In Cuenca and Back on a Bike

Cuenca is such a great city! Tons of beautiful churches and green parks. Last night, after C and I arrived in town after a four hour bus ride from Guayaquil, we explored the cobblestone streets of Cuena and admired its old colonial building, remnants of Spanish colonizations in the mid-1500’s. We had a late afternoon snack of hummus (yay!) and then a light dinner at Raymipampa. I’ve been craving salads and luckily they had a great lettuce, bean, and avocado option for me! The hotel we’re staying at – Macondo – is on the outskirts of the center of town, which is fine with me because it’s quiet at night. The hotel reminds me a lot of the place we stayed at in San Jose (Aranjuez) because it’s an old converted house centered around an open courtyard.

In the morning we ate breakfast with some other travelers and had a leisurely start to the day. The plan was to walk around Cuenca some more, but other than that our agenda was open. We found our way to a giant indoor food market with vendors selling everything from fruits, vegetables, eggs, meat, cooked legumes and almost anything else you can think of, including fresh carrot and apple juice! Except for a juice and some bananas, we didn’t buy anything, but vowed to return later to stock up on a few mangos and avocados.

Our next destination was the Museo del Banco Central. Now, I’m not a museum person, but we spent about an hour walking through the exhibits showcasing the history and archaeology of indigenous populations. By that time I had had enough of museums for a week, so we continued on our way. We stopped in at a local travel agency and inquired about bikes to rent. We were in luck because they had two brand new bikes for only $8 for half a day. C and I said we would return after lunch and take them for a spin. For lunch I was eager to try a restaurant called Nectar, which is %100 vegan. The inside was really cute with wooden tables and nice decor. The menu was a set lunch, so we sat down and waited to be served. We had broccoli soup topped with popcorn (per the Ecuadorian way), fresh tree tomato juice (also an Ecuadorian special), a mix of potatoes in some sort of gravy, cabbage, beets, and a small salad. For dessert, it was some sort of sweet barley (I think) pudding. It was good, but not exceptional.

After lunch, we returned to the hotel to change into biking gear, and then returned to the tour office. Our speedily devised route was to bike up to the Mirador de Turi, a lookout point about 4km outside of town and then continue on 8km to a small town called Baños (not the one we visited on Arie’s bike trip) where there are several thermal hot springs. The bike up to the top of the lookout was somewhat challenging (we’re at 8,000 feet here), but felt great after being at sea level for a week and a half. I’ve wondered several times these last few weeks about how frequent and rapid elevation changes affects your body and mind…

After snapping a few photos of Cuenca from above, we coasted back down the hill and pedaled on to Baños. According to our guide book, the best place for a soak is at Hosteria Durán, so that’s where we went. We payed the fee and brought our bikes inside the gate where we were could see the large thermal pool occupied by several bathers and a small building up on a hill that housed the steam room. We opted for the steam room first, which felt great, and then headed down to the swimming pool filled with warm volcanic waters. It felt fantastic! We soaked for awhile before returning to the steam room and then settling down into wicker chairs for a cup of tea (me) and coffee (C).

It started to drizzle a bit, but nothing too depressing and as we bundled up and rolled out of the parking lot, we could barely tell that it was raining. Luckily, the ride back into town was mostly downhill because I felt pretty rubbery from all that warm water. We sort of zig-zagged back into the city without a direct route, but we did find a nice gravel path that ran alongside the River Tomebamba that splits Cuenca in two. The light was fading as we brought the bikes back to the tour office and since it’s a 10 minute walk back to the hotel, we opted to stay downtown for dinner despite the mud on our faces and clothes.

Tomorrow, depending on the weather, we’re hoping to do some hiking in Cajas National Park, dubbed “one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in Ecuador” by our Rough Guides guide book. Can’t wait!

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 8: Misahualli to Baeza

After a good night’s sleep in Misahualli, we woke up to a cloudy, but rain-free day. We had breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then C and I took a walk down the to muddy river to have a look at the beach. There were a few long boats waiting for the tourists to arrive to take them down river and into the Amazon rainforest. A man tried to sell us one of his numerous trips, but we told him we were leaving for Baeza in a few minutes.

Starting off on our bikes right outside our hotel, we retraced the 12 kilometer’s of paved road we rode yesterday to the small town of Puerto Napo with a brief stop at a butterfly center to see the different stages of a butterfly’s life. There was also a large netted area where we could watch live specimens fluttering about. It was interesting, but I’ve seen better in Malaysia.

Butterflies weren’t the only thing we saw.

In Puerto Napo, Arie was waiting for us with a pair of delicious, fresh made danishes filled with a sweet fruit marmalade. (After this trip I’m going on a no-bread detox. Ecuadorian’s seem to think it’s healthy to eat white bread for breakfast, lunch, dinner and as snacks in between). From there it was a steady climb with a few downhill reprieves to the town of Tena. We didn’t go through the town, but took a road skirting the edge. I can’t say this bike route was the prettiest or most scenic ride we’ve done so far. It was mainly on a highway with big trucks passing on our left and garbage littering the gutters to our right. One good thing, though, was that it was relatively flat with only a few gradual ups and downs – something we hadn’t yet experienced in Ecuador. Most of the topography is either steep up or steep down. After Tena, the rain came. And it didn’t let up. C and I suffered through the deluge for several more kilometers before we pulled over and told Arie that we were ready to ride in the car for awhile. We slowly began to gain elevation until we left the low tropical rainforest behind and entered into a misty, and I thought more beautiful, cloud forest. After 25 kilometers of switchbacks, we reached the apex where Arie pulled out lunch – more white bread – and we enjoyed a view of the clouded hills and ridges above the tree line.

Despite being chilled and soaking wet, we donned more layers (there was a noticeable temperature change from when we started) and got back on our bikes for a 25ish kilometer ride to Baeza, where we will spend the night. The first part was all downhill, but then the road leveled out and continued on in an up and down fashion. It was still raining slightly, and I was pretty cold, so I didn’t bother with pictures. The landscape was beautiful, though! Very green and idyllic with cows in the pastures and steep green mountains stretching down the the river. After a very muddy and slightly damp ride, combined with several sweaty uphills, we were ready to get off our bikes and take a shower. Shower we did, but not with hot water 😦

Baeza is a tiny little town with not much going on, but it’s situated smack dab in the middle of three Ecological Reserves – Cayambe-Coca, Sumaco Napo-Galeras, and Antisana (12, 14 & 2 on the map) – making it a convenient base for hiking and bird-watching. Although we arrived at our hotel early – around 3pm – C and I didn’t really have any desire to explore the area any further. We quickly showered, then headed downstairs to the restaurant for a hot cup of tea and some reading/writing time.

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow we’ll be back in Quito! We still have half a day on our bikes and rumor is we’ll visit some hot springs before getting back into the city. Then it’s part II of our Ecuadorian adventure – the Galapagos!

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 7: Baños to Misahualli

We set out from Baños this morning, on our bikes, and headed east toward Ecuador’s share of the Amazon rainforest. And guess what. It rained. A lot. We started out dry, but as we steadily biked on, it started to drizzle and pretty soon we were soaking wet. The road we were biking on is nicknamed Ruta de las Cascadas (Road of Waterfalls) as well as Ruta de las Orquideas (Road of Orchids). And it didn’t take us long to see why. As we pedaled gradually downhill (and quite a bit uphill), the vegetation became more and more tropical and waterfalls began appearing after each bend. The hillsides were strewn with purple and white orchids and to our left we followed the curves of the Napo River, which eventually drains in the the Amazon. Along the road were several tunnels that we had to skirt around because they were too dangerous to bike through (cars and trucks only). On one bypass a landslide had blocked the road’s passage and we had to carry our bikes up and over the rubble.

Before the rain got too bad, we took a minor detour from our biking route to hike down into a gorge to see one of the biggest waterfalls along the Napo river, Pailon del Diablo, or Devil’s Cauldron. It was a kilometer descent down to the river and at the bottom we came across a beautifully built lodge that doubled as the entrance to the waterfall. It was $1.50 per person to enter, so C and I paid and then started up the hand-laid stone steps. We could hear the raging water long before we saw the falls, and when it emerged into view, C and I were quite impressed – both with the stone walkway leading up to the falls as well as the waterfall itself. It cascaded down into a roiling pool and then the whitewater continued on down the river, past large slick boulders and green vegetation.

The stone path continued up to the top of the falls via a very low and narrow cave-like walkway. I almost had to get down on my hands and knees to pass through. After we were thoroughly misted by the the Pailon del Diablo, we retraced our steps back down the stone stairway and up the dirt path back to our bikes. At the top we stopped for a refreshing glass of fresh squeezed orange juice.

We continued on the Ruta de las Cascadas, but when the rain got too heavy to bike on, we got back into the jeep and went in search of sunshine. After a stop for lunch by the side of the road, the skies dried up and we got back on our bikes and continued on to the town of Misahualli where we will spend the night. By the time we arrived, both C and I were exhausted, so we rested for about an hour and then headed out to see the town’s main attraction – Cappuccino monkeys who have taken over the center square. We’ve both seen Cappuccino monkeys before in Costa Rica, so we didn’t stay long to watch their antics. Instead, Arie had told us about a large Ceibo tree about half and hour’s walk outside of town. We took off down a dirt road and soon came to a tiny town composed of just a few wooden houses and a large, half-built suspension bridge spanning the roiling brown waters of Misahualli river, which converges with the Napo river in front of our hotel. I was a little hesitant to cross because there were gaping holes where slats missing and steel beams laying in piles waiting to be put in place. But we crossed safely and on the other we were dwarfed by the giant Ceibo tree. It towered over C and I! There’s also a large tree – maybe even bigger – on Barro Colorado Island in Panama, which we sometimes visit during hikes on the island. Then it was half an hour walk back to town and our hotel. We grabbed our computers and books and then walked toward the center square for a relaxing evening of writing, reading, and enjoying the warmer climate.

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 5: Riobamba to Baños

Today we went from 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) to 2,580 meters (8,465 feet), by bike. That’s an 8,000 foot drop in just about 4 hours. Crazy! Not to mention the temperature change, which I’ll get into in a little bit. We left Riobamba at 7:30 this morning and drove for an hour and a half up the slopes of Chimborazo volcano, the highest volcano in Ecuador at 6,310 meters (20,700 feet), making it the tallest volcano of the earth (not sea level) and the closest to the sun. It was pretty cloudy as we drove up the slopes, but we caught a few glimpses on the way of the volcano’s snowy banks. After reaching the first refuge (which is where climbers spend the night before attempting to summit) at 5,000 meters, though, all we could see were dark, misty clouds that enveloped us as well as Chimborazo’s peak. We had a quick look at the basic, but functional refuge, complete with a dorm room, kitchen, dining area, and fireplace and then C and I bundled up for the 200 meter (650 foot) hike up to the second refuge. Our guide book says, “at an altitude of 5,000m, there’s only a 200m vertical height gain between the refuges, but it can be totally exhausting if you’re not acclimatized.” Luckily C and I were at 13,123 feet on Cotopaxi, but we were still huffing and puffing with every step as we made our way up the gravelly slope toward the snow line and Whymper refuge (named after Edward Whymper, who made the first ascent of Chimborazo in 1880). The clouds were still obscuring the peak as we climbed, and rested, and climbed again, but when we were only about 150 feet from the refuge, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and we were rewarded with a spectacular view of Ecuador’s highest volcano. It was magnificent. With renewed energy and breath, we climbed the last few feet and spent the next half hour or so admiring the snowy slopes of Chimborazo. I had thought that it would be a lot more colder than it was, since Cotopaxi was absolutely freezing, but it really wasn’t too bad. The hike up got our blood pumping and our outer shells kept most of the wind chill away. The clouds began to roll in again, slowly returning Chimborazo to obscurity, so we started heading back down the trail toward the refuge.

Arie greeted us with hot tea and coffee to warm our hands before embarking on a 75 kilometer (46 mile) and 8,465 vertical foot decent by bike to Ambato. Before we left, though, we were graced by the appearance of a fox!

The first part of our ride was extremely windy and cold. We biked down from the refuge on a dirt road, spotting herds of vicuñas (similar to llamas and alpacas) in the open, dusty brown paramo, and trying to keep warm against the blustery wind.

We eventually reached a paved road, but even though it was a slight downward gradient, we still had to pedal hard because of the headwind. This went on for about 18 kilometers until we turned off onto another road that would take us along a spectacular valley road with stunning views of waterfalls, white-water rivers, and tall, jagged canyon walls suffused in green. It was a little slice of heaven. Some of the scenery we encountered rivaled the beauty of many other places that I have traveled to.

At 17 kilometers short of Ambato, we stopped for lunch beside a small hydro-electric dam. We also shed some layers because it wasn’t nearly as cold and windy as it had been up at 16,400 feet! We biked the last few kilometers and then Arie met us again by the side of the road and we hoisted the bikes up to the roof and set off, by car, to Baños where we will spent the next two nights. Baños is situated just beneath the active volcano of Tungurahua, which last erupted in 2006. The woman at the front desk of our hotel informed us when we arrived that there were five blasts last night from Tungurahua. Not sure what the blasts entailed, but I’m hoping that whatever they are, they’re minor…

Biking Through Ecuador, Day 4: Quilotoa to Riobamba

Sorry I haven’t posted my whereabouts for the past two days, but we haven’t had Internet at the places we’ve been staying at. So, to catch up I’ve posted three separate entries – Day 2, day 3 and day 4 (today). If you want to read what we’ve been doing in chronological order, read those first!

Moving on to today. After breakfast at our hostel in Quilotoa, we visited the edge of the crater one more time to see it in the morning light. But since it was so windy and cold we didn’t stay long. Despite the chill we started biking right from the rim, layering ourselves with shirts, jackets, and windpants to keep ourselves warm for the long descent down to Zumbahua, where the Saturday market is held. We coasted and occasionally pedaled against the wind for 14 or so kilometers, passing beautiful vistas with mountains as the backdrop and field after field of vegetable crops. When we reached Zumbahua, we loaded the bikes back onto the jeep and set off into the crowd of brightly dressed Indians, tethered sheep, live chickens, and men and women selling every sort of necessity – from shoes to toothpaste to red bananas (of which we bought a few). C and I wandered around for about an hour and we each purchased a traditional sweater made out of soft alpaca hair. They’re so comfortable!

After the market we drove for about 45 minutes along a winding road that eventually took us back up to the top of a mountain with spectacular views all along the way. Arie let us out of the car and we mounted the bikes for our second ride of the day. It began with a 5 kilometer gradual decline and then we climbed for a steady 4 kilometers, but it was no where near as difficult as our first ascent, even with the strong headwind. At the top we were rewarded with a 25 kilometer descent into the town of Pujili. The road was being worked on, though, so it was a bit nerve-wracking to have large dump trucks pass us on the switchbacks, but we made it down fine and Arie was waiting for us at the bottom with snacks.

Then it was back into the car for a longish drive to Riobamba where we would be spending the night.

Now a word about the food in Ecuador. This is brought about by an almost two hour search tonight for a restaurant I could eat at. In general, I have had no problem finding vegetarian food here in Ecuador. In fact most of the meals have been delicious if not exactly what I would prefer to eat if I were home (i.e. lots of carbs, fried food, and very little in the way of fresh vegetables). Healthy eating isn’t exactly on the minds of most Ecuadorians, I don’t think. But when I travel I realize that I should (and need to be) more open-minded about what I’m willing to eat. And even though I prefer to eat vegan at home, I definitely have strayed far from that while I’ve been in South America. But I’ve also come to realize that stretching your taste buds is part of the experience of traveling. Trying new foods and experiencing local cuisine is all part of understanding a different culture. I’m willing to do that to some extent – I sill wouldn’t be able to bring myself to eat meat – but sometimes it’s still hard to find a place worth eating at or something that looks appetizing enough to eat, even if you’re really hungry. That was me tonight. Riobamba has little to no options for vegetarians, so we ended up wandering around the streets, looking at menus, and becoming increasingly more hungry as the night moved on. Finally we settled on the restaurant next to our hotel and I ordered rice with vegetables. When it arrived, it was a pile of rice soaked in grease and mixed with a few peas and carrots. It was not appetizing. Arie assured me that tomorrow, when we’re in Banos, there will be a much better selection of vegetarian-friendly restaurants to choose from. I hope so!

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.