Mitad del mundo

March 12th, 2013

My head full of Colombia as we crossed the border at Tulcán, it was difficult to concentrate on Ecuador and what it might be like. Fit to burst at saying goodbye to a country I had fallen in love with and knowing that it would be a long time before I saw the friends I made there again, it was with some reluctance that I handed my passport over to gain entry into Ecuador.

Thankfully Ecuador had ample distractions waiting for me. We were instantly wooed by three successive days of beautiful dirt riding, and began to discover a wider range of tastier food with more flavour than we had recently enjoyed. The thrill of entering a new country came flooding back. After six months in Colombia, I had felt at home where things had become comfortable, easy.  Now in Ecuador with a new currency, a new cuisine, a new backdrop, it was time to start discovering again.

As we got our bearings and adjusted to bigger landscapes with jaw dropping views, another moment grabbed my attention. There was a marker in our journey that I hadn’t really acknowledged, until we arrived right there, on the line…we had reached la mitad del mundo – the Equator. As we slowed to cross the line hand in hand - on bikes we had pedalled all the way from Alaska – I felt quite proud.

I realised that we can say that we have pretty much cycled halfway down the world, clocking up 18,200km in the process.  Feeling impressed with that, and happy to be in Ecuador, I took a moment to mark the occasion with a big hug for my ever- patient riding partner, a celebratory munch on a banana (of course) and the obligatory poses for a series of silly photos on top of the line itself at the monument just outside Quito.

Sarah

Ladies selling juice in the market at Tulcán, Ecuador

The border town of Tulcán isn't Ecuador's most picturesque place but its newly renovated market with delicious fruit juice stalls, free wi-fi and cheap set lunches were enough to give us pleasant welcome into the country.

A statue outside the turning for the road to El Angel

We'd heard from other cyclists of a road leaving Tulcán leading up into the páramo highlands that was found by looking for the statue of a dwarf resembling Hitler, brandishing a rifle outside a modernist church....with such weird and specific instructions we couldn't really go wrong and sure enough, we found the statue and followed our road...

Sarah making a hot chocolate in the páramo outside Tulcán, Ecuador

...to a remote camp spot at around 2800m where we dropped the bikes, put on all of our clothes and fired up the stove to make a hot chocolate in an attempt to warm up in Ecuador's cooler climes.

James riding his bike through the páramo near El Angel, Ecuador

After a night of pure silence, camped under a blanket of crisp, crystal stars we were up early and raring to go across the páramo...

View of the frailejones in the páramo, Ecuador

...16km more of climbing to the top and every centimetre of it covered in frailejones.

Sarah cycles into the frailejones in the páramo, Ecuador

Around every corner these plants, which are only found above 3000m in Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, were waiting to welcome us....

View of the frailejones in the páramo, Ecuador

...beautiful, eerie, and so unlike any terrain we've encountered elsewhere.

Collage of different plants on the páramo near El Angel, Ecuador

There are other species of plant that thrive here too...delicate colours and textures we were surprised to find in such harsh conditions.

James' bike on the dirt road to El Angel, Ecuador

No need to worry about encountering any other traffic on this lonely desolate road...

Close up picture of frailejon leaf in the páramo, Ecuador

...which gives us time to get to know these plants a little more intimately...

Close up picture of frailejon leaf in the páramo, Ecuador

...I enjoyed stroking their furry leaves!

Patchwork fields on the descent to El Angel, Ecuador

In beautiful weather, we then descend over 50km, through a vibrant patchwork of fields...

View of the Andes on the descent from El Angel, Ecuador

...down and down and into more rugged terrain that reminds us we have truly reached the Andes. Those mountains looming ahead of us today, will be the climbs we have to undertake tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day.

Man in front of train mural, Salinas, Ecuador

Reaching Salinas, just off the Pan American which we have (smugly) successfully avoided so far, we encounter a sleepy forgotten town on the edge of the mountains...

View of the dirt road from Salinas, past volcano Cotacachi, Ecuador

...and on leaving, in another attempt to avoid the main road, we kind of make up a route as we go along. Using Volcano Cotacachi as a landmark, we stumble upon the old route to Ibarra...

Sarah riding along a dirt track near Salinas, Ecuador

...weaving along dirt tracks reminiscent of Mexico...

Sarah riding past fields of sugar cane near Salinas, Ecuador

...through the familiar heat of sugar cane fields and down into a quarry...

Sarah descends into a quarry near Imbaya, Ecuador

...which at first glance makes us think we've been a bit ambitious with our wanderings and we've hit a dead end. Beady eyed Jams spots an exit however and...

Sarah riding through a disused railway tunnel near Imbaya, Ecuador

...a series of tunnels from an old railway line guide us back to the "road" towards Imbaya.

Sarah riding up cobble track near Imabya, Ecuador

Throughout Central America, I wailed with discomfort whenever we reached a colonial town because it inevitably meant saddle-sore inducing cobbled streets. Imagine my dismay then at arriving in Ecuador to find that cobbled roads are not something reserved only for pretty towns here, but are seen as a legitimate road building technique. So it seems James will have to suffer much more of my complaining if all of the ascents ahead of us are to be cobbled.

A sign in Spanish for "humus", near Imabaya, Ecuador

Excitement levels went up considerably when I saw this sign, thinking my favourite chickpea snack was for sale nearby...whilst I was salivating with anticipation, Jams helpfully pointed out that "humus" in this case is the Spanish word for soil...I know, I know, it's not even spelt the same way but after nearly two years of craving, you can't blame a girl for getting excited.

Joining the Pan American highway at Imbarra, Ecuador

It couldn't have felt more different to our morning's ride when we hit the Pan American at Ibarra. From field tracks to four lane highway in just a few hours. Thankfully we only had to do 4km on this monstrosity before exiting again for a more peaceful route to Otavalo.

Poster of Rafael Correa, Ecuador's present, with a road bike

Along the way, we learned, from a helpful poster in a fruit and veg shop, that the current president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, shares our passion for two wheels.

Brightly coloured scarves at the market in Otavalo, Ecuador

Ahead of us lie more mountains, greater altitude, more snow and colder weather than we will have experienced on this trip so far. We take the chance to stock up on woolly winter warmers in Otavalo, a town famous for a market selling deliciously snuggly clothing made from llama and alpaca wool.

A view of volcano Imbabura from near Otavalo, Ecuador

Another cobbled climb led us to a wonderful camping spot between two volcanoes. Looking right we had Imbabura standing majestically in the last of the evening light and...

A view of Cotacachi from near Otavalo, Ecuador

...looking left the summit of Cotacachi was shrouded in clouds but still there...looming from the other side. Ecuador, land of volcanoes.

Sarah cycling along the track beside Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

There are no pictures of our 14km cobbled climb up to the Lagunas de Mojanda, a series of lakes at 3700m, partly because it was extremely misty but also because it took every breath, every cell of the body to turn the pedals to get up there. We are definitely still adjusting to the altitude here, but it's all good training for when we expect to reach dizzy heights of 5000m in Bolivia. This was the first we saw of the lakes as we rounded the corner at the top of (what I thought was) the end of the climb.

Path around Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

We had the place to ourselves and as the mist cleared and a deliciously warm sun showed itself, we followed the twisting path alongside these beautiful lakes.

Plants on the edge of Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

As with the páramo between Tulcán and El Angel, we were discovering stunning nature we'd never seen before. South America's version of thistles perhaps?

James pushes his bike up a steep path alongside Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

Rounding the lake, we were foolish to think the hard work was over and this steep section had us both off and pushing - we are thankful that we've got the weight of the bikes down as low as possible to be able to - just about - tackle tracks like this.

Sarah pedalling away from Lagunas de Mojanda towards Tabacundo, Ecuador.

After lunch, sheltering out of the wind at an deserted tourist complex, the realisation slowly dawned on me that there was more climbing to come. If the lakes were in a basin, it was inevitable that we had to climb back out of it...steep grade on loose dirt after lunch...there was a lot of swearing. But at least the view was nice.

Road sign of a cyclist going up a steep hill, Ecuador

As I was choking to take in air when we got to the top, this sign managed to bring a grin to my face...a reminder, in case we needed it, that cyclists can expect steep climbs on uneven surfaces around here.

A mirador cabin at the top of the climb, Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

Finally we reach the top and at 4000m it's the highest climb of our trip so far. The rugged backdrop, fluffy white clouds and bright sunshine make it all seem worth it...

Looking back at the Lagunas de Mojanda from the mirador, Ecuador

...especially when you look back and are rewarded with this view...

View of the road to Tabacundo from the Lagunas de Mojanda, Ecuador

...and you look ahead and see that the road to come is just as inviting.

James cycling the descent from the Lagunas de Mojanda to Tabacundo, Ecuador

Setting out on the descent to Tabacundo, James looks as thought he's about to ride right off the edge and into the clouds.

Herd of horses passes by on the road from Lagunas de Mojanda to Tabacundo

Halfway down the descent we are stopped in our tracks by a team of horses who demand all the space on the road as they gallop on by.

A collage of snacks in Ecuador - papas con verdes, empanadas, humitas

Arriving in Tabacundo, we decide it's time to try out some Ecuadorian snacks and we waste no time in ordering one of everything...so we can make some discerning choices of course. Clockwise from top left: potatoes with greens and toasted maize, wrapped humitas (maize dumplings with cheese and sugar), an unwrapped humita ready for eating and cheese empanadas...thankfully, everything was yummy and passed the test.

Germán on Rancho G in his living room near Tabacundo, Ecuador

While I was stocking up with veg at the market, James was approached by Germán who runs a paintballing ranch just outside Tabacundo. He generously invited us to camp at his house where he and his wife Fabiola made us incredibly welcome. We were treated to an open fire, beer and delicious food, and even an exclusive performance of traditional costume and local dancing - usually only seen at the month long festival for St Peter and Paul held in June.

James and Sarah cycle over the equator line, Ecuador

After a big breakfast with Germán and Fabiola we set off to cross the equator. Reaching this landmark, I felt it important to remind James which direction we should be heading in over the next nine months - the same as always....generally...sort of...south.

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10 Responses to “Mitad del mundo”

  1. skip and nancy Says:

    Well it’s about time you two got into some real peddling terrain. Good thing you’re in shape for the mountains.
    The continuing saga is wonderful, thanks for the great photos and stories.
    The image of woolies is a good one, hope they keep you warm and cozy
    Looks like you are into some beautiful country.
    Have some pasties for us when you have a chance.
    Spring here, not enough rain but flowers are coming out.
    Stay safe and healthy, your friends, Skip and Nancy

    [Reply]

  2. Chrissie Says:

    Hello you two… your trip just gets more and more amazing… glad the food does not disappoint xxxx

    [Reply]

  3. Phil Says:

    Well done, quite a milestone crossing the equator! Only a bit to go now!! Great pictures well done, who has the publishing rights to the book and film, surely there will be both. Take care and hope Easter goes well somewhere, parades etc. Am off to US and Toronto on 1st April for 18 days, friends and then family. Lots of love to you both.
    Phil xxxxx

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  4. Mum and Dad Says:

    Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow
    If you had been on a ship you would have got dunked as you crossed the equator!! Glad the mystery is still there for you, each pic is a wonder. Lots of love Pa xxx

    [Reply]

  5. Sam Wyld Says:

    Was that grub really yummy? This time, I’m not entirely convinced ;o) Love those horses, wow xxx

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  6. Ma and Pa Says:

    Oh my! What lovely photos! Phil is right – book definitely and film (at least documentary)would be great! Please don’t leave those beautiful warm woolly wraps in some distant place when you are done with them. They look amazing. Big hugs and always thank you for keeping in touch and allowing us to share this epic experience. Love you millions. Ma

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  7. Laura Bowery Says:

    Sounds and looks amazing! Love the horses! Wow. Lots of love.xxx

    [Reply]

  8. Dinah Says:

    Amazing!!!!! Love your updates. Keep on pedalling xxxx

    [Reply]

  9. Mario & Patricia Says:

    Hi Sara and James:
    It’s just incredible what you two are accomplishing and pictures and narrative are super!Hope no vicious dogs get in your way!!!Pat is asking the name of the breed you mentioned regarding URSULA!!

    Good health and a BIG hug from all of us!

    [Reply]

  10. An Eventful Introduction to Ecuador | Velo Freedom - Cycling South Says:

    […] see some unmissable photos of the El Angel paramos click on these links: Sarah & James, Cass, Anna and Tom & […]

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