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On the road . August 2009 . Colombia and Ecuador

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Wifi Point, Iguana Guesthouse [website ] Cali, Columbia, 15-08-09
Ibagué to Santiago de Cali (5 cycle days; 1 rest days; 369km; 5100m)
Ibagué to Cajamarca (38km; 1099m)
Cajamarca to Armenia (72km; 1580m)
Armenia to Buga (109km; 595m)
Buga to Lago Calima (51km; 1018m)
Lago Calima to Cali (99km; 808m)

Green spikey caterpillars in green crocheted mountains
You can't describe today any other way than another day of Colombian climbing. As soon as we have manoeuvred a path through the chaos of Ibagué traffic and one way streets we are sliding out via the back door slums. Homeless clutching grubby white sacks, wade through rubbish in the hope of finding something useful to pop in one of them. What they find of value in there, I do not really know. It all looks like muck to me, but the activity is fervent and by the sound of the delighted whoop as I cycle by, collection is definitely taking place.

A couple of colourfully painted wall murals cheer up the scene a little as we further our way out of town and then what I see around me takes second precedence: we have started the first 100 odd altimetre climb. I stop every now and again to rest the ache in my thighs and take in the surroundings. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by massive green mountains. All cultivated and occasionally interspersed with the endangered, but national wax palm tree [Palma de Cera]. Long and thin with alternating rings of white and grey, the trunk extends way above any other tree, making it the largest palm in the world. It can actually reach heights of up to 70 metres. Not only unique because it enjoys growing at higher altitudes than other palms species, but also due to its perfect distribution of branches. Each of the five protrusions on the trunk perimetre measures exactly 72 degrees, making a perfect 360 degree circumference. The perfection of nature is just mind boggling at times.

The maracuyá (yellow passionfruit) and red bean vines look as if grandma has draped one of her loosely crocheted green sweaters over the hillsides and as we continue to ascend, more giant neon-blue butterflies join us. At one point, I stop to photograph a caterpillar with the most unusual coat of all: a fine stiffened vibrant green lace with matching red masts protruding like radio-wave antennae. This alluringly attractive critter has got itself on course for one mighty fat truck tyre and my desire to capture it on camera overcomes my usual common sense. Immediately as I make the sweep to brush him off the road I realise my mistake. The next half an hour is spend in sufferance as the poison does its work. The captivation of nature also has a purpose other than beauty.

Nine kilometres out of Ibagué and we have reached 1484m. It is followed by a massive plunge to Coello (1247m), which we really hadn't counted on. The rest of the day we trundle very, very slowly up the 5% average gradient. Road is decent enough and lanes are wide, which makes life a little easier when the shoulder disappears altogether. I counteract by making the ride a little more difficult, when I fall off my bike, unsuccessfully trying to get my boot out of my toeclip. My thumb swells up and I can feel the start of a nasty bruise on my thigh. Still I can push on, which is more than we can say for a semi loaded with Poker beer that misjudged one of the many tight corners on this highway. Though, I think Ali is more disappointed about all the amber fluid that flowed back down the mountain.

Cajamarca (38km; 1099m) is a strange town with a church in need of much better repairs than already carried out. A real bell instead of the weird sounding electrical one wouldn't go astray either. Hotel Nevado is also quite unique, but after the climb today, I spend little time thinking about the chickens on the stairs; the woman who incessantly mops the floor near our room all evening and the washing machine that looks a bit like that robot out of Doctor Who. Instead, I shower, eat and fall deeply in sleep with the thought that: those whose job it is to glue catseyes to the side of the road, must have never ridden a bicycle in their lives.

Couldn't get much higher
It is a monster effort needed to reach La Linea (3,300m). Not only is the road incredibly steep in parts but it is plagued with trucks vying for the same space as us on very tight bends. Nearly 20 kilometres into the trip and we have traversed 1000 altimetres. We had left at 8am and it is now one o'clock in the afternoon. A further 4 kilometres and a hour later and after a total of 1402 metres of uphill slog, we have made the top. For the steepest and last 5 kilometres of climbing, or pushing in my case, we are blessed by roadworkers, who decide to paint double yellow lines on the smooth new tarmac. Colombian drivers take little notice of these at the best of times, but for the moment they are held behind barriers waiting for the paint to dry, while we have full reign of the road. Unfortunately we are not as jubilant about the rain that hits as we near the pass: after a little fit of disgust, I calm down when Ali offers to buy me a big bowl of warm-you-up coffee. Sipping away, the 17% gradients slowly become a thing of the past.

The road has been blocked from both ends and heading back down as traffic starts to move requires just as much concentration. The hands ache and we stop regularly to allow the truck to take the dangerous curves; to rest our aching fingers; and cool our rims down. It is nowhere near as difficult as the ascent though and on the way down the 1600 metre drop to Calarca, we meet up with Luigi and Alba. They invite us to stay at their condominium on the outskirts of Armenia (72km; 1580m). It takes some time to find exactly where they live, but we are welcomed with open arms when we pull in the driveway at the start of the evening sunset.

Luigi and Alba generously pack us to the brim with a carbohydrate loaded dinner, openly share their home and we have the pleasure over the next 24 hours to get to know Donatella and Valentina, their two young girls. Yes, we can't resist the offer to stay an extra day. While the girls are at school, we take a trip to Salento: quite the tourist destination, but quaint; and then Ali and I take a long wander around Armenia: not so pretty, but certainly colourful.

Flatter than normal
Our 60-day visa is ticking away in Colombia and as well as having our heart set on visiting Lago Calima, we'll need to spend a few days in Cali as well; so even though the thought of staying a little longer with our hosts is tempting, we have to depart. Plenty of hugs, kisses and goodbyes, not to mention a couple of homemade "good-luck" cards and a little mascot, later we cycle up and down the undulating highway towards La Paila. From here on in, apart from a couple of small hills it is reasonably flat: our first real encounter in Colombia. The road is in good state for the entire length, though there is quite a bit of traffic. Anticipation of a hotel at San Pedro is totally misguided unless we want to fork out for a room in the "love motel". Instead a further twenty kilometres of cycling gets us a room at Hotel Avenida Real with a balcony overlooking the plaza at Buga (109km; 595m). The Basilica here is renowned for its El Señor de los Milagros image of Christ, which makes our view from our room quite an interesting one.

Personally I find the other churches in the town, of which there are many, more attractive. The shops selling religious paraphernalia are what do it for me: kind of tacky, touristy and the shopkeeper come tout way too pushy. The architecture is also pretty amazing, but we arrive late and leave early the next day, so photos are out of the question.

Hard to believe
Car drivers have no idea of what is and isn't difficult for a cyclist. And why should they? When they need power, they press down slightly on a little pedal and hey presto, the car continues on up the hill. We, on the other hand, use our legs and today, following an initial short but flat 10 kilometre stretch, the supposedly not so difficult terrain becomes combat climbing. The road just keeps winding relentlessly around each bend and the pass never seems to come. On our way up, a six man cycle machine heading in the opposite direction comes to a difficult stop and aptly gives us an excuse to stop straining the legs for a wee while. Instead of trying to explain how this contraption works, why not take a look at the video instead.

A beautiful display of lights
Finally, we peak at a height of 1667 metres and then drop down to Puente Tierra with its long line of homemade sausage and arepa stalls: all selling exactly the same fare at exactly the same prices which of course makes me wonder how they manage to stay in business. The road splits here and we are not quite sure which direction to pedal around Lake Calima, but we had been told that camping was all around the south coast. This turns out not to be true. Camping is only in and around Calima itself on the other side, but as fate has it, Baptiste, José Oscar and Santiago come cycling past and we find ourselves pedalling back to where they are staying, to join them for lunch. The non-meat eating issue arises of course but is solved quick enough.

Over the course of the afternoon, we learn that José Oscar runs a recycling organisation in Cali. Baptiste works there as well and seeing as this subject is so close to our hearts, we arrange to meet them in a couple of days time for a tour of the plant. For now though, we need to find a campground and set up our tent before it gets dark. There are a couple to choose from: the Nautical Club, which I don't like the look of much, nor the 30,000 peso price tag; and a couple closer to the town of Calima. We stop in between at Camping Berlin, a much more rustic feel for 10,000 COP per person, though the area is on a massive slope leading straight to the shore of Lago Calima (51km; 1018m). We wind down the evening to a beautiful display of dancing fireflies and a distant lightning storm.

Getting ourselves back to the turnoff at Puente Tierra is an up and down affair of nearly 400 altimetres in 26 kilometres but the vantage point views overlooking the lake make up for all the hard pedalling. From here I recall that it is just a couple of kilometres of easy up before dropping gloriously back down yesterday's monster climb. In hindsight, the scenic views are so much more charming than I remember, but that boils down to the difference between slogging up a sweaty hill or free-falling down one.

By the time we reach the roundabout turnoff to Cali we have completed 39 kilometres and the day is still young. Only sixty more to go along increasingly busier roads: farmland makes way for industry and any available space becomes filled with housing. The town of Yumbu just before Cali marks the start of the incredibly poor road surface, which stays with us until we are just kilometres away from Iguana Guesthouse in the north of Santiago de Cali (99km; 808m).

A basic, clean double with share bathroom costs 38,000 COP which is a fair whack of money, but it appears to be the cheapest option. Though I'll admit the bonus of a common kitchen, wifi, washing area and pleasant garden setting reduces the sting a little. We also meet up with Lynn and Dave also travelling south by bike. Can't help but get chatting about everything and anything cycle touring related and we basically have to pull ourselves away from each other in the early hours to get some well deserved shut eye. Not only is it great to get acquainted with another couple around our age, travelling by bicycle and more importantly, the same sorts of distances as we do, but the fact that their attitude towards their travel mode and lifestyle is similar is quite a change from other cyclists we have met recently. So many things they say ring true with our opinions and experiences too. It is, in a genial and satisfying way: reflective rationalisation.

Recycling myths
The visit to GERT: a recycling coordination set up by José Oscar is one of those uplifting experiences that changes your perspective on something you once thought was fruitless. Among way too much other information, the most impressive thing I saw today was a plastic bag being shredded, melted, reformed, and then cooled into plastic webbing as it threaded its way out the other side of a machine. So, why hasn't the west grabbed and exploited this technology you are probably asking. I know it was the first question on my lips. Well, sorting the plastic is incredibly time consuming, but with labour costs being so low in this part of the world, it can actually be a viable business. After coming from Mexico and Central America and experiencing the inability of these countries to deal with their rubbish, especially their plastic debris, I felt a little flicker of faith that one day they all may clean up their countries too. My eyes have been opened to an entirely different attitude towards waste and there is hope.

Since it would take me forever to write about what I saw, if you are interested in knowing more about this subject then check out this fact sheet from Waste Online : a British website with simple but interesting information about plastic recycling. And soon to be online...GERT's own website, built by us: | justifiable web design.

Wifi Point, Hostal Huauki [website ] Quito, Ecuador, 01-09-09
Santiago de Cali to Ipiales (8 cycle days; 1 rest day; 484km; 9226m)
Cali to El Pitel (82km; 798m)
El Pitel to Popayán (60km; 1228m)
Popayán to El Bordo (87km; 1366m)
El Bordo to El Remolino (82km; 912m)
El Remolino to near Cano (52km; 1655m)
near Cano to Pasto (37km; 1284m)
Pasto to El Pedregal (42km; 678m)
El Pedregal to Ipiales (43km; 1305m)

A night on the town
As we chat about Colombia and our trip with Baptiste and José Oscar, a towering 3 litre tube of beer complete with its own pouring tap arrives on our table. This is how Casa de Cerveza serves its amber liquid and it has just ousted the yard-glass into 'boring' category as far as I'm concerned. A couple of tubes later and we are hurried over to the entertainment section of this establishment: apparently, the band are in full swing. I'd actually have to say the hips of the dance floor couples are way more fired up. But then again, you wouldn't anticipate anything else in Cali: the world famous salsa dancing capital.

So it stands to reason that, if you don't salsa dance, you are probably going to feel a little out of place in such a venue. As soon as the band starts, everyone, and I do mean everyone: except us, a handful of lone stallions and a few too drunk to move, wiggles their way excitedly to the dance floor. Here, they gyrate the hips, step the legs and push the arms back and forth while keeping the upper body completely still. The band finishes a number, but the hip movement doesn't and they twist and turn their way back to their tables, without a second elapsing between when they sit and rise again for the next song.

Ali has an aversion to couple-dancing of any structured fashion. He is more into the free form movement, which he executes with a unique grace, so I don't mind in the slightest sitting it out: firstly, it'll save my toes and besides it is interesting enough watching the man on stage still managing to pull off some pretty cool swings despite his overly round belly. His job of singing is made quite easy as everyone in the crowd seems to know and fervently love the lyrics: the best part of the time the microphone is pointed away from himself. The loudest audience singers are in the running for a bottle of whiskey, so obviously they go absolutely wild.

We don't get away with sitting down for long either and are promptly dragged along with one of those train dances that weaves itself in and out of tables and around the dance floor. People are cheering from tabletops, swinging on chairs, the longest Colombian flag you have ever seen has joined in on the festivities, balloons are falling from the ceiling and the staff are all on stage by now too, having a whale of a time. Everyone must really want to work in this place: especially if this goes on every Friday night.

Het luie zweet eruit: [sweating out the laziness]
Leaving Cali on a Sunday is perfect: the roads are free of heavy traffic and adding to the easy departure, we know the quickest and easiest route out of town. Straight down Avienda 4 until it splits: verge left and follow the road until the sign for Boulevard Roosevelt appears. Keep following the main flow of traffic and don't turn down Calle 13: just cycle straight ahead and right out of town. Its about 13 kilometres of uneven road surface and traffic lights until you reach the outskirts, though the area is still quite built up.

About two hours have past and I notice that the congestion has vanished and we are once again back amongst the flowering sugar cane. We are also not the only pedal pushers on the road. Teams of professionally dressed cyclists speed pass us in both directions, though not without a thumbs up of admiration.

The first 55 kilometeres is basically flat and easy, but from the turnoff just after Santander the road begins to undulate. A pleasant drop into Monodomo and a not so pleasant flat tyre on my bike follows. By the time I realise we have started to climb again, we are at the 63 kilometre road marker. Within 2 kilometres, the Dutch saying "het luie zweet eruit" [sweating out the laziness] is perfectly cliché for the moment. While I normally sweat quite a bit, the week in Cali has probably contributed to at least some of the liquid pouring off me in buckets.

The road continues to go up for quite some distance before we drop again and then are plagued by not only the up-down scenario but a big black storm cloud. Thunder starts, persued closely by rain and we decide to stop at El Pital (82km; 798m). Back to normal hotel prices: 18,000 COP for a double room with a shower and a tv. The latter however doesn't come with a remote because there is only one station. This is amusing on its own for a hotel that advertises cable television, but what we find totally comical is when halfway through the Spanish news, someone in the restaurant begins station zapping. "Don't worry about a remote, we'll change channels for you."

Never trust those roads signs
It is cool as we step outside this morning: very, very cool. Cool enough in fact to put on a second layer, but we think twice when we see the hill ahead of us. It definitely warms us up. The three main ascents; Pescador (1675m); Tunia toll booth (1840m); and Piendamó (1962m); take us over 26 kilometres of green Colombian ruralness, though plenty of accommodation possibilities lay in wait for travellers. The town of Piendamó is a little larger than I thought it would be and so is the climbing leading up to La Venta de Cajibío (1989m) seven kilometres down the track.

From here on in, we drop beautifully into a valley, but still have to rise another 200 altimetres to the turn-off to Totoro (1958m). Kilometre markers have suggested the entire journey that this is where Popayán lay, but unfortunately, we still have another 13 kilometres until we reach the city centre. Road signs in Colombia are contradictory to say the least. Enjoyably though, the last couple of kilometres are a smooth downwards glide into the township.

During Spanish colonial times, Popayán (60km; 1228m) was politically influential and as a result, there are several striking architectural buildings to enjoy. Also, with Colombia having 90% of the population practising the Roman Catholic faith, the country boasts a vast array of impressive churches too. Popayán is not exempt from its prominent display of religious retreats either. The central plaza or Parque de Caldas, named after the celebrated citizen: Francisco Jose de Caldas, who was responsible for the design of the landmarkTorre del Reloj [Clock Tower], also boasts the city's main cathedral. Badly damaged, as was much of the municipality, by a major earthquake in 1983, it has now been restored to its original splendour. Also adding to the city's list of well-known attractions, is the world-famous status for its celebration of Semana Santa.

While the Easter merriment is long gone, our intention is to at least absorb some of the beautiful architecture. Regrettably, the centre of town is cordoned off for a cycling event and waiting any longer than it takes one set of traffic lights to change is not our idea of amusing after a hard days work. We see very little of the city, besides the inside of the massive Exito supermarket and retreat in the outskirts at the simple, economical Hotel Cacique Real with its double room and shared bathroom facilities for 22,000 COP.

Talk about lucky
Regardless of the really atrocious road escorting us out of the city, it is a magnificent start to the riding day as we coast at full speed along the highway. The cycling legs are bursting with spirit and its an easy 300 odd metres of elevation to Timbio (1883m). Our profile chart has a straight line from here to Rosas, which would normally indicate a pretty flat excursion. It is anything but: after rising to 1930m above sea level, we plunge way below to the valley floor and the Rio Quilcace (1495m), only to rise back up the winding path etched through the verdant countryside. We peak at 1879m, where a lone petrol station has hotel facilities, but little else. Just below is Rosas (1818m) and it will surely have some form of lodgings as well as somewhere to buy some food supplies.

It doesn't according to one very drunk lad, so we continue on diving part of the 676 altimetres to the valley floor: only to be stopped by rain. A couple of coffees and almost an hour later we board the bicycles and drop to rest of the way to Rio Esmita (1142m). Our trail is easy to see as it gains a relentless leg-crunching 224 metres over 4 kilometres. Halfway up we decide to stop and refuel. Ali's appetite surpasses earlier trends and apart for a few salty biscuits, our supplies are entirely depleted.

This third major clamber of the day reaches 1370 metres before the "another drop-another climb" tendency of the rest of the journey into El Bordo (87km; 1366m). Piedrasentana (1320m), 13 kilometres prior to this little town, is the last real crest of the afternoon. The couple of hours it takes to get to Juancho Hotel and our little 12,000 COP room, we are floating along golden grassy plains with rolling hills fronting the immense silhouette of the Cordillera Oriental mountain range on our right and the unusual humped protrusion way above rock massive on our left. It is like having the dusty hues of the Californian Sierra Nevada on both sides of us. Talk about lucky.

Where the rivers run dry
Our morning begins with a long chat in the town with Reinhard, Rosalyne and their two boys: a German-French couple who have been travelling through South America by 4-wheel drive for the last year. It follows with an amazing 356 metre plummet to the brown valley floor of Patía (696m). Bamboo-mud houses with neat dusty gardens dot the dry grassy farmland and grazing brahman cows. Stalls selling watermelons, passionfruit, limes and tamarind line our trail and this is the first time we have experienced Colombia without gushing jets of water or surging rivers. It is as parched as we become in the heat of the day.

The scenery slowly morphs into the almost similar cacti-studded landscapes of Baja California. We rise and fall the tanned barren hillsides all day long, peaking at roughly the same level each time. First, El Estrecho (720m) at the 27 kilometre point of the day and then Mojarres (740m), 14 kilometres further on. Below is the grey silty outline of the dehydrated river that once snaked its way along the bottom of the gorge. Winds pick up towards the end of the day: only occasionally in our backs, every now and again from the side, but mostly blustering hard in our faces, making the last rising kilometres into El Remolino (82km; 912m) incredibly difficult.

Oh, my aching legs
At 8am, El Remolino is just rising, but the bakery has fresh croissants and bread rolls and that's all we need. It is incredibly warm even this early in the morning and the sweat starts to form as we rise instantaneously. The need to stop frequently to refresh ourselves results in our water going fast and we stop at El Tablon for more supplies Its a push for 6 kilometres more to the top of our first pass of the day: Alto Chapungo (1548m).

Twenty five kilometres has elapsed and the weather is a little cooler as grey overcast clouds fill the earlier blue skies. It doesn't distract from the priceless view over the green patchwork of mountains. Diagonal slopes dive sharply into the basin making our dimension and size completely insignificant against the sheer drops. Immediately opposite us is our first tunnel since the Oregon Coast, but not before 9 kilometres of instant downhill. The tunnel is short and harmless enough and we continue to plummet down to the Rio Juanambu (942m). That's a total dive of 606 altimetres in just 19 kilometres.

Hot winds hit us as we fly over the bridge and start the 13 kilometre and 792 altimetre ascent that will have us pedalling solid for the rest of the afternoon. The road is in pretty bad repair considering this is the main highway to Ecuador, but luckily even though the traffic picks up in the late afternoon, it is reasonably light. Three kilometres before our destination we hit a second tunnel for the day. We stop at the first available accommodation near Cano (52km; 1655m).

As we round the bend, I spy the Esso station up on the hill. At least I think it is an Esso station. I can tell from the familiar red background and simple white letters. I don't really care what it is to be honest, just as long as it has lodgings attached. We have had a long hard day. The slightly bearable gradient has just become another thigh burning grind. Oh, my aching legs. The concrete gravel mix road looks like someone put a layer of crackle varnish over it with its fractured surface and irritating potholes. Cats eyes placed in the centre of the shoulder annoy me even more. Tyre hollows indicate that plenty of trucks have passed along this route and today is not excluded. They toot and wave, but my efforts remain focused on pedalling to the top and not socialising. Besides I don't feel particularly jolly. A familiar smell of washing powder overwhelms me. As it drifts by, I realise it comes from the recently washed truck. Auto lavados [car-wash] points are prominent along Colombian highways. A sign points that it is still 500 metres to the petrol station, but I can see it clearly from here. It can't be that far. Still, what's a few hundred metres extra after 38 kilometres and a 1628 metre gain in height in one day. The sign is wrong. Great, we are much closer than that. As we draw nearer, it is clear that it is an Esso station and it also has accommodation. Oh, my grateful legs.

Completely daza-ed
It is another one of those "get comfortable in your granny-gear" days. Cano is only 4 kilometeres up the road from the Esso station and Chachagüi another 4 kilometres a field. And if we think the first 224 altimetres traversed getting here is substantial, we are reminded that it isn't when the real climbing begins instantly after. Contrastingly, the shoulder completely disappears completely making the ride a lot more intense. The road is really patchy and if I had to pay a toll fee to travel on this road, I'd feel rather duped.

Traffic is dense, though enthusiastic to see us pedalling slowly up the mountain. I concentrate more on trying to keep the wheels going round over the the next 18 kilometers and 885 altimetres that takes us to the pass Alto de Daza 2873m. It takes every bit of energy left in me after the last couple of days of cycling. We had envisaged only go up to 2500 metres but each bend brings another hill and each time the terrain looks as if it will never end with its rising nature. A couple of hundred metres from the top, the wind has turned on us, its cold and I'm wet from sweat, the clouds are closing in and the raindrops are beginning to fall. Road signs have changed adding several more kilometres to the trip and it seems as if everything is out to make the final steps as miserable as possible. The scenery is not as stimulating as the last two days either. I have a little cry.

We finally reach the top and plummet to the city of Pasto (37km; 1284m) below. Though the descent is not as pleasurable due to rain and bad road, the city looks rather inviting from the top of the hill. As we enter, the same mayhem associated with every big city in Colombia, greets us. Cars beeping, buses contesting any available space and taxis darting every which way except the direction you'd expect. The Calle-Carrera grid with its impulsive one-way streets means swerving in and out and heading along paths that are not really the course we want to go in. Still, we make it to the spot where the Koala Guesthouse should be, but we can't find it and settle for Hotel Atenas on Calle 19 No 21B-28 with its comfortable room; private bathroom, hot water, tv and central location for 30,000 COP.

Pasto gets a bad rap in most guidebooks and blogs, but I kind of like it. While, there are way too many homeless on the streets and beggars pleading for bread and money, it is bustling and full of great architecture. Somehow, we also manage to hit the jackpot with an Andes Cultural event. For the two nights that we stay, the central plaza is animated with dance, song, colourful costumes and artistic festivities. It is wonderfully indigenous and I'm glad my video camera manages to stay alive for the event.

Buena buena buena buena: Good good good!
No signposting has us asking for directions more than once this morning, but within a couple of kilometres we are well and truly out of town and beginning the 615 altimetre gain over 13 odd kilometres. My bags are heavily laden with supplies: it being a Sunday and not knowing what we will see in the way of fruit and vegetables along the way, so the ascent to the 3159m pass is a little difficult.

Sunday travel in Colombia means less traffic and more cyclists on the road. Today is no exception and we get the "bueno bueno" [good, good good!] approval from other two wheeled travellers of all ages and fitness levels. Jorge, the ciclista, as he likes to call himself, lifts my hefty load for about 500 metres just three kilometres from the top, by giving me a shove from behind. It is almost like having a strong tailwind assisting in the uphill pedal instead of the usual slow plodding slog.

It is cold at the pass, where we lunch on fruit, cake, fresh blackberry juice and find it necessary to don more clothes. For the next 25 kilometre free fall into the valley, a patchwork of green and brown brushstrokes paint the gargantuan slopes with the elegance of a Monet palette. Colours blur in the rush of descent and the cool wind warms until the final bend takes us over a bridge and back into ascending mode. As it turns out El Pedregal (42km; 678m), just two kilometres ahead, is a bustling little village. We are invited in for a drink by a group of motorcyclists, who Ali had earlier chatted with. They couldn't be more enthusiastic about our trip, though none of them really willing to give up their motorised transport for two wheels without an engine.

They also tell us that there is no accommodation between here and Ipiales and the 40 kilometre climb is not something we'll be able to complete today. No other option than to take a room at Hotel Esmarelda for 15,000 COP and wait until the other loaded cyclist spotted on the road by motorists this morning enters El Pedregal. In the meantime, Ali and I have bets on where he comes from and what his name is. Neither of us are right, but Karsten from Germany does eventually pedal into town an hour later. Plans have already been made to leave together tomorrow morning.

And then we were three
The first 27 kilometres of our expedition is undulating with the accent on going up. A couple of wonderfully refreshing descends and one strong leg crunching hike are the only hiccups in the otherwise easy gradient ride to San Juan. Even so, we have managed to accumulate 872 altimetres and stop to refuel before the second leg of the mountain climb. A delightful shop owner mothers over us with her wares and we feast away for at least an hour.

The next 8 kilometres are a little tougher with a 448 metre struggle getting to the pass: Altos de la Colina (2946m). The centre of Ipiales (43km; 1305m) is just 8 kilometres more of simple pedalling. Initially it looks as if we are entering a small rural village, but it actually turns out to be quite a large city. Hotel Pasviveros has grandly large rooms still lingering in the 1970's and it suits us just fine: space is a rare commodity as far as accommodation is concerned. Besides plenty of room to move, the hotel staff are overly friendly and considerate. They even go as far as to assist us upstairs with all our luggage. And upon leaving, after a rest day with a visit to the tourist attraction of Las Lajas, where a gothic style church is quite famously built in a ravine, they help us down with our bags too.

Viva la Colombia
In our most recent newsletter, I made a mistake when I referred to the tourism board's slogan as: the biggest danger in Colombia is not wanting to leave. They actually say: the greatest risk, is wanting to stay. Either way, it's true. Colombia is one of the most warm, hospitable countries we have ever made tyre tracks in and I could honestly keep gallivanting around for another two months. But the visa is expiring tomorrow, there's a lot more of South America to see and we had better get into cycling mode if we want to reach Ushuaia by February.

Before we came to Colombia, Pakistan was number one our list, followed closely by Iran, but they have both now been pipped at the post. Wonderful mountain cycling coupled with welcoming locals and more often than not great accommodation was what did it. Its a culturally diverse and affordable place to travel and outside the handful of tourist destinations still relatively untouched by western influence.

Now, with a list like Colombia, Pakistan and Iran as our top destinations to travel in, most people will think we are completely nuts. I mean, isn't that what the media would have you believe? Kind of gets you thinking hey?

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Ipiales - Colombia to Bolivar - Ecuador (68km; 1041m)
Bolivar to Ibarra (73km; 1024m)
Ibarra to Guayllabamba (97km; 1424m)
Guayllabamba to Quito (35km; 988m)

What goes up must go down
Its a slow start this morning despite the 3 kilometre drop to the Colombian border control. Long immigration lines hold up our cycling progress for an hour and fifteen minutes. While I wait for Ali and Karsten to get the necessary stamp out of the country, the weather changes from sun, to cloud, to drizzle and back to sun again. The rest of the day pretty much continues in this vain too. The immigration office at the Ecuadorian border is conversely deserted and a painless procedure.

An uphill climb takes you out of the official area and towards the airport turnoff. Five kilometres have elapsed in Ecuador and the landscape hasn't really changed much from Colombia: still a green farmland patchwork quilt. People seem friendly enough and the women especially get quite worked up when they see me cycling by with a loaded bike. There's a bit of up and down and then a decent ascent to the top of a hill which does take some effort. The 10 kilometre drop down to Julio Andrade on the other hand doesn't take any exertion at all. The road is brilliant, with a wide smooth shoulder to help you glide the 321 altimetres below.

Due to the volcanic nature of the territory, the terrain is relentlessly undulating. Steep downhill tumbles combined with uphill battles have the better of me by the time we get to San Gabriel after 47 kilometres. The guys have it in their heads that the terrain is going to go down dramatically soon and want to move on another 20 kilometres or so to Bolivar. I have other thoughts, but hopefully what goes up must go down.

Late afternoon we arrive after a non-stop roller-coaster ride at Bolivar - Ecuador (68km; 1041m) and cycle our way past the rather kitsch but endearing 3-D wall display of the evolution of life at the entrance of the town. The local resedencia and only place with quarters has very basic, very bare with very cold share showers for $US 4.00 per room per night. There are a few convenience stores, a fruit and vegetable shop and a bakery with enough produce to keep the hunger at bay, though the boys seem more concerned with sampling their first Ecuadorian beer. After dinner, they hit the not so ritzy nightlife of Bolivar with little success of finding a bar. A cafeteria suffices.

Nothing else matters
A little bit of rolling starts the day, followed by a monster 1000 metre drop into El Juncal. It is hot and not at all lush. Sandy desert-shrub covered hills surround a valley floor turned green with sugar cane. We push up to Ambuqui and then down again to the turn-off to Mira. The velvety olive-green slopes with darkened cloud silhouettes of volcano Imbarburra volcano backdrop perfectly against the blue sky. Angled directly below in the vale, a river meanders its way off into the distance giving us no clue as to where Ibarra is. It is a relatively large city and its got to be somewhere in the vicinity of this striking volcano.

The engraved corridor snaking its way up over the rock face in front of us, takes a while to detect. It will haul us to a peak of 2691 altimetres before dumping us down into the rise and fall path guiding us to the city centre. We will also meet Hans from Switzerland cycling in the other direction. I get bored with everyone talking in German, so I move on leaving the two guys chatting on the sand fly infested roadside. My Ipod shuffles through my favourite music for the pedalling crawl. Trucks laden with plastic bags, white hessen sacks and sleeping workers strain as much as I getting up the incline.

Apocaliptica's version of "nothing else matters" starts with its plucked string introduction. My legs automatically move round to the rhythm of the melody. This song never ceases to give me goose bumps and as I rise past the barren brown hills and look out over the green collage of farmland below, cellos resound with a conviction never truer than the song's title. A teardrop almost forms in my eye. In any case, my breath is taken away. I inhale deeply to catch it back again. I am moved. Some place where I am no longer aware of the cycling motion. Only the sentimental movement this music sweeps over my conscience coupled with such a view of freedom is important. A freedom of sight, smell, sound and boundless frontiers this mode of travel creates. Every touring cyclist relishes this feeling and it is a secret to those only in the trade. Anyone who asks; "Why do you travel like this?", has obviously never done it themselves. And until they do, it is too difficult to explain the answer that sometimes you reach heights where "nothing else matters".

Finding the centre of Ibarra (73km; 1024m) let alone a suitable hotel requires several takes due to the madcap logic of one way streets in this town. We end up pushing our bikes the wrong way up a busy thoroughfare before arriving at Hostal Ecuador. Private room with hot water for $US5.00 per person combined with a hearty Chinese dinner for less than $US4.00 each is all we need to feel completely satisfied and the delicious sleep that ensues is just an added bonus.

Oh, what a beautiful morning; oh, what a hell of a day
Before we have even said goodbye to the city boundary, cows and horses are grazing in vacant lots, while mother hens cluck their way around the highway shoulder, finding food for their chicks and keeping them safe from traffic. It is a beautiful morning. We rise initially to a short plateau, where we meet up with Frank and Marianne heading in the other direction on their loaded bikes. A longer incline follows after a steep drop into Otavalo. We have covered 26 kilometres and 450 altimetres by this point. An additional 18 kilometres and 584 metres gain see us at the Alto de Cajas (3174m). A dive bomb down into pine and eucalyptus lined streets has us on blustery flat valley terrain heading straight to Cayambe.

Its an agreeable town and I'd like to stay the night, but the guys both want to venture on. Once again, they suggest that we'll only be going downhill. I'm not convinced, but feel obliged to try and cover some more kilometres today: the less to do tomorrow, getting into the capital city of Quito. Its a climb to The Equator (2852m) and a stop for a few commemorative photos. Then we embark on an unremitting roller coaster ride over the next 15 kilometres, where we finally reach the last pinnacle and my daily limit, 1 kilometre after Otón (2896m). The 14 kilometre nose dive into Guayllabamba (97km; 1424m) makes up somewhat for the afternoon's hell voyage.

Regrettably, it is a little more complicated getting locals to explain where the accommodation is situated in the town. A bit of a wild goose chase pursues: after several more cycling kilometres and just prior to darkness descending upon us, we roll up at Hostal La Cocina Tipica back out on the highway. It turns out to be one of the best lodgings we have had in a while: piping hot water with a real shower nozzle, soap and shampoo, absorbent towels washed with a mother's love, decent mattress, soft pillows, clean and stylish with the additional benefit of only having to walk downstairs to the restaurant. And all for just $US15.00 for a double room.

Up up up.
The valley floor is 4 kilometres and just a bit more than 200 altimetres below us. There is hardly any shoulder and the traffic is heavy. The guys fly down in front of me and I get left to contend with a few arrogant drivers. One swipes past my bags and pushes me off the road. Fortunately, the slide into the gutter is relatively free of debris and no harm is done. Doesn't stop me from wanting to grab the arsehole by the throat and performing a series of brain comatosing head butts.

Testosterone mixed with horsepower in any country spells sightless arrogance as far as I'm concerned, but when it comes to the Latino males, there's a stronger trigger that switches off all possible logic as well. And the fact that I'm a female on a bike seems to give them even more license to disregard my position on the road. Crazy thing is, if Ali sits behind me, he has the effect of warding them off: they give a respectful wide berth. So, when I catch up with Aaldrik, still shaking from the close encounter, I demand he sit behind me for the rest of the journey.

And a slow cumbersome journey it is to the top of the pass. Two diagonal slopes carved into the mountainous rock barrier before us mark the passage to the kilometre 000 marker and the town of Calderon. And all this time, we had been thinking that the road markers were leading us to the outskirts of Quito. From where we are now it is 12 kilometres and 684 metres of pure pushing. Even then we are no where near our destination. A subsequent 16 kilometres and plenty more uphill grind gets us to the city entrance at Avenida Eloy Alfaro.

Another big city and we fully expect the mayhem that goes along it, but are nicely surprised when we find ourselves in an orderly traffic system without too much horn honking. Its an easy 7 kilometres to Huauki Hostal in Quito - El Mariscal (35km; 988m). Being weekend everything is well full and we have to settle for a $US20.00 room at Tierra Alta Hostal in the same highly touristy area. After two nights, we move to our more convenient first choice with its free wifi; decent shower head that alleviates any fear of electrocution; and free breakfast: which in hindsight is not particularly good, but then again anything for free these days is never as good as the advertisers make out.

The next couple of days are spent doing all those things you need to get accomplished when you are in a big city: telephone calls to home; finding new travel insurance; renewing travel insurance; fixing an old beat up video camera about to give up the ghost; planning the next leg of the journey; researching altitudes and route possibilities; doing the washing; sewing and patchwork; sorting out the bags; posting a parcel; and of course updating this website. And you thought cycling was hard work!

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