Biking Through Ecuador, Day 1: Quito to Mindo

I’m pretty sure I climbed a mountain today, on a bike. We started down in a low valley and ended up swathed in mist somewhere up high in a cloud forest. Eight kilometers of switchbacks and somewhat gradual inclines along a severely potholed and stoney dirt road took us several thousand feet up into the Andes mountain range. It was beautiful. We passed steep terraced slopes dotted with cows and small haciendas looking out over deep valleys that encompassed every shade of green. At every bend in the road there was a stunning vista and I had to restrain myself from stopping to take a picture each time the valley’s and mountains came into view.

We woke up early this morning to finishing last-minute packing and enjoy our last breakfast at La Casa Sol (although we also made another reservation to stay there on our way back through Quito before heading to Guayaquil and the Galapagos. We are creatures of habit). Arie met us at the hotel with his brand new Land Rover-esque jeep topped with three bikes and a trunk full of gear. Originally from Holland, he has lived in Ecuador for the past 19 years and done bike tours for a good 16 of that. After loading the car with our bags, we headed out of Quito and into the hills of the surrounding countryside. As I said before, Ecuador is beautiful. After about an hour of driving, we pulled off onto a dirt road, unloaded the bikes, and geared up for our first ride of the trip. Arie followed us in the jeep as we sped downhill for 24 kilometers along an extremely bumpy road. It wasn’t long before my wrists and back hurt from being jarred around so much, but the views and experience more than made up for it. Arie met us at the bottom of the massive downhill with bananas and water and then we began our grueling eight kilometer climb into the cloud forest. I was very glad that I had forced myself to work out on the elliptical 5-6 days a week on the ship in Costa Rica/Panama! At the top, Arie had lunch ready for us, but it started raining, so we didn’t dally much. He lent me his raincoat and off we were again. More bumpy roads and beautiful sights. With the rain, it looked like we could almost have been in Ireland or Scotland, it was so green.

We finally reached a paved road, and from there it was about a 20 minute ride into the town of Mindo. Thankfully the rain stopped, so it was a nice ride, and my wrists and back were happier.

Sweaty, muddy, tired, and a little chilled from the rain, we rolled up to our little guesthouse looking forward to a hot shower. Surprise, surprise, the whole town was without water for a few hours for some reason I couldn’t catch. A bit disappointed, C and I sat on our balcony for awhile and then set out to explore the town. On our way out the hotel, we stopped by the open-air wooden porch that looks out onto a garden. The owners have hung several bird-feeders from the trees and we watched, amazed, as dozens of hummingbirds and other feathered species flitted about. This area apparently has 33 different kinds of hummingbirds alone.

After snapping photo after photo of the hummingbirds, we were still chilled, so we stopped at a nice restaurant for a cup of tea, which warmed us up. Then we strolled through the small park and down the one and only main street which was lined with no-frill eateries and convenience shops. Mindo is a sleepy town, but it’s cute, and most people come here, I think, for it’s abundant bird life rather than good food and historical sites.

It had started drizzling again, so we slowly made our way back to the hotel, but the drizzle turned into a downpour and we were soon soaking wet. Once in our room, the water was back on, but a hot shower was too much to ask for. I got most of the mud off, then climbed into bed and underneath the warm blankets. Outside the rain had turned into a thunderstorm that sent lightning strikes alarmingly close and rumbles that shook our wooden walls. I also learned something new – I didn’t know that thunder set off car alarms.

Biking in Bangkok

I feel like I just smoked a pack of cigarettes. Maybe even two. I just spent an hour on a tuk tuk, inhaling exhaust fumes and trying to keep my eyes from drying out from the polluted air. To make it worse, my tuk tuk driver and I had a little bit of misunderstanding as to where I wanted to go. After 30 minutes of stop and go, bumper to bumper traffic, I pulled out my map and pointed to the sky-train station I was trying to get to. He said “ahhh!” and pointed somewhere off to the left. I sighed, sat back in my seat, and covered my nose with my hand, wondering why I had decided to try taking the sky-train when a taxi would be much more enjoyable than the open-aired tuk tuk. I had just finished an amazing day of biking in and around Bangkok (more on that later), and was now trying a new way of getting back to my hotel since taxis are a little expensive (in Thai terms) and the busses are impossible. 30 more minutes of red lights, car horns, and rush hour madness, and I was finally at the station. I jumped out of the tuk tuk, handed my driver some bills, and fled up the stairs to the sky-train. When I got there I realized I had no idea what to do. There was a coin operated ticket machine, but after having my ten baht coin fall through three times without any ticket issued, I implored the help of man behind me and I was on my way.

The sky-train is actually really cool. It soars above the city and you can look down on the congested streets and sidewalk vendors selling food. At first the train was insanely crowded with school children and people getting off work, but it emptied out as we headed out of the city center. I reached my exit station and followed the crowd back down to the streets. My next mission was to find food.

There is a nice looking restaurant close to my hotel, and needing a place to sit and relax, I headed there. It’s quite possibly my new favorite restaurant. I was greeted at the door by the owner and after being shown the menu (Japanese, to my delight!), I mentioned that I was a vegetarian and he graciously offered to make me something special. I took my seat at a booth and it wasn’t long before the plates to arrive. Five dishes overflowing with fresh vegetables, tofu, rice, and noodles to be exact. I was instructed to put the vegetables into the large pot sitting on a burner fixed to the table filled with simmering broth and wait until they were tender. I added the four different types of mushrooms, cabbage, bok choy, green onions, two types of tofu, and three different kinds of rice noodles into the pot and sat back to wait. When everything was ready, I ladled the soup into a bowl and seasoned it with a choice of four different sauces. It was amazing and only cost 10.00, very expensive for Thailand.

Now for the majority if my day. I left the hotel early and headed downtown to Grasshopper Adventures where I would be embarking on a day-long bicycle trip in and around Bangkok. After a late start, we (myself, a couple from Scotland, two girls from Singapore, and our guide, Woody), were on our way. Dodging in and out of traffic jams, maneuvering around masses of people, stopping for oncoming cars, busses, and tuk tuks, we wound our way through the city. The back alleys were narrow and often crowded, but we managed to make our way through without too much trouble. After about an hour of city riding, we began to see the outskirts of town. The riding gradually went from narrow lanes, to wider streets, to concrete slabs laid down through the forest. Our first stop was a Buddhist temple hidden away among the dense trees. A monk in his saffron robes posed for us before a giant gold Buddha.

Back on our bikes, we followed Woody on what seemed a wild goose hunt through small villages, along dirt paths, over brides, atop elevated walkways, and my favorite , through flooded rivers. At one point we had to take off our shoes and peddle through a temple courtyard with water up to our knees, laughing the whole way. We stopped for lunch at a noodle shop along the river and then spent some time throwing cheese puffs and bits of bread to the giant catfish in the brown water.

Back on our bikes we continued our tour of ancient temples (at one temple a young monk sat astride a giant pig for our amusement), flooded plantations, and eventually back to the winding, narrow streets of the city. I was constantly amazed at how Woody knew every twist and turn because there were probably a hundred. Eventually we reached the banks of the Chao Phraya river and we loaded our bikes onto the ferry that would take us to the other side (we took the bridge on the way out of the city). After six hours we were back at the Grasshopper office, tired, wet, but thoroughly happy. It was definitely one of the best tours I have ever taken.

And, now, since I’m posting this the next morning, I’m off to do some rooftop yoga.