Sunday, 14 October 2018

Ibarra, Ecuador to Pasto, Colombia(!)

We stayed in Ibarra for a week. Our route in, through, and out of the city was along roads so we were able to chip away at those kilometers while having a home-base to work from. During our time in Ibarra, we got a ton of work done including (but not limited to) catching up on writing, updating and adding to our different social networks, walking over 60 kilometers, planning routes through Colombia, and I had the opportunity to cook and bake - a happy place of mine.

We also had opportunities in northern Ecuador to meet some other adventurers who were passing through at the same time as Fidgit and I. Brad of @bikehikesafari was on his way south by bike when he met up with us in Ibarra, and we made plans to see Onna (@redheadednomad) and George Voellmer in the border town of Tulcan. After our working rest stop in Ibarra, we made our way up to Tulcan and met the pair, AKA the other Neon and his partner, and shared many a story over dinner. When we parted ways, Fidgit and I knew we’d likely run into these kindred souls again some day.

Our nerves were on edge not knowing what to expect at the border. Walking there was uneventful - we followed a road that took us along the river valley separating Ecuador from Colombia. At the bridge/border crossing, we walked around the Ecuadorian Aduanas, not seeing a labelled entrance. Fidgit asked a guard where to get stamped out, and we were pointed in the right direction. Thankfully the line was short when we arrived, so we got up to the window in a timely manner. Standing at the Aduanas window, the border employee informed us that we had come into Ecuador at such a small border station that we weren’t ‘officially’ in their system. So they had to put us into the system to take us out of the system. We waited for about thirty minutes for the employee to process our information, then he was able to stamp us out of Ecuador, and we walked north across the bridge . . . into COLOMBIA!

Upon reaching the Colombian side of the bridge/border, we walked up to a long line outside of their Aduanas building. Looking for alternatives (Brad told us there may be alternatives) we walked around the building hoping we could avoid the line. I spotted an empty filing area that looked like an alternate line next to the people all lined up and we went there. Fidgit and I must have walked up purposefully because a few others followed our lead. Thankfully my hunch worked out and we were quickly allowed into the building to get stamped into Colombia. We later learned that the longer line was specifically for Venezuelans and the line we went to/created was for everyone else.

As Fidgit and I walked away from the Colombian Aduanas building, I worked on my observational skills. I found myself looking around and trying to see what differentiated this country from its neighbors to the south. The border town of Ipiales wasn’t a far walk, so I didn’t get to practice much that evening, though I did notice some immediate differences - the presence of more semi trucks and billboards. Many things also stayed the same across the border, such as the amount of fried chicken and the honking of passing vehicles.

We spent the night in Ipiales, running some errands and planning for the next few days into Pasto. When we spoke with Onna and George in Tulcan, they suggested we go off our original route to check out a beautiful church built on a bridge nearby. Leaving Ipiales, we headed toward the church. Nestled at the bottom of a ‘quebrada,' or gorge, the Sanctuario de Las Lajas was definitely worth the side trip to check out, and helped make our first full day in Colombia a memorable one.

After day one, we were walking along roads to Pasto. It wasn’t very eventful, though it was an adjustment to the dirt tracks and trails we had become accustomed to. Semi-trucks hurtled past belching black smoke, and motorcycles seemed to have their own set of rules that I couldn’t quite figure out. Each night Fidgit and I would look over our route for the next day and discuss if there was a possibility of getting onto side roads. The risks versus the rewards were discussed, and we usually stayed on the highway. Fortunately, on the day we walked into Pasto, we were able to spend the afternoon walking along a small dirt road that led across the countryside into the city. The risk was low and the reward was high as we crested the last hill to descend into Pasto. The city sprawled across the valley below as we made our way in.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Riobamba to Ibarra

Riobamba is situated in a valley surrounded by volcanoes. The cloud cover prevented us from seeing the tops of the peaks most of the time but we definitely felt their presence. 

Leaving the city, the day began cloudy and spritzed rain on us as we ascended out of the valley to a pass between mountains. We climbed along older or abandoned dirt roads to a tiny town two-thirds of the way to the pass where we stopped for lunch. Men in the corner of the shop had a rousing discussion about the most recent soccer game while all we ate our almuerzo- a pile of rice and lentils with a small piece of meat atop it. Leaving our lunch stop, we noticed the clouds clearing. I hoped we'd be able to get a view. Fidgit and I ascended to the pass over the next couple hours and unfortunately the clouds were still covering the peaks. We began our descent, twisting down along another valley edge. As we turned once again towards the clouded peaks, they decided to come out for a moment and Volcan Chimborazo snuck out along one side of the valley while Cotopaxi peeked out in the distance. Seeing that natural beauty put a pep in our step and we oohed and ahhhed while attempting to photograph the peaks. After such a show, Fidgit and I breezed through into the evening before stopping for the night.

The next day, we walked through the valley into the city of Ambato. Mostly along dirt and paved roads, we passed through the many small towns and along the farm fields that took up the spaces between. Ambato is a bustling city. I was stressed walking along the streets with a full pack on, though once we got to where we were staying and settled in, I felt much better. Eating something also helped. After a hot shower and a good night's sleep, I was ready to take on the climb out of Ambato.

All of the cities we've passed through in Ecuador are in valleys, so I knew the climb was coming. This one was a bit steeper than the rest, especially since we tried a shortcut that went straight up into someone's yard. They allowed us passage while scolding us for taking a 'private path'. After a quick lunch of leftovers and ice cream, we continued up and along a side road, which was also an Inca Trail, according to the signs. The low cloud cover continued to impede our mountain views, though the walking climate was pleasant, and after a couple of days we found ourselves at the other end of the valley in the city of Latacunga.  We then prepared for our trip around Cotopaxi and into the Quito valley.

Leaving Latacunga, we made our way to the small town of Mulalo. From there, we walked along a dirt road to a two track to an abandoned road. Though short-lived, hopping fences and doing some route finding when the 'road' disappeared reminded me once again about the joys of adventuring. It can be fun to get off the beaten path and find your own way. At the end of the day, however, the ascent took its toll and I was ready to rest. As twilight descended, we found a campsite and set up away from the noisy campers. The clouds rolled in as I ate some cold leftovers and attempted to get some rest.

The chill in the air kept me from sleeping much, so I tossed and turned trying to keep warm through the night into the morning. Fidgit didn't fare much better and we  groggily packed up and set off to warm up as soon as it was light enough. The frozen hands and feet had me in a bad mood, and the wind and cold wasn't helping. We walked down the road for a while in the continued cloud. As we were about to meet another route to descend, the clouds being blown past us began thinning and we got another view of the amazing mountain we'd been walking along.

My spirits lifted with the cloud cover, and we continued on in the windy sunshine. Descending along a two-track that took us across a boulder field then along a river valley. Dirt tracks turned into cobblestone for the second half of the day and my body did not approve of the harsh change. My feet all the way up to my hips was in pain by kilometer 35 and I had to stop for the day. Shivering in pain, I forced myself to eat and drink something before the sweet respite of sleep overcame me.

Thankfully a good nights’ sleep improved the situation, and I was merely stiff and sore the next morning. We walked further into the Quito Valley, and had our first experience walking along the Pan-American Highway. I won’t say it was enjoyable, but it did get us where we wanted to go in a timely manner. I was glad we only had to walk along the highway for a few hours before we could turn off down a side road to finish our day.

We  walked through the rest of the Quito valley the next day, mostly on an abandoned railroad. The gradient and lack of traffic was a great respite from the previous day and we were able to let our minds wander as our feet did the same. I was so grateful for the bikepackers who had come before us to find this route and share it.

At the north end of the Quito valley, Fidgit and I had to follow the highway for a bit, though were able to turn off on a dirt road near the equator. We then crossed the equator, which was a mix of emotions for me: excitement to be in the northern hemisphere and counting up when we crossed latitude lines, at the same time sad to be getting further away from dear friends in the southern hemisphere. The emotions continued to mingle as we ascended to the Cochasqui ruins, and settled into the campground nearby.

Fidgit and I continued our  ascent the next morning, arriving at the highest point just after lunch and descending past a few large lakes. The route was ours alone until Laguna de Mojanda, a high-altitude lake along the edge of the old volcano we’d been walking across. From the Laguna, we continued our descent and found a trail that had all kinds of tracks on it- bike, foot, horse, cow, etc. It was steep though beautiful and took us to the edge of Otavalo. Fidgit and I then found our way into the small city for the night, sleeping soundly after such an exciting couple days.

The next morning, Fidgit slept in while I got some work done, then we headed off toward Ibarra. Otavalo sits at one end of the valley, and Ibarra is at the other end, so the walking was uneventful. We planned to take some time in Ibarra to get more work done and prepare for our time in Colombia, reserving an AirBnB to stay at for the week. We made our way through Ibarra to meet Jose at the AirBnB and get settled in.


Sunday, 9 September 2018

Cuenca to Riobamba

In my ten plus years of long distance walking, I had never had a foot injury other than blisters. Okay, I wore boots at the beginning of the AT and they pinched a nerve in my ankle, that might count. Either way, I was at a loss of what to do with my foot injury. Thankfully we have a competent medical adviser and Fidgit has had enough foot issues for the both of us and then some. While we were in Cuenca I rested, 'iced' (my feet are plenty icy most of the time), compressed, and elevated (which helped with the iciness: no blood = no warmth) as much as I could. A couple days of rest and I felt better, so we walked a short day out of the city with light packs. Another day or so of rest and we were once again headed north with full packs.

Leaving the valley Cuenca sits in, we wound our way up along the edge of the mountains along dirt roads to the small town of Deleg. We were able to find dinner and a place to stay. I curled up under the many blankets and fell asleep to the sound of rain against the window. The next morning was surprisingly cold and dreary, though the sun made an appearance later in the day right before another rainstorm blew through. Because of the dreary weather and my (still) bum foot, we decided to take a shorter day. We made a plan and then made our way to Ingapirca.

Ingapirca is home to Ecuador's largest Inca ruin. It's a small pueblo with a deep and interesting history. Google it or watch the video below and you'll see. It sits at an elevation around 3,200 meters (10,500 feet) which was cold and damp. We stayed right near the ruins, and slack-packed back to near Biblian, where we had left off the day before. My foot felt better going downhill, so it was helpful that we were descending most of the day. After a long day of walking on a still healing foot, it was nice to come back to a warm and welcoming place.

The weather continued to be COLD and mostly cloudy with intermittent rain showers, so we walked another day with light packs along the Inca trail between Lago Culebrillas and Ingapirca. It dumped rain on us for half the day, so it was wonderful to have a place to dry out. We were also able to tour the ruins right at sunset - so amazing to have the place to ourselves!

After staying warm and dry for as long as we could, we set off from Lago Culebrillas to continue north. The lago sits higher than Ingapirca, and the wind blew through the valley so we kept our layers on. Fidgit and I went separate ways along the next stretch. I ascended along the Inca trail while she took a different route up the same valley - a different Inca trail, I believe. We both went up over 4,000 meters before descending into the next valley. The terrain was a mix of turba/peat bog and rock, so it was hard to know if the next step would be soaking you or not. Unless you were walking through a boggy area, then you knew. Wet feet and being in a damp cloud kept me moving that day. I came over the pass and descended again, down to meet Fidgit at an agreed upon spot. She was waiting and, after talking it over, we decided(based on weather, terrain, and my foot feeling better) to push into town. At 4 pm, we began our 'speed-walk' into town. We went down and down along the Inca trail/marsh/meadow, below the clouds, chasing the sun, which getting higher on the valley side. Walking past cows, horses, barking dogs, energetic children standing outside their houses, we made it to the dirt road into Achupallas as the sun disappeared for the day. We walked the rest of the way into town as the light faded, and found a small hotel with kind owners who told us about the town and made us hot tea. After dinner, I fell asleep under the fleece sheets.

In the morning the friendly owners, Emiterio and Inez, talked with us over breakfast, telling Fidgit and I about the history of Achupallas as well as sharing local gossip and opinions. Emiterio showed us around town, helped us get some supplies, and even walked with us for a bit out of town before saying his farewells. We followed along a winding mountain road up and out of town before leveling out and continuing to wind along the side of the mountain range. We stopped for lunch in the shade of a building, and Fidgit ended up talking with some locals and sharing photos of the Ingapirca ruins because they'd never been there.

After lunch, we walked on and as evening set in, the weather slowly changed to not great. Rain began pelting us right before we got to Totoras. Walking up to a small shop, we asked if they knew of a place we could get dinner. A man kindly walked us to the restaurant in town. It was closed. Dejected, we walked back through the rain to the shop, hoping to get something for dinner. The man's wife, hearing that the restaurant was closed, offered us soup and horchata. We sat in the shop, hungrily eating warm soup. When we had finished and were getting ready to head out in the rain to find a place to set up our tents, they offered us a spare room. I fell asleep to the sound of rain and wind pelting the window, grateful for the kindness of strangers.

Waking up and looking outside, the clouds were hanging low among the mountains. Fidgit and I packed up and walked on, knowing we had a couple of passes to cross that day. The wind whipped around us as we crossed a high point and rain spattered us as we stopped for a warm beverage in the small community at the base of our big climb. We savored the warmth before forcing ourselves to head out. As we left the dirt track and headed up through the tall grasses, the weather cleared up a bit and we got some views between clouds being blown through the valley. Up and up we went, mostly following an animal path that dissipated through the bog-like terrain close to the pass. Crossing the first pass, we could see the other pass about a kilometer away and 60 meters higher. Pushing through the bog between the passes and sinking into at least our ankles every step, we made it up and over the second pass. Fidgit and I then followed the spine of the mountain down through blowing rain as the clouds descended upon us into the valley. We were following something on the GPS titled 'alley' though in reality we were still following faded animal paths down through some trees until we found a dirt (actually, mud) two-track. The road led us to a more traveled two-track, which then led us to a road and a small building. We were standing inside the building, which was a shop/restaurant, debating our options when I noticed that the sign outside said the place was a hospedaje as well. We stayed in a damp, mildewy room that night. It felt like hours before I was dried out a bit and warm once again.

The next day, we began walking along a more main thoroughfare. Over the next few days, we walked along, (mostly) descending into the city of Riobamba, where we promptly ate as much as possible before heading north into volcano territory.