanes to two, but is still new tar and beautifully smooth with a nice hard shoulder for us. Magic!


I had truck go past me with a sheep on the roof. Random! Can you imagine if the truck had to stop suddenly having not seen one of us? The sheep would keep going. I can see the headline now, ‘Cyclist hit by flying sheep!’

One of the interesting things I noticed was eucalyptus trees everywhere. I first saw them in Quito, but as we get more rural, they are ubiquitous. They give the locals much-needed poles and timber for building and firewood. The mountains are not otherwise forested and environmental issues here don’t seem to be a big thing. Seeing the gum trees everywhere kind of made me feel at home and I wondered if the world’s love of planting our eucalypts is one of the reasons that Aussies are so well travelled. Our trees are everywhere and we even get to smell familiar smoke.
On the road today, I again passed Raresh, the crazy Romanian cyclist. I first met him two days ago on the long slog on my killer day and we rode together for awhile. I call him crazy because he has panniers and everything with him and is cycling alone from Mexico to Argentina. We have support trucks and company. I have mostly been riding alone. Not out with the front pack, but not with the tail-enders. I don’t mind my own head-space and it’s a nice change from the intensity of the group at each end of the day. I haven’t used my Walkman as it’s really nice to greet local people you pass on the way. One of the lovely things about cycling is that you are going at a nice slow speed so this is possible, as is stopping to take a photo of anything that takes your fancy. I photographed some cactus and their flowers today. For a cactophile like myself, South America is great and Bolivia is a world cacti hot-spot.


As I said, today was Bike Dreams. I’m very grateful for my fiancé Erin who has supported me in pursuing my dream of cycling the length of the Andes, even though it means us being apart for 5 months. You are the fulfilment of so many of my dreams and I’m looking forward to our wedding next year. I love you and miss you.

Everything today was lovely. The weather too was beautiful. We got to start an hour late and still got into the little pueblo/village of Guamote not long after lunch. The ride downhill into town was exhilarating (I got a new fast PB of 78kph) and I filmed it on my head-mounted GoPro. I’ll film some stuff, but won’t be able to edit and share it until I get back. You will have to put up with the few still photos I put up here. What a quaint little village Guamote is with cobbled streets and people wearing such brightly coloured blankets they’d give an Indian a run for their money.


I got a haircut this afternoon. I couldn’t resist getting a cut at the Elvis Presley Peluqueria (hairdresser). The front windows and interior walls were covered with photos of not just Elvis, but all sorts of pop and teen idols. After explaining what I wanted, after cutting the back and sides short, she still wanted to style the top and was flipping through a folder of pictures including Justin Beiber and pointing. NO! I don’t want a Beiber, I just want it nice and short. Gracias.


Tuesday 7th August - Guamote to Chunchi - 85km/1350m climbing.
We didn’t have eggs for breakfast today, but judging by the sound of all the roosters crowing since the small hours of the morning there probably isn’t a chicken in town, just roosters!
I had a really good day today, another dream day out on the bike in the Andes mountains. Some challenging climbs, but also some exhilarating fast downhill rides in excess of 70kph! I’m feeling really good, both with not being sick anymore and with my fitness level. I’m not the first to finish, but never expected to be, but I’m having fun and doing it at my own pace.


I’ve seen so many dead animals by the side of the road, mostly dogs. Don’t people miss their pets? Based on the black and white animal I saw today, there’s a family somewhere mourning the loss of their skunk. I know skunks are supposed to stink, but this one was something else!
The town of Chunchi is tiny and it didn’t take too long to explore it after settling into my hotel room. It overlooks the fruit and vegie market. I hope they don’t start too early tomorrow!


I did like the airplants growing from the powerlines in town. Not seen that before.


Wednesday 8th August – Chunchi to Ingapirca - 71km/1979m climbing.


Last night we slept at 2300m, which was 700m lower than the night before. No wonder the ride wasn’t too hard, but when you borrow from one day you have to pay it back. Today we had to climb back up to 3000m. Excluding my sick day, today was my toughest day. The climbing was just relentless, with not many downhills and even when there were, there was a killer headwind that meant you still had to pedal. The wind was so strong at times that riding was impossible and walking the bike was the safer option. We’re staying next to the Inca ruins called Ingapirca, Ecuador’s best preserved Inca site. The Incas liked build stuff up high, so the last 12kms from the town were exhausting uphill. I was stuffed, but wanted to beat the lunch truck in. I saw it across the valley and doubled my efforts despite my tiredness and just beat it in! 6 hours on the bike today! I am cactus.


Turns out the group filled the main accommodation place and 4 of us are actually 1km up the hill. Carrying my bags is not what I needed at the end of today! The view I have of Ingapirca is great. A late afternoon wander around the site was called for and the light was good. The Incas were amazing architects. You could see my room from there which was cool.


We had a shared a delicious dinner tonight that Kirstin, our cook prepared for us as this town is too small to have anything suitable. I’m eating so much! 4 meals a day and snacks such as fruit and muesli bars.
Today was really tough with all that climbing and strong headwinds, so I’m going to crash in bed early, ready to ride again tomorrow, our 7th day in a row.

Thursday 9th August –Ingapirca to Cuenca 78km/1052m climbing.
Lovely day on the bike. If today were a stand-alone day, it would have been a doddle. Being the 7th day in a row, it was a bit harder. I felt fine until I got on the bike and then my legs were like, ‘You want me to do what again?’ The first part of the day was climbing up to the Canar mountain pass at 3540m. A 20km fast ride downhill followed, all the way to the lunch stop! The undulating afternoon made the climb up to Cuenca unnoticeable. I am so looking forward to our rest day tomorrow. 7 days without rest makes one weak.


Posted by TheWandera 19:06 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Quito concludes

My last hurrah in Quito.

semi-overcast 22 °C

Tuesday 31st July
I’m at the Plaza International Hotel. It’s comfortable, but could do with a refurbish. I can’t imagine ‘international’ visitors returning. The big bonus is that there is WiFi and I’ve been able to get my blog up to date. It’s my intention to keep writing on a daily basis on my laptop and then when I get the chance, I’ll pop it up as an update. I know that we will often be far from cities and probably internet, but I’m looking forward to getting out of the city and the internet can wait. It might give the busier ones of you a chance to catch up! Not being with the family I’m fending for dinner myself. I set out tonight towards the Plaza Foch, which is the tourist area full of restaurants. I didn’t want to actually go that far as I know 3 people who have been mugged there. I told myself I would eat a the first restaurant I came to. This turned out to be a Chinese one. No probs with that, but when I looked around, there were only Ecuadorian staff, so I turned and ran while I could. The next one I passed was Colombian and I’m glad I went in. My platter of assorted grilled meats, a bowl of chips and bowl of salad was just what I needed. I didn’t eat any of the chips, but devoured the salad. The meats included morcilla, which is a South American blood sausage that I love. I don’t have a photo for you because I was not being a paw paw and left all non-essentials in my room.

Wednesday 1st August
My second-last day of Spanish class. I think the teacher is getting frustrated as she filled the board with a heap of rarely-used conjugations that I was supposed to write down and remember. I said let’s do conversations. Hey! I’m paying and it’s one on one. I think I upset her lesson plan. Evelyn is very well educated and her Spanish and English are faultless, but I don’t think she’s been very responsive to my desire for ‘conversational Spanish’.
Aaron, Charlotte and I had a special lunch booked today. It was at Theatrum, one of Quito’s best restaurants and we had the degustation menu. Some dishes were as good as you’d get in Oz, and others missed the mark. Stand out dishes included tuna tartare, groper on pea puree and I really liked the dessert - 'Fruits of Ecuador with different ideas.' 5 different fruits done 5 different ways. Whilst it might have cost 25 times our $3 lunch specials, it was definitely worth it. A couple of mojitos over lunch went down well.

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From there we walked off lunch, heading back towards Yanapuma to meet up for an evening tour of the ‘Old Town’. On the way I spotted a mannequin with a startled look. Honestly! She looked like that before I grabbed her!
With time to kill, the 3 of us stopped at a cocktail bar and grabbed 2 for 1 drinks. My dirty martini was like none I’d ever had before.


Arriving back at the Spanish school for our tour, we discovered that we’d all got it wrong and it was actually tomorrow – Thursday, so we just switched our plans for Thursday night to Wednesday. Unfortunately for us tomorrow morning, those plans were to go to an all you can eat and drink wine bar. We shouldn’t have gone on an evening where we’d ‘pre-loaded’. Oh! Well! These things happen. The tapas bar works that the food for everyone is the same, but you choose your quality/price of wines and choose bottles from that menu. When you finish a bottle, you can choose another from the menu you chose. Chile and Argentina make some great wine and the 3 of us got through 5 bottles. The food was quite good too. Taxis home not too late, and the first time my new roommate meets me is at the end of my first ‘night out’ since I’ve been here. I’ve been asked out before, but have been taking it easy acclimatising and also resetting my body clock with the 13 hour time difference. Sometimes that just meant saying ‘no’ and having an early night. Tonight was not one of those! Here are some photos of our night.
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Thursday 2nd August
I felt as bad as expected. Oops! Got off to class and I’m glad it’s my last. Aaron was worse off than me. Got through it all and I said my good-byes to my teacher Evelyn. Aaron and I then grabbed lunch at somewhere else new. It was only memorable because it was the first thing I ate today and it was just what I needed. Here's a photo of us.
This afternoon at 4pm we had our Bike Dreams get-together and introductions. I am VERY HAPPPY. Wilbert not only owns and runs the company, but he’s with us for most of this trip before switching with his business partner. Here’s a passionate world cyclist making a living out of doing what he loves. I think the name Bike Dreams is apt. They have done this trip twice before, in 2008 and 2010. It’s such a BIG undertaking that it will only be a biannual thing. I cannot believe how well organised they are and I’m really confident that I made the right choice in coming with them. I’ll tell you more in my next blog when the cycling actually starts.
Tonight we had the tour with Yanapuma that we’d thought was last night. We began with a trip to the top of the El Panecillo, the statue of the virgin Mary with wings, holding chains and with serpents around her feet. The views of Quito at night were different to when I’d been up here on Sunday arvo. Next was La Ronda, a random old street full of cobblestones that I hadn’t chanced across in my own travels. There were about 10 of us and we had dinner at a very noisy restaurant with live music. The best times were during their breaks. My empanadas were baked in the wood-fired oven right in front of us. Yum! I said good-bye to all the Yanapuma guys as that’s it for me and the Spanish school portion of this adventure. Tomorrow we start riding. That, dear friends will be my next blog. Until then
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Posted by TheWandera 20:42 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Exploring Quito and surrounds.

Lots of photos for you.

semi-overcast 22 °C

Saturday 28th July
Today I climbed a mountain. Not just any mountain, but a 4696 m peak near Quito called Cumbre Rucu Pichincha. I met up with a student friend from the school called Aaron at 8:30 am and after a nice breakfast in a nearby café, we caught a cab to the teleferico. That was the plan, but as we stepped out of the café we felt raindrops and I realised that despite all that I had packed for the day, I had forgotten my rain jacket. Doh! We swung by my house in the taxi first and grabbed it as I figured if I didn’t have it I’d need it. The grey clouds gathered and we couldn’t believe it, all week indoors at the school and nothing, now the one day we want to go hiking! Grabbing my rain jacket worked as we had great weather for our hike. You can’t see it from Quito, but we’d seen the peak we wanted when we went to the top of the teleferico on Wednesday afternoon. That’s when we said, “Let’s do it.” Peaks have this strange effect on me. They call out and beg, “Climb me.”
We began our hike at about 10:30. There was a well-worn path that was easy to follow. Other peaks and even the top of the teleferico fell away as we hiked upwards and the vistas got better and better. We stopped for our lunch of croissants with ham, tucked just out of the cold wind, just beneath the hard part to come, a rocky scramble up a 45 degree cluster of rock that formed the summit. It doesn’t let you to the top without a challenge. It’s not just the rock climbing, but the fact that at this altitude, you’re struggling to breathe enough oxygen to feed your muscles. I thought my heart was going to pop out of my chest! What a great feeling to finally scramble over the last bit and realise you are at the summit! It is exhilarating, as any of you who’ve climbed any sort of peak would know. This one had the extra wow of cliffs on every side, which really made you feel like you were on a peak. The views from 4696m ASL? Wow! Indescribable, so I’ll just insert a few photos here.
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We ended up with lovely weather and I even got sunburnt, which was annoying because I started with sunscreen and a hat, but then changed to a beanie near the summit. I was really glad for warm clothes and gloves as the constant wind was freezing and I wore them all the way back. The clouds behaved too. The peak was shrouded in cloud when we set out, but when we were there, the clouds were below us. I love that feeling as it adds to your sense of altitude. As we descended, the peak was once again shrouded in cloud, taking away the views that we’d had. It took us 6.5 hours without rushing and was a perfect challenging day trip. I’m cactus, but happy.

Sunday 29th
The Wandera wanders. Lots of walking during my day to explore Quito. With no school and no plans to meet anyone, it was nice today to just walk and wander the ‘Old Town’ of Quito. It’s the UNESCO world heritage listed part of Quito and it’s lovely to know it will stay as I saw it. I began with a visit to the Basilica, the cathedral that I can see from the balcony of my room. Beautiful stained glass windows, as you’d expect, but what I really liked is that you could climb the belfry. Like I hadn’t climbed enough yesterday? The views from the top were giddying. The gargoyles were not as grotesque as others I’ve seen in Europe and were actually South American birds, including a blue-footed boobie from the Galapagos. I love boobies! No! really, I do. I met a Colombian university professor here in Quito on his summer break. He spoke good English. I told him I was travelling light today with no backpack to invite thieves and my nearly empty wallet and camera were in my front pocket. He told me a Colombian proverb that will be my motto on this trip. ‘No seas una papaya.’ Literally - Don’t be a paw paw. He explained that paw paws are easy to take slices off. So it really means ‘Don’t be an easy target’. As I wandered the historical areas, I kept thinking, “Don’t be a paw paw.”

That done, I walked towards the centre. These were the same streets I’d ridden my bike through earlier in the week, but today many were closed off for a weekly cycle loop that meanders through the now-carless streets and goes from 10am to 2:30 every Sunday. It was so nice to see so many people out and about. They don’t have a nice river or really big parks with cycle paths in Quito, so it’s the next best thing. Plazas were full of musicians and artists. I did like a crazy lady in pajamas that had ‘Mujer ninjha’ on the back. Woman ninja? She just pulled a few Tai Chi moves with no relation to the music. I saw her later elsewhere lost in her ninja world. The other sellers of interest were the ice cream people. There was no way I was going to buy an ice cream held up on a tray at street temperature for god knows how long. They have a tray and carve it off onto your cone as you ask for one. I’ve since found out from others who were there that it’s actually not dairy. I’m not sure which is worse. The other sellers of note – no photo – were the pork crackling people selling giant slabs of crispy pig skin. Mmmm! Heart attack here I come! $1 heart attack slab, here I come!
There's the president's palace with statue-like guards out the front overlooking another plaza. Formal-looking fancy-dressed policemen roamed the plaza and I was very surprised when they were more than happy to pose for a photo. Another benefit of learning Spanish.
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People were dressed up, many having been to church before wandering. It was like a festival, but it’s every Sunday. I was in no hurry, so sat in one of several plazas and ate a bowl of chochos and just people watched. There was a shop selling religious stuff, including a full-sized Jesus on the cross for $2000. Do people hang these on their living room walls? There was another 3D picture of Jesus that the eyes follow you as you walked past. Imagine that on your mantelpiece? Everywhere in the room you look from there’s this creepy Jesus looking at you.
I must have felt that I still hadn’t done enough climbing lately, as I decided to climb up the big nearby hill on top of which is a huge angel statue called El Panacillo. Halfway up the massive flight of stairs is a sign on the wall saying, “Caution tourists. Robery (sic) zone. Do not walk this street. Danger.” Great! So you’re either half-way up or down and therefore committed and then they tell you that. 069__1024x768_.jpg I had a couple of people join me for safety in numbers, but I returned back down the stairs on my own. It was a Quito local and his visitor. The Quito bloke spoke great English and we had some great mangled conversations. If we were talking in one language and got stuck, we’d drop in the word in the other language and continue. I enjoy conversations with someone who’s English is a bad as my Spanish. That way I don’t feel like they’re the ones having to put up with bad grammar. He ended up being a free guide and was a font of knowledge of Quito. You can see el Panacillo from many parts of Quito and it too gave me a great view of the city. I don’t seem to have lacked for them in my time here. On top of the Panacillo were many people flying kites. So many in fact that tangles were inevitable. Some people had kites so high they were almost invisible and surely an aviation hazard? By this time I’d wandered far from home, but I walked back yet a different way. The nearby mountains were obscured by cloud for much of today, so I am really glad that we hiked Pichincha yesterday. This evening I enjoyed a quiet beer on my balcony overlooking Quito and had a look at my photos on the computer and reflected on a lovely day.

Monday 30th July
Back to school. I feel like a student more than a traveller. Sure I get a ‘weekend’ but I have homework! I did look at it. Honest! Today was great. Not only did I sleep well, I had a Skype chat with Erin before class at 9am. I also enjoyed my 20 minute walk to the school as I got breakfast in 2 parts on the way. Banana in my room before leaving, then a hot dog crossed with a sausage roll thing from the first shop and a pan de chocolate (choc-covered sweet bun) from the second store. I really enjoyed the conversational banter that took place with each transaction. We’ve lost this in a society where you do your weekly shopping in a supermarket. These are the conversations I wanted my Spanish for. Not to have ‘real’ grasp, but to participate in life in the countries I’m going to pass through. It’s so funny when you see a surprised look on the face of someone who didn’t expect the gringo to speak Spanish.
Class today was great. Evelyn had listened to my plea on Friday and there weren’t whiteboards full of grammar. We chatted about my weekend and I had to construct coherent answers and she was entitled to correct me with mistakes, but I got better. My listening is not so good as I’m usually two words behind! Hate that!
I came to the realisation this afternoon why the hiking on Saturday and Sunday didn’t kill me like I thought they might. All day every day in this city I’m walking at 45 degrees or climbing flights of stairs. Take for example, my walk home. The lovely view I have from my room is because we are 700m up a 45 degree angle street. If that’s not enough, every time I enter the house, it’s 3 full stories of stair-climbing to get to my room, which is on the top story. That and, I kid you not, it takes 4 keys of which 2 are deadlocks to get into my room. They seem paranoid, but I don’t live here, so maybe it’s justified. I hate to think what would happen in the event of a fire. Of course there are no fire alarms either. The electric plug I bought to change to American, as they have here, to my plugs scares me with that weird electrical burning smell it shouldn’t be giving off. It gets too hot to touch. That can’t be right. I’ll be glad to leave Ecuador and not need it!
Tonight is my last night with my family as tomorrow I transfer to the hotel with the Bike Dreams guys. I sat on the balcony overlooking the city and did my homework, then wrote this for you. I love the view. This means it‘s my last night for the dinner and I must get a photo of the ladies, my hosts. Tonight’s dinner was the best for improving my Spanish. I was the only student, so talking English was not an option. I was glad I’d taken my cheat sheets of words I’m trying to remember with me. The two-way dictionary helped too. They are very understanding of my level. I signed their guest book and they’ve been hosting students in that house for 20 years although Yanapuma has only been going for a few years, they were with other schools before that. They said their house was built 30 years ago. Over 4 stories, there are so many rooms. It’s been nice to stay with a middle-class family as I know from other students that not all host families are like that. Here's the view from my balcony. The other photo is the lady selling grilled bananas. I'd pass her daily on my walk home up the steep hill.

Tuesday 31st July
Last night's smelly plug became today's electrical hazard. It melted and fell apart, exposing live wires. The power points don't have switches, so it was a little tricky removing it. If something like that was sold at home there'd be a national recall!
Great day beginning with an Erin Skype session. We’re making the most of it while we can.
Class today was good. Evelyn posed scenarios and I had to deal with them. For example she wrote on the board, your bicycle has a flat tyre. I then had to explain my situation to a passer by – her – and converse from there. Exactly what I want.
Lunch today was only Aaron and I. We did have more in our group, but with some returning home and others switching to afternoon classes, it’s only the two of us. Another new restaurant and it was fine. At $3 for 4 courses it felt like a bad deal after yesterday’s $1.75!
This afternoon I moved house. I packed my bags and bike spares and grabbed a taxi to the Hotel Plaza International. It’s really close to the school and I’ve walked past it every morning on my way there. After dropping my day pack into a shop to get fixed, I walked back to my family’s house to get my bike. I bought them 26 white roses to complement the red ones I bought them last week. In a city that is often unsafe, the girl selling flowers was only 8 years old. She had the money in a little bum bag. Unlike the ice cream girl in the park, I didn’t take her photo as I don’t want to make a habit of photographing little girls! My host family were very appreciative of the flowers, but it was lovely staying with them, and I was really the appreciative one.
My next blog will begin with meeting the Bike Dreams guys and staying at the plush-sounding Hotel Plaza International.

Posted by TheWandera 04:38 Archived in Ecuador Comments (0)

Enjoying Quito

Spanish school and more.

semi-overcast 20 °C

Monday 23rd July.
Today was my first day at Yanapuna Spanish School in Quito. It is only a 20 minute walk down the hill from the family I’m staying with. My host family are lovely. There is a grandmother, 4 daughters/sisters aged in their 50’s, two adult children belonging to one of them. There is no sign of any men but I haven’t asked the story. The house is huge and on many levels, so we don’t see more of each other than we need to. My room with ensuite is next to the roof-top terrace with lovely views of Quito and the mountains. The house is nice and central, with little shops on our street and around the corner. They regularly host students from my school. Yesterday for breakfast was only me, but last night there were three and this morning 4. I’m here until I move to the hotel to join Bike Dreams Andes Challenge 2012 on the 31st of July but I will keep up the Spanish school until I leave.
The Spanish School? ‘Classes’ run from 9am until 1pm each day and it is a one on one learning situation. There are about 12 students and therefore 12 teachers. On the one hand I was glad for my basic understanding as my teacher Evelyn jumped straight in and not much got said in English, but maybe if I knew nothing they would have started differently? We had a break at 11am and tried a bunch of different fruit laid out on a table. I ended up with a headache by the time we’d finished but I’m not sure if it is the altitude still, or just so much intense learning. I’m back tomorrow and the rest of this week and next.
After class I went wandering on the hunt for a bike shop to rebuild my dismantled mountain bike. A staff member had marked one on the map for me halfway across town and I was heading there and what should I find just around the corner from the school, but a bike shop! They were happy to do it.
Lunch was at a random restaurant I found near there. All the menus seem to have the same 4 dishes on them. I had churrascos, which I’d had at the house last night. You can see in the photo that it’s salad, rice, tough thin steak with eggs on top. It’s very popular.
Getting my bike in it’s oversized box to the bike shop was a challenge. We couldn’t get it across the back seat of the taxi, so ended up sticking it in the boot with it poking out. It wasn’t far and the fare was less than $1.50. They will have it ready for me when I finish class and lunch tomorrow and them I’m mobile again. I’m looking forward to exploring this city on my bike. I often rent bikes when I’m travelling as it’s a great way to see things. I’ll certainly know all about that when I’m finished this trip!

Tuesday 24th July
Spanish class in the morning. After this, a bunch of us grabbed lunch at a nearby place. There are many to choose from. Most offer a menu of the day which will be soup, a choice of 2 or 3 mains, a dessert and a fresh juice. This cost me the grand sum of $3.
After lunch I got my now-assembled bike and rode back to ‘my’ house. I dropped off my bag, got changed into bike gear and went for a ride. Bad news! My $650 Garmin GPS was stolen about 15 minutes into my ride. Garmin’s great idea of ‘easy removal’ meant someone just grabbed it straight off the handlebar as I stopped and waited for a green light. After making a report at the police station, I was pretty gutted and just rode back home. A theft can really put a dampener on your day!
Dinner with the family tonight was the usual soup (always with potatoes), main course which is 80% rice and a little piece of chicken. This was better than last night’s tough piece of beef. Everything they make is really salty. Dinner always ends with a juice and they buy different fruit for us each day, which is nice for us to try. I can’t remember it’s name, but this one tasted okay, but smelt of vomit and this made it hard to drink. Dinner is a long affair, beginning when we – the Spanish students - sit down at 7:45. We get soup, and then main is served sometime after 8:30, then they make the juice. It’s not unusual to get up from the table at 9:30. We talk Spanish with the ladies – the number present varies between 1 and 4, but speak English with the other students as it’s exhausting speaking Spanish because I have to think so hard before speaking and when listening. Here is the group of 4 of us.

Wednesday 25th July
I got to talk to Erin today. I’d had no luck with Skype on internet café computers and although there are many ‘cabinas’ (telephone booth shops) here, I hadn’t been able to find one that could call Australia. Most other countries were on the list, but not Oz. I got up early and went to a place near the school that had advertised Australia on their list of countries and prices. After our chat, I then ran back to school for my 9am start. It’s a 13 hour time difference between here and Oz, which is making it very hard to make it happen, but we did it today.
I’m completely stuffed today and a bit sick too. Apart from the first night when I was dog-tired from the flights here, I haven’t slept more than 4 hours a night and it’s catching up with me. I think the biggest reason is not the altitude, but my body clock with the time difference. I’m sleepy at school at midday, but then lie in bed wide awake at midnight as my body thinks it’s midday. In addition, something I’ve consumed has gone straight through me, so I feel pretty crap today. I apologised to my teacher as I just feel brain dead. I feel like a dumb student as I can’t retain anything. I asked her if we could just make conversations and correct me as necessary, but not do too much grammar on the whiteboard. It went well. Six of us grabbed a quick lunch after class and then we went on an excursion to the teleferico organised by the Yanapuma Spanish school. If Quito wasn’t high enough at 2850 m, it’s actually in a valley and there are mountains all around us. It’s quite beautiful. The teleferico is a cable car that takes you to the top of a nearby mountain and it gave us great views over Quito which is so much bigger than I realised. I’m told that it’s 57 kilometres long. It was a beautiful day. Clear, but very cold up on top at 4100m ASL. Maybe I should have brought more than just a t-shirt and shorts for my riding as we’ll be riding at these sorts of altitude? You can see several snow-capped mountains nearby, including Cotopaxi at nearly 6000m. I wonder how much snow I’ll have to deal with during my cycling. With the guide from the school we’d caught a public bus there, but for only $1 each we got a shared taxi back. Back home with just enough time to do my homework before dinner and then I crashed out.
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Thursday 26th
Yay! Eight hours sleep and I feel like a new person. I walked to school early today, stopping on the way at my regular street vendor lady to buy my favourite Andean snack – habas fritas (fried beans). It’s salted crispy fried broad beans. Doesn’t sound nice I know. I don’t like broad beans either, but I loved it when I travelled in Bolivia in 2004 and I’m happy to find them again here in Ecuador. It’s little transactions like this with vendors that I’m loving having even my basic Spanish and I’m not beating myself up that I’m not ‘getting’ everything we’re doing at school with all the verb tensing and irregular this and that. When I go into a shop I can exchange all the expected greetings and then correctly ask for what I want, how many and then discuss prices and we both understand each other. That’s what I want the Spanish for. No one is going to hold it against me if my verb tense is wrong. They know the verb and what I really mean. I’ll get better through practice. I’m here for 5 months, so I’m not expecting perfection in a few days. I’ve been trying to add words daily to my vocabulary, but my tired brain has been fighting me.
Why did I go to the school early? They have Wi-Fi and I took my laptop and Skyped Erin before tuition started at 9am. It’s the first time I’ve used Skype. How good is it? Free and you can not only talk but see the other person. I enjoyed our ‘chat’.
My time with Evelyn today was much improved as I felt so much better. It seems that the fact the she can also speak excellent English is not a skill shared by all teachers, so I feel lucky. It’s very easy to ask, in Spanish of course, “What is the word for X?” An English word. Useless if they didn’t know English. I have a great pocket-sized two-way dictionary, but we rarely need it.
After class the usual suspects, a couple from my house and a few others – the same ones that went up the teleferico yesterday - went out for lunch together again. We had another set lunch almeurzo hoy – lunch of the day. The type of 4 course set menu I described before. Lunch for 5 of us came to $10. I bet the Perth friends that gave me $60 US (Which is what they use here) as a 40th birthday present and said buy yourself dinner when you get to Ecuador, never thought I could get 30 x 4 course meals with that money!
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This afternoon I bought and fitted a little speedo for my bike to replace the stolen GPS. I don’t care for the worry of that happening again, even if I could get another one. What I got today has got everything I really want anyway – current speed, average speed, distance travelled etc. Unbelievably, the GPS South America maps software they sold me for $150 were missing Ecuador and Bolivia and most of Peru for reasons known only to Garmin. I’m in a group and whilst we won’t be riding as a peloton, there will be many others around. I won’t stress about a $25 speedo on my handlebars, which ironically is harder to take on and off and much less likely to be grabbed by a random thief.
Today I got some coca tea. It’s great for acclimatising to altitude. I’ve had it before when I went to Cusco the first time. Sure, it’s the same leaves they make cocaine from, but the similarities end there. It’s a complicated process to turn the leaves into white powder and create something very different. The locals have chewed and made tea from coca plant leaves for centuries. It took Europeans to make it something it was never meant to be. It’s no surprise that in no country in South America are the leaves themselves illegal.
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Dinner tonight was the usual, but the soup had a whole spud in it. I had to chop it up with my spoon. It also had an interesting grape-like vegetable in it. The main consisted of 10% cold beans, 10% chopped up sausage – no sauce and 80% salty rice with a slice of tomato on top.

Friday 27th July
I should tell you about the city noises that begin each day. There’s a distant church bell that tolls hourly from 6am, but you’d only hear it if you’re awake already. It’s the old and famous Basilica (cathedral) in the ‘Old Town’ not too far from here. I’ve been past on my bike, but I’ll return on foot and get some pix. The daily noise that is madding is the gas bottle swap van. He criss-crosses the streets beeping his horn from 7am onwards. Like an ice cream van, he’s telling people he’s there. People have bottled gas, so you bring out your empty one if it ran out. This noise is a daily occurrence. The other noise that’s ubiquitous here in Quito is car alarms. Do you remember those ones that played all sorts of silly different noises when they went off? They have them here and they go off all the time. No one is near the car, they’re just dysfunctional and therefore ignored by all. You will hear them several times an hour, all day, every day.
Class today was hard. The teacher doesn’t notice when she’s leaving me behind with grammar for lists of words that are irregular, that is unusual or uncommon. I told her I want her to spend more time getting me up to speed with my speaking and listening, and leave the irregular grammatical stuff for later. Today she was doing reflexive verbs and I ended up saying that I’d only got to that after a whole year of Spanish when I studied it in Australia. Everything she shows me, she always speaks Spanish, so I’m struggling to keep up with what she’s saying, let alone grasp a new concept. We don’t have classes on the weekend, but I’ve told her next week I want to go back to basics and go from there. I guess that’s the beauty of personal tuition.
After class the usual suspects went to a nearby restaurant that had been recommended. A couple of them wanted to try guinea pig (cuy) and the other 2 had llama. I’d had both before, so I had a lovely chorizo platter, and a mojito. They didn’t eat all their guinea pig, so the 3 of us ate their left-overs. It has the texture and taste of pork but with a fishy taste. They’re served whole; teeth, paws and all, but there is not a lot of meat on them!
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There was a TV screen above us, so we didn’t need to move elsewhere for the Olympic opening ceremony. On the way home I grabbed some fruit for my hike tomorrow. I also bought a bunch of red roses for the ladies of the house. Only $4 and there were 26 in the bunch. Amazing! Some things are as expensive as home and other things not. It’s easy to know which. Imported things such as Gillette razors, with their high tariffs are often as expensive as home, but anything local is cheap as chips.
I have a hike up a mountain tomorrow, but that’s a story for my next blog.

Posted by TheWandera 13:21 Archived in Ecuador Comments (1)

Quito. Mi casa in las montanas. My home in the mountains.

Welcome to Quito


What a marathon to get here, and I felt like it at the end of it too. Perth to Quito was 4 flights in total, which translated to two days of flying and waiting in airports. That doesn’t make for a lot of sleep. It’s all I wanted when I arrived here in Quito at 11:30pm last (Saturday) night, but the 90 minute immigration queue at Quito meant that had to wait. I’ve never seen a customs clerk so obviously slow, bored and disinterested. Shuffled papers that didn’t need it, stopped to stare at the waiting queues, played with his radio, and then typed in my details with one finger!

I was happy to find all 3 pieces of luggage had followed me, including my bicycle box with bike and spare parts for the next 5 months/11000 kilometers. At 31 KG it just made it under the 32 KG limit! It will be lighter going back as I won’t have the spare tyres tubes etc. Another bag contained my camping gear and extreme weather clothing. You never know how cold it can get high in the mountains.
Also waiting for me was my driver from the Yunapuma Spanish School who took me to the family I am staying with while I attend the school. My first class is on Monday. By the time I was dropped off it was 1:30 am. Much as I wanted to just go to bed, my hostess insisted on showing me everything, including the roof-top terrace with lounge, which whilst nice, was not a priority for a drop-dead tired traveller. To make it worse, she only speaks Spanish and I have forgotten most of what I learnt when I studied it in Perth in 2003. However, I surprised myself with what I could remember and I understood what I needed to. I slept well.

I woke with a headache, then remembered that at 2850m ASL Quito is the world’s second-highest capital city (After La Paz in Bolivia.) and this was just my body adjusting to the altitude. The shower in my ensuite bathroom is interesting. It heats the water with an electrical device built around the rose. Electricity and water – a winning combination. Sure enough, I accidentally touched it during my shower and suffice to say, I will make sure I don’t do that again.
Breakfast was a simple Nescafe with boiled milk and a sweet cinnamon bun with ham and cheese. A steady stream of people from the apartment block – I think - dropped by the kitchen to see the latest visitor and have a chat, in Spanish of course. It was hard work for me and I needed my dictionary often, but I’m fast getting up to speed with my Spanish as I have no choice. Typing this to you is my only English conversation since being here. I’m learning important new words that I didn’t need last time such as prometida, which is fiancé. I’ve not had one of them before!

This afternoon my hostess, took me for a walk to explore. She left me at a big park, as I now knew the way home. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon and the park was full of people out enjoying themselves under the ancient cedar trees.
Vendors selling food provided me with lunch, which began with chochos, a salad, kind of. It had tomato and onion, but it was crunchy as it was full of crisp things like dried corn, beans and crisp banana. It was delicious, but I won’t try to replicate it at home. I think I needed to be sitting under the tree soaking up where I was. Main course was a char-grilled sausage on a stick, but it also had a potato and a banana thing, but it was firmer and less sweet than the bananas we’re used to. It was a meal on a stick – meat, starch and dessert all in one.
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I bought some macadamia nougat from another stall and that finished my first street food meal on this trip. All good. There was a girl who looked about 6 years old running an icecream stall, but when I spoke with her, she’s actually 8. Can you imagine even a 12 year old being allowed to do that at home?
The weather can change quickly in the mountains and I was reminded of this today. It went from being blue sky and lovely to grey and threatening to pour in a very short time. I took the hint and left. Heading home, I was quite pleased that I bought the one thing I needed to buy. I saw a likely shop and asked if they had an electrical adaptor plug to change a European plug into American. The only word I had to look up for the whole transaction, including salutations and prices, was ‘electrical plug’ which is enchufe. I brought a European adaptor with me as I thought that’s what they use, but it turns out that they also use American, which is in my room. Sorted.

I need access to power as I have got more electronic equipment with me on this trip than ever before. Laptop computer, camera, phone, GPS for the bike, Go Pro video camera and an MP3 player. I’ve got a terabyte of storage in my backpack. Did you know that it’s called a terabyte because it’s so much it’s scary? Remember when a megabyte was HUGE? Maybe I’m just showing my age.
Surrounded by mountains, Quito is lovely. I’m loving it so far and I haven’t seen that much. I have to take it easy and not do too much until I get used to the altitude. Tomorrow, Monday, is my first day at Yunapuna Spanish School. I have 4 hours of one on one tuition each day, so I’m expecting this whole Spanish speaking thing to quickly get easier. Plus being forced to use it all day everyday will help too.

Hasta luego.Until next time.

Posted by TheWandera 16:10 Archived in Ecuador Tagged quito ecuador Comments (4)

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