2017 was a momentous year for me. I remember the day I walked into my publisher’s office and told her I was leaving the paper. Actually, I don’t remember the exact day – I forget if it was a Monday or Tuesday, or if it was the last week of May or first week of June. I do remember it was after a long week where I had to put out a special supplement for the newspaper and I was feeling exhausted. The constant stress of putting out the paper week after week, as well as keeping the website fresh, were weighing down on me.
By most counts I had it pretty good, but I’d also had enough. I stopped caring, and in the newspaper world, especially when you’re a one-person newsroom, it’s impossible to do the job in that frame of mind. How do you write important stories when you struggle to even pick up the phone and call people? I hadn’t been happy at work for most of the year and I knew it was time to leave. I also knew I wanted to go on an adventure before I turned 40, and riding a bike somewhere in the world had entered my mind.
So I gave in three months notice, both for personal financial reasons and so the paper would have time to find a replacement, and then spent that time day dreaming. Word of advice: never give that much notice before leaving a job. But finally the day came when I put my last newspaper to bed and I was free.
I left Revelstoke on Tuesday, Sept. 12, in a panic because my new passport hadn’t shown up and I had to pick it up at the passport office in Surrey on my way to the airport. Halfway there, I found out the office closed at 4, not 4:30, so it was time to step on the gas. I made it with 10 minutes to spare and caught my flight to Bogota, landing the next day. A few days of exploring the city later, I started my ride.
I’m 3.5 months into my tour, with three months to go, and it’s definitely had its share of ups and downs, both physically and mentally. I remember my second day, when I thought I could do 100 kilometres, but completely overestimated my pace and underestimated how tough the mountains would be in Colombia. A wrong turn that cost me 10 kilometres didn’t help. I learned my lesson and have only repeated that mistake once since.
There’s been incredible days, like the time I actually shed tears of joy while riding through the paramo of Nevado Del Ruiz National Park, or waking up to a glorious sunrise in El Angel reserve on my second morning in Ecuador. There’s also been some incredibly hard days, like the one mentioned above, or the ride through thick fog from Angamarca to Salinas, which took everything I had, and I wound up hitchhiking at the end.
With that said, I’m ending 2017 with a look at the 11 highlights of the trip so far:
When I tell people I went to the Galapagos, they inevitably ask me if it was worth it. I always struggle to answer that question. On one hand, I spent more there in a week than I do in a month of bike touring. It was also grey and cool most days I was there. On the plus side, seeing the wildlife up close was amazing. But most of all, going snorkeling and having a sea lion slip off the rocks or beach and swim around you is an awesome experience. They’re such awkward animals on land, but in the water they’re so graceful and playful. It’s definitely something I’ll talk about for a long time.
Medellin is the city everyone travelling in Colombia raves about. It’s the most modern city I’ve been to so far, has some great modern architecture, some great and unique attractions and a wild night life. It’s incredibly vibrant and has a dark past, that makes its present all that much more striking. I got there after seven hard days of riding from one range of the Andes to another and it was a relief to have a place to hang out for a few days. And my brother joined me on his way to spending a week with his girlfriend in Brazil and it was nice to have some familiar company for a few days, even though it was still early in my trip.
When I look back at riding through Colombia, what I remember most is cycling through endless mountains covered in verdant farms. And of all the dirt roads I took through such farmland, this is the one that stands out. I took it while traveling between Villa de Leyva and Paipa in Boyaca province. It followed a ridge line that loomed above to one side, while farms spread out on the other.
One of the highlights of the Trans-Ecuador Mountain Bike Route is undoubtedly the stretch that arcs around the volcanoes of Cotopaxi, Quilotoa and Chimborazo. The former appears later in the last and the latter was marred by rain. The Quilotoa region featured a wonderful climb through small rural homesteads, a day off at my favourite hostel of the trip (Taita Cristobal in Isinlivi), and was capped off with views of Lake Quilotoa, which sits in the crater of its namesake volcano. The next morning was also phenomenal, when I rode into the paramo south of Quilotoa. Unfortunately, I would then encounter four days of rain and fog that definitely put a damper on things.
I had my first experience of Colombian hospitality outside Zapatoca, when a family let me camp under the awning of their rural store for the night. The next morning, I rode into Zapatoca, stopping at the local bakery for a coffee and some treats – a habit of mine in Colombia. I then began the ride up and over the western edge of the eastern Andes and began a wild descent towards the Magdalena River far below. On the Zapatoca side, the road was smooth and the sun baked it into a reddish hue. One the San Vincente side, the road turned into a steep, muddy and rocky track that entered into a seemingly closed off valley, before finding a way out. It was a wild ride and along the way I watched Andean Condors soar through the sky.
For me, bicycle touring is a solitary activity, best enjoyed alone. I’m sure there are many who disagree, but one thing I love about it is the freedom to go where you want, when you want. To this point in my trip, I had only spent a few hours with a riding partner, but our different paces and mindsets had me quickly going off on my own again. In Quito, I met another cyclist at the Casa de Ciclista and since we were both heading to Cotopaxi National Park, we set off together. I admit there were times I would have rather been riding solo, but it was nice to have a partner for a short period. We slogged up cobblestone roads and camped in a farmers field the first day and on the second, we entered the park by seldom-used dirt tracks. It rained and hailed, but the scenery was incredible and more than made up for the weather as we pedaled through the wide open landscape.
Before leaving on my trip, I’d read about a town called Mongui, slightly off my route through Boyaca province north of Bogota. It was described as the prettiest small town in the region, and was the base point for what was supposed to be one of the best hikes in the Colombia. I went out of my way to get there, but the superlatives were correct – Mongui was idyllic, and the Paramo Oceta was stunning. The hike was my introduction to the paramo, the name given to the alpine regions of the Andes near the equator. The area was filled with beautiful flowers and unique plants called frailejones, which play an important role as natural reservoirs. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
4. Leymebamba to Celendin, Peru
I’m generally happier on dirt roads. There’s less traffic and they usually go through more scenic landscapes. But I’m willing to make an exception, and Ruta 8B from Leymebamba to Celendin in Peru just may be the most amazing I’ve ridden on this trip so far. It starts with a 1,400 metre climb from the town of Leymebamba to Calla Calla Pass at an altitude of 3,600 metres. From there it descends to less than 900 metres, on a road that twists and winds for 60 kilometres from the alpine to the desert valley. Then it switchbacks it’s way back up to 3,100 metres, before a final descent to Celendin. Apparently the road was only paved a few years ago. Riding it, I’m amazed it even exists, let alone is paved. A blog post on this route will come soon.
Getting into Nevado del Ruiz national park just may have been the most arduous undertaking of my trip. I failed on my first attempt, when the road I followed turned into a brutal hike-a-bike. On my second attempt, I went up a different way, that got me there, but I suffered immensely in the process. It involved an 1,800-metre climb on a road that was filled with loose rock and was so steep at points, I had little choice but to get off and push. When I finally made it to the top, I was tossed a bag of snacks by a passing tour group. I then rode through incredible scenery, with clouds drifting into the mountains. I couldn’t see any of the glaciates peaks in the park, but it didn’t matter. When I reached the restaurant at my exit to the park, I shed a few tears before enjoying a badly needed lunch.
The best part about touring through Ecuador are the dirt roads that snake their way through wide-open alpine landscapes. One of my favourite such roads was one I found heading southeast out of Cuenca. Beginning with a 1,500 metre climb, it eventually entered the paramo and stayed there for several dozen kilometres. Dark green fields stretched to the horizon as I pedaled along the western edge of the Andes. There was the occasional farmhouse, a few tiny villages and a scattering of azure lakes, but mostly it was just me and my bike.
Ecuador greeted me with rain and hail. My first full day in the country started with sun, but by the time the clock passed noon, the clouds rolled in and brought with it miserable weather. But as the weather got worse, the scenery got better and I struggled on to the ranger station in El Angel Ecological Reserve. There, the wardens fed me lunch and offered me a bed to sleep on. The next morning, I woke up to a glorious sunrise and stood in awe over a forest of frailejones, with Cayambe looming in the distance and Cotopaxi visible off in the horizon. I’ve rarely been happier to be where I was at that time and place.