It was hard to leave Colombia behind. After more than 50 days inside its borders, we’d become comfortable and familiar with the country’s vibe. We were lucky to have the chance to meet some great people and spend a little time in the towns and cities, like Barancabermeja, Puerto Salgar, Bogota and San Agustin.
Colombia’s staggering natural beauty, its generous, open and friendly people and its rich literary and visual arts culture left a deep impression on us. One of our last encounters there, however, helped to balance the somewhat ideal and rosy conception we’d formed of the country: near the southern border we stayed with a displaced family that had recently had their farm stolen (then sold) by the guerillas. Until that point, we preferred to believe that the violence and political instability so often associated with the country were real but exaggerated threats, like grizzly bears in the North, cougars in the West, Mexican drug gangs and Panamanian pirates. But the threat is real. In parts of Colombia, guerrillas apparently can steal and sell your house (or much worse) and there’s not much you can do about it. We spent a good part of the evening talking with 52 year-old Gustavo, the financial head of his small family, who now sells live fish off the back of a motorbike to put food on the table. Gustavo’s Sisyphean resilience in the face of loss was deeply moving. He simply doesn´t have the luxury of sorrow or self-pity. He can only look forward, he says, or go mad.
Bomberos, our new pals
We made an important discovery in our last few miles of Colombia: bomberos, or firefighters! Bomberos stations in South America have a tradition of welcoming travellers like us for a night or two (or more)! They have kitchen facilities, showers, and sometimes beds. And they’re in towns, which means Lucie and I can walk around, at night, without our bikes and gear, like normal people. Our first bomberos experience was in Pasto, Colombia. John, the station’s mechanic and ambulance driver, went well out of his way to make sure we felt at home. He welcomed us in, introduced us to the entire crew and even brought us over to meet his family. He was a phone call away from signing us up to join the service. Since then, we’ve stayed in stations in Tulcan, Ibarra and Otavalo, all in Ecuador. (Note: if you’re riding from the north toward Ibarra, the Bomberos station is about 3 km north of town, on the Lake of Blood. Great camping!)
Ecuador’s Majestic Beauty and Santiago’s Casa Ciclista
We are now officially in the Andes, breathing the rarefied air between 2500 and 4000 metres above sea level. Every day we’re treated to the kind of views you would normally expect to see through an airplane window. We’re eye-level with the clouds, surrounded by alternating high desert, forests, and a stunning patchwork of alpine fields. There are fewer people. Fewer fences. This means the world is our campground once again. The force and scale of the natural beauty of Ecuador is recharging my batteries in all kinds of ways. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.
After a few short days of cycling at high altitude (which included crossing The Line, i.e. the equator), we finally made it to Quito, the second-highest capital in South America. We’re now guests of the Casa Ciclista in Tumbaco, a laid-back suburb of Quito, where our amazing host Santiago is constantly plotting, trying to figure ways to make us settle down here permanently. He’s doing a pretty good job. Every morning after breakfast he plants us in front of the Tour de France. Then we go for a mountain bike ride on converted railway trails through the valley, where we gawk at the imposing snow-covered Cotopaxi volcano and glimpse the shining city of Quito in the distance. Then we come back to the house and prepare a gigantic almuerzo, the mid-afternoon meal that makes up for the traditionally diminutive breakfast and supper (basically hot chocolate or coffee with a roll). If we don’t get out of here soon, we’ll never leave.
This past Saturday (July 17) was my 35th birthday. It was also the send-off party for fellow Montrealer Jeremie, whose bike tour north from Argentina ended in a 10 week stay here in Quito! There was a massive barbecue, beer, singing and cake. A bunch of Santiago’s cyclist friends and members of his extended family came over to celebrate. It was fantastic.
We spent yesterday touring Quito’s gorgeous historic centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were overwhelmed by the imposing colonial architecture, especially the churches, many of which date from the 17th Century.
From here we’ll head south through the mountains. We have to make it to Lima, Peru by August 11th, when we’ll fly back to Montreal for Marie-Claude and David’s wedding. Then we’ll be back in Peru on September 1st, southbound to Argentina. This is kind of an ideal point in our journey. Over the last ten months we’ve been exposed to more raw beauty and adventure than we could have imagined. We’re currently surrounded by interesting, dynamic, good-hearted people in a ridiculously beautiful country. And we’re about to be treated to a dose of friends, family and familiarity to insulate us from homesickness and help us to appreciate the rest of our quest even more. Fortune isn’t just smiling on us, it seems; she’s howling and slapping her knees.
PS: A Casa Ciclista, a Latin American phenomenon, is simply a place that welcomes travelling cyclists. Our first Casa was in Ensenada, Mexico. Since then, we stopped in Claudio’s Casa in Bogota and Paola and Igel’s Finca Ciclista in San Agustin.