Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ecuador: Happiness for the Nerdy Biologist: Tulcan – Quito, & the Galapagos Islands (28th June - 12th July '11)

We had heard about a backroad (on a great cycling blog The Fuego Project) from the bordertown at Ecuador up to the ecological reserve at El Angel. I am always a big fan of backroads - it's great to be able to get off the mainroads, away from the traffic and into some little-seen areas. And of course that is one of the appeals of cycle-touring! Jules sometimes needs a little more convincing that cycling at 5km/hr over rocks, through mud, into sand and spending hours bumping along rough tracks on fully loaded bikes with no chance of a roadside coffee stop, is preferable to a smooth highway with plenty of snack-stops. It is also sometimes difficult to be able to actually find the backroads as most of the locals think we are mad and refuse to give us directions – instead just saying “but you can take the highway, it is flatter and smooth - don't take the bad road.”
I actually had an ulterior motive for wanting to take this backroad up through El Angel Reserve: my biologist instincts were perked by the chance to be able to visit the windswept parama (grasslands) of the high Andes and to see a special plant, the Frailejon, that grows in large fields here. I tried to convince Jules that the chance to see a large tree-daisy was worth the effort and thankfully the nerdy biologist won out as this day was one of our favourite days of the trip so far!
Once we had finally found the backroad (by avoiding all the advice of the locals) we were on our own.. the only traffic that passed us was the car of a teacher up to the local school. He stopped to have a chat and later, when he arrived at the school, he sent 8 boys running down to meet us, so we had an escort all the way up to the tiny mountain school. There we met, and shook hands, with all the kids (35 pupils aged 6-12) and had lots of photos taken with them. They then showed us their dancing, and we joined in. They were gorgeous kids with ruddy red cheeks, children of the cattle and potato farmers of this region. Hanging out with the kids was a great way to spend the morning, and, thankfully, it justified my choice of the backroad!
Not long after we left the school we climbed above the agricultural area and into the high parama. It was spectacular. The sun was shining over colourful grasslands dotted with dark pines and we had the entire road (aka rocky track) to ourselves.
As we climbed higher we arrived into the expanses of the Fraijelon , a garden of giant daisy plants. We had views across to the snowy capped volcano Cayambe and to top off the whole scene we saw llamas grazing. Jules and I were spellbound all day, and realised that we have definitely arrived in the Andes! This is the South America of my (nerdy biologists) imagination!
We were lucky enough to have wonderful weather to visit this area with blue skys above us when we reached the highest point on the road – 3700m, the highest we have cycled so far. From here we dropped down on a fantastic downhill, with views of snow-capped volcano and the ranges of the Andes.
As we left the parama, we arrived back into farmland and we were once more surrounded by the ubiquitous planted Eucalypts with their smell of home. From the farmland we dropped even lower into a hot and dry desert-like valley. A bizarre progression of landscapes. At the bottom of our descent we rejoined the Panam Hwy and spent the next few days meandering through a couple of towns, staying in Ibarra and then a few days in Otavalo.
Otavalo is home to a huge local craft market, with a few tourists thrown in, but mainly locals buying and selling whatever you could possibly desire. The indigenous people of this area have a very strong cultural identity and their traditional dress and craftworks make for a very colourful market. We wondered the market and managed to resist buying too many things - just a few more warm articles of clothing as it's getting chilly up in the mountains. We did a lot of tasting of Ecuadorian streetfood, because of course that's one of the best things about arriving in a new country – the excuse to try all the new foods!
After Otavalo we had a two day ride to Tumbaco where we were staying at the Casa de Ciclistas of Santiago and his family. On our way we crossed the Equator, excited to be arriving back in the Southern Hemisphere, though at the time we were more excited about meeting some other cyclists at the monument, and we ended up spending a day and night sitting around talking cycling stories with Matt and Matt.
The following day we arrived at the Casa de Ciclistas, in the family home (a beautiful old farmhouse) of the enthusiastic Santiago and his lovely family. We were only planning on spending a couple of days in Tumbaco in order to check out Quito, a short bus ride away, but while we were there we became inspired by some Swiss cyclists, Cristophe and Catherine, who were also staying, and we decided to look into booking a trip to the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. This is a dream destination for any biologist and it had certainly been a dream of mine. We had always figured that we wouldn't be able to afford to go, but we found a fairly cheap 5 day boat cruise, and figured that who knows when we would be back to Ecuador....
So on a bit of a whim (we're good at them) we were on the plane and then jumping on board the New Flamingo to go meet the wildlife of these famous islands. The trip started badly with poor old Jules having stomach problems on the first day of the trip but thankfully she soon got better and we spent our time checking out the islands, getting up close and personal with the birdlife, snorkelling with turtles, sea-lions, sharks, rays and lots of fish. The Galapagos is everything that you imagine and more. It really is amazing to be somewhere where the wildlife has so little fear that you have to step over iguanas, try to manoeuvre your way amongst the sealions and their pups and you can paparazzi the seabirds without any of them having a diva-fit. The richness of the island biodiversity was fascinating, the huge Waved Albatross, the amusing-looking (and named) Blue Footed Boobies, frigatebirds, gulls and more. Iguanas that swim and some that sit around munching on cacti, sealions that surf the waves, and giant tortoises that stomp about with a look of glum boredom.
Happy days for a nerdy biologist indeed. We were very glad that we had given the bikes a rest and made the effort to get over to the Galapagos. I was entranced by the islands that helped formed Darwin's theory of evolution. Jules thought it was hilarious that she could shout “boobies” and 'I love boobies” without anyone looking at her (too) strangely. Not a bad first couple of weeks in Ecuador!

Notes for Other Cycle Tourists
  • We would definitely recommend the backroad out from Tulcan, very beautiful and worth the rough road. Once you are out of Tulcan (about 5km from the centre) you will see, off to your right, a church with a statue of a man with a gun out the front – turn right here and then left at the T-junction on a dirt road that starts to climb pretty much straight away. At the first junction keep to the right (the higher road) but after this stay on the main road (don't take any off the tracks off it). Its about 34kms of (mostly) climbing on dirt road from Tulcan to the highest point, then about 16km of dirt down to join the bitumen at the town of El Angel. Then another maybe 35kms (??) back down to the Panam.


  1. looks awesome! i will add that road to my itinerary. rolling down in your tracks... currently in honduras. keep on trucking!

  2. Great to see that you had such a great time on the island. It was a pleasant surprise to see you at the airport, hopefully we will meet again on the road and have some time together to catch up on each others news. Happy cycling Janet and Tom