Smooth circles forever 🇪🇨 🇨🇴

Posted on Dec 24, 2023

I flew back to Quito to continue my trip. It was easier leaving home a second time around, maybe on account of it all being a little less unknown now. Fortunately the heaviness of leaving didn’t last long. Sure, the time in transit felt lonely. Airports always seem to be this weird mixture of crowds and crowds of travellers while no one really wants to be there; they just want to get to where they’re going. But I soon found myself in a taxi back in Quito and talking with the driver, taking in the chaos of everything around me, and thinking how excited I was to be here. This trip is crazy.

Having gained some experience cycling these past months, I took the opportunity to make some changes to my bike while I was at home. “Ounces are pounds” or so the expression goes and while struggling up the many steep uphills further south I had some time to reflect on whether I really needed three flashlights. While first packing for the trip it was too easy to just say “sure, bring it!” to many disparate objects, which eventually left me with a heavy bike. Leaving a lot of stuff at home meant I could also switch to several smaller, lighter bags. While cycling with the large, traditional Ortlieb rear panniers, I eventually realized that I was consistently only using the top half of the 20 liter bags while the abyss at the bottom of the bag was rarely sifted through; lots of heavy dead weight in other words. The warmer weather between here and the United States also meant I could leave some big, bulky cold weather clothes at home. The end result is a blissfully light bicycle that’s making the cycling, especially the uphills, quite a bit more enjoyable.

Hiking Quilotoa and leaving Quito headed for the Amazon

I spent a little less than a week in Quito taking care of my bike, meeting new people, going on some hikes with them, and relaxing a bit. Together with a traveller from the US I went on a three day hike to the laguna Quilotoa, a water filled volcanic crater. The weather and cloud cover changed quickly for the entire hike, something I’d become all too familiar with in the coming weeks. When we reached the end of the hike and the lake itself we went from incredibly foggy conditions to beautiful views over the course of several minutes. From a viewpoint overlooking the lake we could see sheets of cloud cover rolling down over the lake. We found a place to crash in the small town nearby, also named Quiloto, and caught a bus back to Quito the next day.

Big clouds on our hike

Looking down toward Quito in the late afternoon

The laguna Quilotoa crater

While enjoying the comfort of a nice hostel in Quito it became all too easy to keep staying another day. It didn’t help that the travel advisories for the road ahead into Colombia weren’t the most welcoming. But eventually I had seen all that I wanted to see in and around Quito so it was time to hit the road. I had heard of another Casa de Ciclistas in the nearby city of Tumbaco so decided I would head there. This meant I could leave the city sometime in the afternoon without too much hastle or rush in the morning; it was an easy downhill. The routing algorithm on the mapping app I use sent me through a long vehicle tunnel, which was an exciting wake up. I was back on the bike.

I made it to the city of Tumbaco and found the Casa de Ciclistas. It’s run by Santiago and his wife Annalucia. Santiago is a bike mechanic who has a workshop at his home where he also invites long distance cycle-travellers to stay in a small covered area referred to as “the bunker.” He and I got to talking and he told me this Casa de Ciclistas is the second longest running one in all of South America and they’ve been welcoming cyclists for nearly forty years. Before my trip I had sought advice from two good friends who had cycled a very similar stretch through South America; along the way I had looked for signs of their peregrinations but had yet to find any. Together with Santiago we went through the register and found an entry of theirs made nearly ten years earlier when they stayed in the same bunker. It was a nice feeling of connection.

People told me the bridge has been out for two years. The oil pipeline is up and running, though

I left Tumbaco early the next morning because I knew there’d be one more big climb up to 4,100 meters and then it’d be mostly downhill into the much lower lying Amazon. I made it up and over the pass in one day, descended a bit, and then took a nice dip in the hot springs at Papallacta. The owners of the baths said it was no problem for me to camp out under a small roof in front of the ticket office. I swam some more, made some dinner, and slept well.

Having gone up and over the pass there was a sudden change in the weather, which was now much more variable and for the next few days would offer up heavy but short squalls of rain once or twice each afternoon. Over the next day or two I descended from the pass at 4,100 meters down to about 300 meters. From there on out it would be mostly flat with the occasional hill to climb. One night I camped under a small roof at a disused maintenance center for the nearby hydroelectric installation. There was a guard on duty all night who said it was no problem and he’d keep an eye on things in the night. Only come the next morning did I notice the nearby volcano pushing out plumes of smoke every so often. The guard and I got to chatting after I had my breakfast and we exchanged numbers. For the next few weeks he’d ask me how my trip was progressing and if I had made it to Colombia. Around Christmas time he had his own update, he was in Mexico and headed for the States.

Volcán Reventador with an early morning plume

Sitting on the oil pipeline, surprisingly warm, sheltered from the storm

So far, whenever the afternoon rains came I was quickly able to find a small roof to wait under but eventually that luck ran out. I made it, soaking wet, to the next town and opted for a warm lunch at a small restaurant. The food was still cooking, they asked if I had time to wait. “Sure, no problem, I’ve got nothing but time.” The small details I don’t remember, there was some overly dramatic show on TV, a few people came and went, food was on the way, I can’t remember what, and the grill was made out of an old truck rim but I do remember how I felt as I waited for the rain to stop and my clothes to dry. I looked out at all of this and thought, “man this trip is fucking awesome.”

Hot and humid

Crossing the equator; no signs.

I rode the rest of the way toward the Colombian border and eventually the road really flattened out. The approach toward the last Ecuadorian city of Nueva Loja was flat as a pancake. At some point I crossed the equator and I am now cycling in the northern hemisphere once again. There were no signs or anything indicating what was for me a momentous location. The only way I knew for sure was a GPS device indicating 0°0'0.0"N; the middle.

For the last several days I had been cycling past a long oil pipeline and the occasional pumping station carrying petroleum up from the Amazon. I spoke with some Petroecuador employees as I was curious about details. I came across a collapsed bridge at one point where I had to ford quite some water. Later on people would vent their frustration and tell me that the bridge has been out for two years while the pipeline was fixed right away. In general, the people know how much value literally flows through their communities but it all ends up in Quito. At one point I waited out some rain under a small covering and sat on the pipeline. It was surprisingly warm. Local people were also drying their clothes on the pipeline.

Waiting out a heavy afternoon squall

I rode along the pipeline for a few days

A campsite with not enough dogs


The extra time I had spent in Quito meant there was also plenty of time to read too many reports about safety on the Ecuador-Colombia border. I left the town of Nueva Loja early in the morning and cycled the 20 or so kilometers that were left of Ecuador. A few border formalities and some stamps and I was ready to cross the Rio San Miguel into Colombia. A few other cyclists had recommended this eastern most crossing as it was generally quieter and safer. A few kilometers into Colombia as I was pedalling down the road I could hear a moped pulling up slowly behind me. Admittedly, the first few times this happened my thoughts turned to the pending robbery that played out in my mind but instead, over the next few days, this would just be curious locals asking me about my trip. Each time they’d hand me a sports drink or a bag of fruit. Sometimes they’d ride along for half an hour just chatting. I’ve found the Spanish spoken in Colombia to be hard to understand at times, especially so through a helmet and over the dull hum of an engine. Smile and nod.

Crossing into Colombia

Having an afternoon coffee and feeling pretty good

I’ve immediately taken to the quantities of coffee that Colombians drink. Oftentimes coffee isn’t just coffee and it’s already heavily sweetened with sugar and flavored with things like cinnamon. It’s not what I’m used to but it’s an interesting change-up and if anything it’s probably good for cycling. Especially down at the lower elevations that I’ve encountered prior to Bogota, the temperature and humidity made for really tough cycling in the early afternoon. Nothing ever seems to dry and everything is always damp. The conditions are stifling. The air is thick like a milkshake and there’s hardly any wind. One particularly bad night I was camped in El Desierto de la Tatacoa, my skin caked over with a few days worth of sweat and sunscreen. A light drizzle and a sky that looked like rain meant I had the rain cover on my tent. It was somewhere around 30 degrees Celsius in the tent and it felt like I’d never fall asleep. Eventually I woke up briefly around 4 AM surprised that I had actually managed. The next day I took a room with a cold shower in the town of Natagaima.

Roadside wisdom

`Queremos ser hippies también'

Afternoon photo shoot

The Colombians that I’ve met along the way have been incredibly friendly and inviting. On account of the travel advisories I’ve avoided camping almost entirely with a few rare exceptions. Most afternoons simply chatting with people will lead to an invitation to some kind of safe spot to pass the night. In a very small roadside town further south another cyclist and I got to chatting with the owner of a small shop/bar/billiards hall; we were welcome to spend the night on the floor in a back room if we wanted. Little did we know that the party (and the music) would keep going until early in the morning. Another guy said that if the music really was too loud, then we were free to go sleep at his house a few hundred meters down the road.

Hot and humid but now in Colombia

Starting early around sunrise to avoid the heat. The kind owners let me sleep on the porch

The next night we got to chatting with a man who owns a small finca (i.e farm, estate, ranch, etc.) and we asked him if there was anywhere to camp around here. “Inside my house of course” was his answer. We were invited to take a rest day the next day and to lounge around in the hammock. The owners Gilberto and Esperanca showed us around their property and we had tamales together for dinner.

Colombia looking great

A typical stretch through a small town

Sunset from the Gigante finca campsite

Climbing for some mangos at Albenis's finca

The finca near Gigante

A gentle cat at Gilberto and Esperanca's house

One particularly special place was a finca near Gigante run by a lady named Albenis and her friend Sonia. The place was a veritable garden of Eden rich in all kinds of fruit and vegetable trees. Mangos, avocados, yuca, guanabana, bananas, plums, you name it, they grew it. Officially it was a small campground, we paid the fees and were happy to do so but the hostesses also seemed very happy to have us. We ate lunch and dinner together every day, chatted, and learned some salsa basics. We had intended to stay for one night but each morning after waking up and loading the bikes we looked out at the sky and decided it looked too much like rain; wouldn’t wanna risk it.

A hazy day riding past endless rice fields

A shady stretch

After the town of Natagaima I was once again travelling solo having opted to take the quieter dirt and gravel roads and trying to find some way to connect them all the way to Bogota. In Purificación I swapped out my rear tire for a new one, using the afternoon break to complete the job. By the time I was finished it was a bit too late to carry on so I cycled over to town fire station and was invited to sleep in a spare room on the second floor. I left early the next morning along some country roads and it was a beautiful stretch.

The Colombian sky has many big clouds

The hottest and muggiest campsite so far; a tough night to fall asleep

El Desierto de la Tatacoa

I’ve made some observations during these first few weeks in Colombia. First, it’s a pretty loud country. Most small towns or neighborhoods will have one or two houses with speakers turned toward the outside playing all sorts of music and the volume always seems to be way, way up. Second, every little town I’ve cycled through no matter how small, toward the end of the afternoon, everyone will be outside. If you stop long enough for a snack or a drink you’ll notice a really great amount of interaction between people. There’s a very strong sense of community. Third, and maybe this has something to do with the temperature, but they sure do like to kick back a few cold beers, more so than all other countries combined so far.

One of many good boys

Leaving the desert

Impressive cloud cover over Colombia

As I tried to piece together a string of trails leading to Bogota I eventually got fairly lost and found myself cycling down (trying to, at least) a densely covered bit of rocky trail when suddenly I heard a loud, sharp hissing sound coming from my rear wheel. I must’ve cut the sidewall of my tire wide open on a sharp rock. Of course this happens just two days after mounting a brand new tire. An interesting situation had quickly developed but secretly this is the stuff I had come to look forward to; how am I gonna figure this one out? I first tried a few Dynaplugs but the hole was too big so those were a bit of a waste. I ended up unseating the tire and stitching up the rip with the sutures from my first-aid kit. I reseated the tire and made sure the tubeless fluid covered the stitching. I was immediately able to ride the bike again and it seems to be holding air just fine several weeks later. This was my first decently big mechanical issue since losing half of my chainring bolts in southern Chile.

Keke leading the way on a quiet stretch

Catholic mass in the middle of an intersection

Could it be any better?

The rear tire was now all sorted out but I was still somewhat lost. I carried on down the trail and ran into a man named Octavio and his dog. We got to chatting and I showed him my map and told him my plan. He said that’s a tough way to go and told me to walk back with him and he’d show me the way to the town of Viotá. We walked back and chatted a bit and eventually made it to his house. He invited me in for some soup and a cup of coffee. I was welcome to stay the night but politely refused as I was trying to make it to Bogota for Christmas and was feeling a bit behind schedule. The road down to Viotá was incredible and I found a place to camp in the parking lot of the hospital in town.

Having lost the road

Using my sutures to fix a rip in the sidewall of my tire

All patched up, let's see if it holds

From Viotá it was two more days of steady climbing into Bogota. The higher altitude meant a cooler, drier climate which was a very welcome change. The closer I got to Bogota the more recreational cyclists I saw coming from the city. The many bags on my bike probably gave it away that I wasn’t from around here and so there were many shouts of encouragement from the other cyclists, “vamos! vamos!” On the final day before reaching the city I got up extra early to finish the climb and to enter the city at an early time. I rode in together with a few other cyclists and planned to meet my cousin in the city to spend Christmas and New Year’s together.

Having left Octavio's house and headed for Viotá

A group of cyclists leading the way into Bogotá

Bogotá from Monserrate

P.S. Leaving my laptop at home to shed weight off of the bike meant I’d now have to maintain my website using only my phone. I found this guide quite helpful.