Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Crossing the Equator

 Quito is the second highest capital city in the world after La Paz and stretches for some 40 miles along a valley and spreading up the surrounding hills to accommodate its 2,000,000 plus citizens. Whilst much of this is unavoidably noisy, crowded and chaotic the historic centre is very different.
A central square with on one side the still occupied presidential palace, and on another the main cathedral sits amidst a host of streets containing further churches, museums and other grandiose architecture with the streets forming an easily negotiable grid pattern.

We walked at random enjoying the warm afternoon air - our centrally located hotel being ideally placed although the adjacent trams caused the fittings in my room to shake and other occupants were at times inconsiderately noisy.
Many people were walking the pavements and roads trying to sell fruit, veg, bread or other necessities in dollar bags and the shops ranged from tiny shacks to large department stores, whilst the shoe shine boys, occasional beggars and ever present but friendly police and security guards all combined to make for a fascinating atmosphere.

Later that evening we met up with two friends of Dave's - both retired colonels from the Ecuadorian army who were good company. Mario had served around the world including London and as an attache in Iraq for 18 months. He has a son currently serving deep in the Amazon on the border with Peru but has himself now retired and is a keen motorcyclist.

We dined well in an exclusive restaurant tucked away in government buildings off the main square before walking down to a beautifully restored street in old Quito that reminded me of rural Spain at its best. Here in a lively bar we enjoyed a local fermented sugar cane brew and appreciated local musicians both indoors and out on the street before returning late to our rooms.

Mario kindly spent the next day showing us some of Quito's highlights which included the museum and monuments that mark the historic battles to achieve independence from Spain, a stunning basilica and then after meeting his wife at his comfortable home we headed to the Middle of the Earth.
No this was not a return to my Hobbit home but a visit to the park and monument that marks the line of the equator a few miles north of Quito. The monument contained a number of excellent displays explaining the science of the solar system, gravity, hemispheres and the like whilst the top level provided a good vantage point for views across to the higher peaks of the Andes. On our way back we visited a 'Scottish' bar where the enthusiasm for a TV football match added to the already lively atmosphere - I was by then somewhat tired and it seemed a long haul back to the still shaking hotel.

Our departure the following day was slightly delayed as Chris and Dave had a pants crisis due to the launderette not opening until 10 am - we had missed closing time last night - but eventually with Franco leading the way on his trusty TransAlp, Horje keeping up despite the random driving of most other vehicles and me providing some reassurance as to the route we were heading north. Before coming away I had downloaded to my phone the Maps.me app which has proved remarkably useful - it is free, contains no advertising and yet gives accurate offline street level mapping plus route finding in any country - I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone traveling at home or abroad as it really is a map in your pocket at all times.

 A nasty and presumably fatal accident as we approached Quito airport held us up - a Coca Cola delivery lorry had misjudged a sharp bend at the bottom of a long hill and the crumpled cab was surrounded by thousands of bottles and debris.

Eventually however we were out of the city and following well engineered and largely well maintained roads that tended to follow ridges before the occasional alpine style descents and climbs in to larger valleys.

The mountains rippled on for ever and we looked across to small seemingly inaccessible farms and dwellings each surrounded by small cultivated fields.  One region looked so much like mid Wales, particularly as some of the tops were shrouded in cloud - amazing considering that we were effectively on the equator but largely due to our elevation at around 10,000'.
By late afternoon we were at the border with Colombia and were soon stamped out of Ecuador.
The immigration process for us was very quick but customs paperwork for the two vehicles took longer - we were the only ones in the office as locals can pass freely and the young girl was pleasant but thorough. The van and bike's chassis numbers were both rubbed with carbon so they could be imprinted on to sellotape that was attached to the documents and the driver and owner details recorded and copies kept.

 Once through we then had to stop at the small SOAT office to buy the required TPF&T insurance - a month cost £10 for the van and £15 for the bike. The friendly girl told us of a good local hotel as by now it was dark and it would have been a dangerous ride for Franco and we were soon booked in to comfortable rooms for much needed showers. We dined well in the restaurant - fortunately able to pay by card as we had decided not to change dollars in to pesos at the border as the rates were poor.

The next morning the SOAT girl's mother appeared as she worked at the hotel and had been in the office the previous night - she wished us well with our travels as we left in a heavy downpour, OK for us but hard on Franco. En route for Popayan we missed a turning but were rewarded by views down to the church on a bridge at Las Lajas which looked worth a visit, however as there was a big cycle event on it was rather busy so we decided to include it in our return journey.
Colombia's scenery changed as we gradually lost height and became more tropical. Coffee and banana plantations were dotted around, bamboo was grown for use in construction and the people were much darker in complexion - many of course from families historically part of the slave trade. It became very hot and we were grateful for the aircon as we passed through lively villages where mini festivals and events were marking the Sunday of a holiday weekend. Roadside shacks were offering delicious hot food or selling melons and mangoes and at each bridge and tunnel there was a military outpost where the soldiers would give a cheery thumbs up which had to be acknowledged as we flashed by. We were pulled over at one and asked to give a small donation but still had no pesos so a few Peruvian soles (about 10p) was given.

Fortunately in fact at a toll booth Dave found some crumpled notes to pay the £2 fee - about 10,000 soles!- otherwise Franco would have had to be sent off to find an ATM as bikes were free. Thus in the next large town (Pasto) we stopped to get some currency out. The ATM was located in a large supermarket which was as well stocked as any UK megastore and I decided to withdraw 300,000 pesos - about £60 as we are only in Colombia for a few days. I reflected on how much easier traveling is today - when I cycled India and Nepal in the early eighties there were no ATM's so obtaining cash entailed hours queuing to cash travelers cheques, no mobiles so calls home required pre booked time in booths, certainly no Skype which makes keeping in touch with loved ones so easy and of course no internet to provide blogs or do the research. In those days I kept a diary and was restricted to the number of rolls of film I could carry and keep safe - nowadays it is so easy to shoot piccies, share them and save them - something I spent yesterday evening doing.
 Anyway the store's cafe provided lunch before we set off again following the Pan American north aiming for Popayan. The sight of two small lads on bikes tagging on to a slow moving lorry belching out black fumes provided amusement - particularly as one was simultaneously texting...
Whilst stopping for a coffee break we watched locals gearing up for a football match - the pitch had long drops either side so kicking in to touch was best avoided.
To avoid traveling at night we decided to stop at El Bordio where a huge bamboo structure provided shade from the sweltering heat - at least 90 degrees - and at one end wood fired stoves were providing delicious hot food. The place was a mini resort with a few cabins in the tropical gardens  and rooms in the main house plus an enticing pool so we were soon booked in. It was so hot that only cold water was provided in the shower and I decided to stay indoors with a large fan keeping it bearable as I reviewed and backed up all the Go Pro clips and photos.
After some time swatting all the mozzies I actually slept very well although the huge lorries rumbled past all night. The others all went off for a swim but with no sign of any filtration or chlorination equipment I decided to stay out, choosing instead to try and photograph the colourful but elusive bird life and buying two melons from the roadside stall - 4000 pesos being under a quid.

 The road north to Popayan was stunning - a few heavy lorries loaded with tractor units provided some hairy moments on the corners and another crash - this tine a gravel lorry misjudging a corner - kept us all alert. The roads were kept well but clearly this area gets torrential rain at times as there was much evidence of landslides - one section was awaiting repair but an old couple were risking death by straying in to the road brandishing shovels and asking for money.
At a coffee break we chatted to the local police who ride two up on bright green Suzuki motorcycles, the pillion holding his rifle at all times. Again very friendly as were the local civilians who were intrigued by the APM badged van.

Finally in Popayan the centrally located Hotel Panorama provided a large basement garage to keep our transport safe and we took up the usual four rooms before heading off in to town as Dave and Franco were after some spares for a couple of Suzuki bikes back in Cajamarca. They are cheaper here because the police ride the same bikes but it was a holiday Monday and all the outlets were closed.

Later we walked in to town and found an excellent pizzeria, downed slightly too much beer and were sobered up on the walk back by coming across a smash between two lads on a moped and a car. Neither had been wearing helmets but it looked like they would survive and we were impressed by how quickly the ambulance and police arrived and how professionally they dealt with the scene.

Anyway today the bike shops are open and I will visit the large market before we head north to Cali. The trip is going very well and it seems surreal that this will all change in a fortnight as we return to a stormy and wintry Britain - however until then we will enjoy this amazing opportunity which you can share via the  pictures at this link .

For some reason the Spot seems to struggle at times reporting on our location but have a look here anyway.

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