The glistening white town of popoyan had a tranquil, middle class feel to it. At 2000 meters it was pleasantly fresh and with little to do (I love towns with little to do) I relaxed and chatted away to a couple from Luxembourg. Bill was enamoured by my trip and Thelma seem petrified I had put such an idea into his head. Out of popoyan I dropped down to sea level in the space of a couple of hours, which was starting to get a little annoying. I knew I had to be in Pasto in a couple of days which sits at nearly 3000 meters so all this down mean a whole lot of up. With only 8 dollars and a good 180 k to the next cash point I camped at a local swimming pool which was packed with drinking and barbecuing Colombians being a Sunday, managed to scrounge a beer, burger and a packet of cookies. After a few pets I adopted a friendly dog keep the Bulls away from my tent through the night. I gave him some of my pancito for breakfast and he duly followed me for a good five minutes down the road.
The route carried me through the dusty valley bottom, the wind constantly swirled in ever which way and things felt wild for the first time in months. No food, no shops, no people. The scenery reminded me of the mountains of Oaxaca. I stopped by local houses for water and ended up in philosophical discussions over Agua Panela and cheese. I was looking kind of red since the sun read a buddy Danny gave me in Cali turned out to be moisturiser. Climbing up again into the mountain pueblo of Tablom there was a disconcerting amount of old folk, traditionally dressed begging on the roadside. Miles from a town I wondered why they were begging here of all places, with the subsistence existence of mountain life it didn’t make much sense. Giardella offered me the floor of his workshop for the night and told me there has been barley any rain for two years, little growing, hence people were begging for food. It seemed a desperate situation for people who had little experience of life outside these mountaintop pueblitos. I bought a bag of pancita to hand out as I carried on my way. The road cut into the mountains considerably and at a few points I had to swerve to avoid falling rocks which littered the road. High into the mountains and down in to riverbed my gears were skipping and failing all over the place so on reaching Pasto with the help of Edu and familia found who was rumoured to be the best bike mechanic in town to give aptly named bike some tlc. Pasto, the oldest and last major town in Colombia seemed a good place for A day off and I hitched a ride to Laguna de Coche, the little Venice of Colombia, to explore Colombias smallest protected natural reserve. I met Julio Cesar, an interesting fellow from the mountains who insisted I needed to try his favourite delicacy, oso perizozo (sloth)! He wanted me to ride back on his motor bike. Without a helmet I suggested it might be better to hitch but he insisted. It only took 20 minutes for the depressingly vigilant police to pull us over and impound his motorbike. The solemn walk back to Pasto was an unfortunate end to the day.
I’d been warned by my mother, courtesy of the British news, as well as other locals about exercising caution in this part of Colombia and had already opted out of the alternative border route to Ecuador due to problems with guerillas and out of Pasto I came across my first uniformed military sporting fully automatic machine guns. They seemed more amused as usual whilst they patted me down. I also noticed a fair few folk gathered in barracks on the hill tops. I wanted to know more about the situation but my questions mostly went unanswered so I thought better to not get involved. Dropping a good 1000 meters into the valley bottom pueblito I found two Irish bikers who had started a few weeks previous on their first bike trip. The lady who’s name I can’t recall was suffering with her second bout of food poisoning and there moral seemed all but gone. I wholeheartedly recognised where there heads were at and attempted to offer a little advice, the more that came out the more I realised it meant little or nothing because these are the kind of lessons you can only learn from experience. After 14 months there was still so much I was learning. Managing emotional, psychological and physical expectations, dealing with dangerous situations, operating with very little money, having little grasp of language and cultural context, plus climbing massive mountains in horrible heat, cold or wind. I tried to tell them to take their time and to forget about the end point right now but to listen to their bodies but I also recognised that I didn’t do that much at first. I think on a holiday your primary concern is to enjoy yourself, it’s clear what to do. On this kind of trip where genuinely immersing yourself in other cultures, learning about yourself, taking advantage of a freedom of not just commitment but of mind, enjoyment in the present can often come secondary, managing whether this is worthwhile or not can take a lot of figuring out and I was starting to really get on top of that. I rode off hoping that they would persist and give themselves the time to figure these things out.
One last sight in Colombia as I headed to Santuario de Las Lajas and spent the night in a sort of sanctuary with the nuns and pilgrims just above the church. I watched the most bizarre lightshow against the front of the impressive neogothic church, build in the most improbable location deep in the canyon. The pilgrims calming chants echoed around the canyon and Edu came and sat beside me. The 78 year old Ecuadorian and I talked of the spiritual value of struggle in what was a very special moment in an incredible setting and ambience I am sure neither of us will forget. Such a fitting end to my time in one of the most wonderful and inspiring countries I’ve had the fortune to visit. I felt incredible gratitude for such an opportunity accompanied by a sense of contentment in a decision to give my self the time to explore and experience this kind of moment. I fell asleep, freezing on a bed harder than the floor. Blessed not to be on memory-foam worrying about things that really need not be worried about.
To sum it up Colombia was incredible. Without a doubt the favourite country of my trip so far closely followed by Mexico. Three lines of mountains, two deserts, a Caribbean coastline, a Pacific coastline, the Amazon, cloud forests, flat lands, smart, modern cultural hubs and more down to earth tradition cities too. The food was simple but always fresh and loads of it. Sights everywhere, incredibly friendly, curious and wonderfully informal people who you can befriend in a matter of minutes. Lots of parties, maybe too much for a bike trip, amazing music and perfect weather. Not to be too rose tinted, the rapid development of cities seemed to leave the rural areas wanting and this inequality seemed to be growing, same old story world over. Medellin seemed be an example of this, city dwellers getting so excited over glass fronted, 4 dollar cappuccino, lounge music coffee shops full of people dedicating their lives to making stuff look good on design programs on their macbook’s oblivious to the farmers in the mountains just 60k further north who’s lifestyles and conditions has seen little or no improvement. Sometimes I wanted to say don’t do this, it’s shit, we’ve made this mistake in Europe, your traditions have so much more credibility than these aspects of vacuous western culture and sometimes I did, often met with understanding. Fortunately a great deal of Latin Americans do seem to take so much pride in their more traditional customs and values.
I met the young athletes of San Francisco on my way to the border and watched the mini olypmics, Fernando the coach asked me to say a few words of encouragement and introduce his boys to the event which I attempted, the families seemed again amused. Approaching the border I stopped by some English students and gave an impromptu lesson in Yorkshire English before a smooth border crossing into Ecuador.
My first impressions of Ecuador were the wonderful flowers adorning pretty much every roadside property, even the mechanics I stopped by for a coffee had hanging baskets everywhere and the mechanic was tending with care with his makeshift watering can. I checked out the breakfasts that would be fueling me and first impressions were good. A kind a cheese croissant, scrambled eggs with loads of chilli, rice, chicken and plantain. Guanabana juice and cafe. All for a quid fifty. The coffee and juice as in Colombia was bottomless as long as you used the phrase “regalame” with a smile. The road twisted and turned as the wind swirled to nearly 3 and half thousand meters, my highest point so far. Getting tired I headed into the pueblito Bolivar and was greeted by the huge Osvaldo who put me up, I chatted with his wife and friend and we listened to some Equadorian pop music which was actually really good. Super melodramatic and over the top, the emo side of me was loving it.
Dropping down to Ibarra the road sporadically turned to dust which I ate a fair bit of. I descended to valley a shade of dirty grey but full of gusto for the wild scenery. Osvaldo had suggested I rest in a mountain refuge so I made a climb and was welcomed by Maria and Euchristin. The folk of the tiny pueblito and surrounding area were out in force to watch the local football team Chacarita in the most spectacular mountaintop location. I was waved the 50c entrance fee and was entertained by the pigs, hens and dogs sporadically entering the field which none of the players seem to notice. Poor Chacarita got smashed 10-0 by the end at the fat goalie was trying to fight with each and ever of the Juventus Ecuador players, all part of the entertainment, I was trying my hand at a bit of drawing and the pissed up lads next to me seemed pretty bemused as to why this bearded pasty gringo was at the football, drinking beer sketching drawings of their amateur footy team. A couple of older local ladies liked my drawing and bought be some sausages and eggs. I returned to the mountain lodge a little tipsy feeling dead chuffed to have an afternoon at the footy.
The next day’s ride was fully entertaining, I opted for the scenic and quieter route but came across the tour de Ecuador and sort of joined in, at a much slower pace but it was nice to have folk cheering and clapping me on. Only half an hour later I came across some kind of procession of traditional folk playing some ridiculously funky music, all traditional dressed and dancing like at creamfields I was pulled in to down some horribly strong, no name home made liquor. I carried on down the road for a couple of hundred meters to find the next float and was pulled in again, this time I had a beer and a dance. A clown took my bike and road around a bit and I had little choice but to let it happen. Everyone was completely smashed, and I’m talking 2 in the morning, night out in Manchester smashed. I tried to find out what was going on but no one was compusmentus enough to tell me, even ladies in their 80’s were falling over the place. It was great fun and a sight to be seen for sure, especially the men dancing in furry, flailing pants. I continued down the road on some kind of musical booze cruise on my bike. It’s safe to say when I left this stretch of road I couldn’t ride straight anymore. I cut my day short and found a cheap bed for an early start to Quito in the morning.
I managed to stir and make tracks, blessing out over the guitar solo on Ryan Adams shadowlands I nearly rode past the line for the equator. The worlds only monument signifying it a huge sundial seemed to be a failed tourist attraction and being the only one there I spent about 15 minutes trying to get a picture of myself with he lonesome monument in between toilet breaks. I don’t think the booze cruise was too healthy. On leaving I met Esteban who congratulated me with a hug and invited me to stay on his fathers farm over the road. I was tempted but had my eyes set on Quito. He also epically pissed on my bonfire by telling me of a German cyclist who passed two years ago from North America on a penny farthing sporting just one bag and was completely solar powered, cheers Esteban. I continued on a beautiful sunny day, 12 degrees, perfect for cycling, watching the mountains part to a love is hell soundtrack and headed for the famous casa de cyclista (a kind of refuge/commune for travelling bikers) in Tumbaco on the outskirts of Ecuadors capital Quito. Santiago introduced me to the other bikers, showed me around his huge place, welcomed me to treat his house as his own and they really mean it down here.